Champagne Bucket trips

Ten things I learned *this time* in Armenia!

Now that I’ve finished writing my blog series on visiting Armenia again, twenty-six years after I finished my Peace Corps service there, it’s time for my obligatory “ten things I learned” post. I like creating these posts because they make me think, and because they’re a lot of fun to write. Also, readers seem to like them, because they’re comprehensive, yet concise. Or, they are as concise as I tend to be, anyway. Brevity is not one of my strong suits.

Armenia has changed a lot since 1997. Even though I spent 27 months there, I still learned new things during our trip. So here goes with ten things I learned in Armenia!

Lights! Unheard of and unseen in the 90s!

10. Yerevan is now a city that doesn’t sleep!

When I lived in Yerevan, things didn’t necessarily stay open all night. There was an energy crisis. Even though it technically ended in 1995, not everyone had 24 hour power until about 1996. So, even though flights would leave and arrive in the wee hours of the mornings, things did close at night. Now, I notice that restaurants and bars stay open very late. You can buy a SIM card 24 hours a day. And there are always lights on at night. That wasn’t how it was when I lived there.

Two different versions of 1000 dram notes…

9. The drams have changed twice since I left!

Armenian drams were introduced in 1993, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. Since I arrived in 1995, I was used to the first version of Armenian drams. Now, the drams have changed their look and denominations twice since I left in 1997. When I left, the biggest bill was 5000 drams (about $12). Now, they go up to 100,000 drams!

Need a ride to Garni and Geghard? You can find one easily!

8. It’s easy to find someone to drive you to Armenia’s most famous sites.

We didn’t take any of the many aspiring drivers up on their offers to take us to Armenia’s most amazing sites, but if we’d wanted to hire a driver, it would have been easy. Our hotel offered drivers for hire, and there were many of them hanging around different parts of the city. It’s no longer necessary to go to the bus station and look for a taxi, minivan, or bus to take you to Sevan or Khor Virap. Most of them have signs in English, too.

7. Speaking of English, it’s EVERYWHERE in Yerevan, now.

I saw so many signs in English. Some of them were hilariously incorrect, but just as many were hilariously witty. Obviously, there’s a movement for people to learn English, just as so many older folks had to learn Russian. I’m sure English is not required as Russian once was, but a lot of people seem to want to learn.


6. Armenia now has some really decent craft beers!

When I lived in Armenia, I used to joke about how bad the beers were from there. I had particularly salty things to say about Kotayk Beer, which when it was made in Armenia, was notoriously rough on the digestive system. Thanks to Dargett, a local craft beer company, you can find some good suds in Yerevan now. Now I wish I could get Dargett in GERMANY, a country well known for its excellent beers. That’s how good it was. You can also find real German beer in Armenia now. And not just the stuff made by InBev, which is a Belgian company that distributes a lot of mass produced beers. Naturally, if wine or fruit juice or even mineral water is your thing, you can find plenty of that, too. And wonderful brandy– the best I’ve ever had anywhere!

5. You can also get a beautiful meal in Yerevan…

When I first arrived in Armenia, there weren’t many restaurants at all. A few popped up while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, but they tended to have plastic chairs and tables, and served pretty basic stuff. Now, you can get gourmet food in Yerevan… They have fine dining restaurants! And even if you go to a casual place, chances are good what you eat will look beautiful. That was one thing that didn’t change. There’s much more variety now, and some items are better quality, or are just plain available. In the 90s, we tended to eat what we could get, which meant whatever was in season. That no longer seems necessary.

Don’t be afraid to venture inside!

4. Public toilets in Yerevan are now very clean and cost 100 drams to use.

I remember many times having to duck behind bushes to relieve myself, when I lived in Yerevan in the 90s. One time, when I was out with my former language teacher, we went to a porno theater so I could pee. It was actually very clean. But most public facilities in the 90s were pretty disgusting and smelled horrible. I was very pleased to find clean restrooms in most places during our recent visit. The toilet by the Opera House was sparkling clean, well stocked, and cost 100 drams (about 25 cents). Cheap!

No longer a traditional shuka… but at least it has parking.

3. Some historic places have changed forever…

I was sad to see that the historic landmark, the Pak Shuka on Mashtots Avenue, has become a regular supermarket. I would have liked to have taken Bill in there. Ditto for what used to be the GUM, a department store on Abovian Street, and the Hayastan Market (which had changed as I was leaving). But some things are better now. For instance, the eternal flame at Tsitsernakaberd now is a true eternal flame. They leave it burning all the time, instead of just on special occasions. And the door to the Blue Mosque is now very well marked, so you can’t miss it. When I lived in Yerevan, the door to the mosque was very plain, and easy to miss. Northern Avenue is a really nice street that makes it convenient to be a pedestrian, although who knows what happened to the people who lived in the houses that were destroyed so it could be built?

Maybe we can go back and try visiting the Hrazdan Gorge again.

2. Yerevan is very safe, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t creepers there.

We ran into one of them on our wedding anniversary. He was up to no good, and not very subtle about it. However, he was acting this way in broad daylight, which was strange. I don’t know what he was up to, but I didn’t get a good feeling about it. We ended up going a different way than we planned, which worked out fine, and that was the only strange incident. It was a good reminder to always be aware and keep your wits about you. That’s good advice no matter where you go.

And finally, 1. Although Yerevan is now a lot more modern than it used to be, and more travel friendly, it’s still very exotic and will be quite interesting to most people… and if you can speak a few words of Armenian, it will open doors for you!

I was happy that some of my old, rusty language skills came back, and I was able to speak enough Armenian to be understood by a lot of the locals. Many of them were delighted when I spoke their language… and quite a few were shocked when it turned out I wasn’t Russian. I know they get more foreigners visiting now, but it’s still not a place that is super high on the tourism list for westerners. So I would absolutely encourage adventure seekers to come visit Armenia. I would especially encourage it now, because Armenians have so much to offer; they do need the tourism drams; and sadly, if a couple of neighboring countries have their way, Armenia might someday cease to exist. So please visit, if I’ve tempted you. You will be very warmly welcomed by most! And be sure to tip 10 percent!

I want to offer special thanks to Stepan, my former student and current friend. He made us feel like FAMILY… and was so kind, welcoming, and generous. Stepan, you made this trip unforgettable, and you showed us the warmth and hospitality that Armenia is known for. It was a vacation like no other, and I will always be so grateful for all you did to make it so. So շատ շնորհակալություն! I hope we can come back again… much sooner than 26 years from now!

Baden-Württemberg, Champagne Bucket trips, trip planning

Ten things I learned *this time* in BW and Czechia…

It’s time now for my customary “ten things I learned post”. Since this wasn’t our first time in the Czech Republic, I’ve already done a “ten things I learned” post for the country. Nevertheless, this most recent trip was very educational and entertaining on many levels. We really enjoyed ourselves, but we also learned a lot. Besides, people seem to like these summary posts better than my usual detailed postings. So here goes…

Cesky Krumlov will take your breath away… especially if you climb the castle tower.

10. Cesky Krumlov is well worth visiting for a day or two.

I mentioned that Bill and I visited Cesky Krumlov for a few hours back in 2009. I thought the town was really adorable then, and vowed to go back someday. This time, we stayed there for two nights. I think one full day in Cesky Krumlov is probably sufficient for most people, although we certainly could have enjoyed another full day there. I don’t know if I’ll go out of my way to return, but I wouldn’t object to it. It’s a beautiful town and well worth a stop if you’re in Czechia.

9. English is widely spoken in the tourist areas of Czechia.

On prior visits to Czechia, we noticed that it was helpful to speak some German. This time, we noticed that a whole lot of people are fluent in English. It’s not a given than they will be, but there’s a good chance that if you go to a touristy area, you don’t have to worry about a language barrier if you are an English speaker.

Beautiful Brno…

8. Brno is well worth a stop!

Of all the places we planned to visit when we were coming up with our itinerary, Brno intrigued me the most. I had read that it is an “up and coming” destination in Czechia. It’s not as handsome and charming as Prague is, but it’s definitely got its own vibe. And if you like caving, it’s a must visit destination, as there are several show caves there that are beautiful and worth seeing. I will never forget our visit to the Punkva Caves. I also noticed that Brno was not as heavily touristed as Prague and Cesky Krumlov. For that reason alone, it may be worth putting on your itinerary.

Choosing to eat here put us in contact with a local…

7. Someone may be watching you when you’re eating at the street food fest…

We certainly weren’t expecting to encounter an unhoused woman when we sat down to have lunch at a street food fest in Brno. But she did us a favor by eating our leftovers, and teaching us a thing or two about charity and not wasting food. And while I didn’t leave Brno with any artwork, I did leave with a memory and a great story. I doubt I’ll forget it anytime soon.

Where we spotted a very determined nutria…

6. Prague has surprising “wild kingdom” moments…

I don’t know if I’d ever heard of nutria (otherwise known as coypu) before I spotted one swimming in the Vltava River in Prague. At first, I thought maybe I was watching an otter or some kind of beaver, but I’m pretty sure I saw a nutria, an animal that has taken up residence in Prague and is apparently causing issues.

Unusual tufa cave with cauliflower rock formations.

5. If you’re near Lichtenstein Castle on the first Sunday of the warm months, you should visit Olgahöhle!

Again, this is a suggestion for those who like visiting caves. This cave is kind of special, and it’s only open on the first Sunday of the warm months. We happened to be able to visit by chance, and it was well worth the stop.

4. You can now purchase vignettes for Czechia online and there’s no longer a need for stickers.

This was a really welcome and convenient development for our trip. We were able to buy our vignette online, allowing us to use Czechia’s high speed highways. There was no need to put a sticker on the windshield. And the day before it expired, they helpfully sent a reminder email.

3. But the backroads are still in need of repair…

Our trip required some detours on secondary roads. A lot of them were in need of repair, thanks to potholes and other issues. On the other hand, they can take you to some great places, like the cool burger place we found because Bill needed to pee.

2. The people of Czechia are very warm and hospitable…

I can’t think of a single incident during our trip where we didn’t encounter very pleasant and warm people, especially in the hotels and restaurants. It definitely lent to the country’s charm and makes me want to go back again and again. This is also a great place for shopping, especially if you’re looking for art and unique toys.

Typical Czech food.
  1. The food, wine, and beer is very hearty… but if you want to, you can easily burn it off!

I was amazed anew by how rich and filling the food was on this trip. As heavy as German food can be, I think the Czechs have them beat! But I also found myself working hard, walking, climbing stairs, enjoying nature, and burning that fuel quite handily. Czech wine is pretty decent, by the way. I might not choose it over Italian wine, but it probably deserves a lot more attention than it gets. The beer is, of course, excellent and noticeably different from Germany’s beers.

So… that about does it for our most recent trip to BW and Czechia. We meant to see our dentist in Stuttgart and take in the sights in one of our favorite European countries. We missed the dentist, but sure made up for it with good times, new experiences, new friends, and fun. I hope if you’re inspired to visit the Czech Republic, you will take the plunge! I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!


Ten things I learned on our latest trip to Stuttgart…

Since we used to live near Stuttgart, I wasn’t planning to write a “ten things I learned” post for our latest jaunt down there, but for some reason, I feel like writing a travel post today. Maybe it’s because I recently made a photo folder for my new computer, and it’s flashing some of my prettiest pictures, as opposed to every picture on my hard drive. A few photos from our latest visit to the Stuttgart area have been included in my photo folder.

So, to satisfy my itch to write about travel, and to maybe generate some new views, here are ten things I learned on our latest trip to Stuttgart. I do learn new things every time I travel, even when it’s to places I’ve been to many times!

10. The TV Tower (Fernsehturm) is closed on Mondays during the winter!

The Fernsehturm is located very close to the Wald Hotel. I’ve been up it twice, and although Bill doesn’t remember going up there with me, I’d swear he went on my second trip. We thought maybe we’d kill time last Monday and go up it again, but alas, it’s closed on Mondays! BUT– after April 1, you can visit on Mondays… until the winter season starts again in November.

9. If you’ve already seen the Blautopf, and you liked looking at the deep blue water, you might also want to visit Brenztopf (Brenzursprung)!

I’m grateful that we were able to come back to Germany, if only because when we were living here the first time, I had never heard of Blautopf, let alone Brenztopf. These are very beautiful ponds in the cavernous areas near Ulm. Blautopf is in Blaubeuren, which is an obviously touristy town and has more facilities. It might be the “better” of the two ponds, given a choice. A visit to Blautopf can be paired with a trip to the Tiefenhöhle (Germany’s deepest show cave open to the public– also open after April 1), in nearby Laichingen.

However, Brenztopf, in Königsbronn, also shouldn’t be missed, for those who like looking at mysterious, beautiful, blue bodies of water. Below are photos from both places. The top three photos are from Blautopf, while the bottom three are from Brenztopf. Both places are probably best visited after April 1, for the “summer” season. On the other hand, if you visit before April 1, there are probably going to be fewer crowds to battle.

8. If you want to get the most out of a visit to Hohenzollern, you might want to wait until the “summer” season starts, on April 1.

It’s cheaper to visit Hohenzollern Castle in the “winter” season, because one can only see the grounds during that time. If you want to actually go into the castle and take a tour, you will need to wait for the warmer months. That is also when the Biergarten opens, although I can’t promise that an April visit will be any better weather wise than a March visit would be. If you’re short on money, a “winter” visit might be better. Tickets are significantly cheaper during the cold months.

Hohenzollern is beautiful in any season.

7. Taking the bus to Hohenzollern is so worth the money!

I mentioned in my post about Hohenzollern that Bill and I have had the experience of walking up the path to the castle. It’s definitely not for the weak. If you have any physical problems, or you’re just old and out of shape like we are, you might want to spring for the shuttle bus. Just sayin’.

6. Obviously, we need to schedule our dentist appointments AFTER April 1…

You’d think that after so many years of living in Germany, and near Stuttgart in particular, I’d already know this… But then, Bill is the one who schedules these things.

5. Besigheim is a very cute town, especially if you like German wines!

I never would have known about Besigheim if I hadn’t started following Facebook tip groups by Germans, for Germans. I wish we’d taken the time to shop for wines when we visited, but we were both eager to get to the hotel. As it was, we were still stuck in Stuttgart’s famous Staus.

4. Heidenheim is also well worth exploring, although it’s a bit of a hike from Stuttgart.

Now that we’ve seen it, maybe we’ll go back and see Schloss Hellenstein, which overlooks the town and has two museums. The castle dates from the 12th century, although the original version was almost completely destroyed in a fire back in 1530. Right next to the Schloss is a nature park, which has a bird of prey station and serves as home to many wildlife species.

3. It pays to check out restaurants thoroughly when you’re hungry.

When we visited Heidenheim, we wandered around a bit, trying to find a place for lunch. The first restaurant I spotted, La Strada, is where we ended up enjoying a lovely lunch. But we almost missed it, because although there was a menu board outside, the window next to the menu board made it look like the restaurant was deserted. All we had to do was go up a flight of stairs to find the entrance! The “deserted” room on the first floor was just another dining room that wasn’t open for lunch.

2. Always plan for a pause.

We were under the impression that La Strada had a warm kitchen throughout the day on Saturday. However, that turned out not to be the case… Our waiter was eager for us to finish up so he could take a break before the dinner shift. Not that we blame him at all for that!

Good pizza!

1. We still haven’t seen everything.

In spite of living in the Stuttgart area for a total of six years– the longest we’ve spent living in any place throughout our 20 year marriage– we still haven’t seen everything there is to see. Although Dr. Blair (our dentist) kids us, we love visiting Stuttgart and going on excursions. I always try to plan for at least a couple of outings to places that are new to us. In the future, maybe we’ll finally visit Kirchheim Unter Teck, the Porsche Museum, or the palace in Ludwigsburg.

There are also places that deserve a second or third look, like Hohenzollern and the TV Tower. Stuttgart looks different during the different seasons, or when the weather changes. I like living in Wiesbaden, and we definitely need to explore more up here, but every time I visit Stuttgart, I’m reminded of just how many things there are to do down there. I always enjoy visiting!


I often compare Stuttgart and Wiesbaden, since we’ve lived in both places. I get a lot of hits from people in the United States on my posts that compare the two places. I know this is because the two US military installations offer similar job opportunities. I want to reiterate that I’ve really enjoyed both areas, although Stuttgart remains more familiar to me, because we lived there longer, and didn’t spend two years in lockdown there. Our most recent trip was yet another reminder of how appealing both areas are, for differing reasons. But really, you can’t go wrong in either place, and on this trip, I was reminded yet again how lucky we are to be able to have and enjoy these experiences in Germany.

So… if you’re a German reading this, allow me to say “Danke sehr!” for being so welcoming and allowing us to get acquainted with your beautiful, interesting, and just plain amazing homeland! Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe next time we visit, I’ll pick a place to the east of Stuttgart to base us, so we can see even more of the places we haven’t seen yet. I’ve got until early October to make plans!


Ten things I learned in Bareiss style Baiersbronn…

Now that my latest blog series about Hotel Bareiss is complete, here’s my usual “ten things I learned” post. I find that these top ten lists tend to get read more than my “blow by blow” posts. Let’s face it! People don’t necessarily care about the minutiae of someone else’s vacation. On the other hand, sometimes including the small details is useful for some readers, or even just to myself, as I get older and duller. 😉

Anyway, here’s my list, even though we’ve done Baiersbronn before. I see that I didn’t do a ten things I learned list for our first Baiersbronn trip, so maybe it’s good to do one now. Here goes!

10. The Hotel Bareiss experience reminds me a little of being on a cruise ship.

The first time we visited Baiersbronn for more than a couple of hours, we stayed at Hotel Engel Obertal, which is a perfectly nice hotel that offers half board. But that hotel didn’t seem to be nearly as structured as Hotel Bareiss is. Yes, lunch was included in the daily rate there, but we didn’t feel like we HAD to eat lunch there. Although we didn’t HAVE to eat dinner at Hotel Bareiss either, the very heavy service component and knowing that we were paying for the food, anyway, made us feel obligated to eat there. And while it wasn’t a bad thing at all to dine at Hotel Bareiss, that aspect made me feel a little like I was on a cruise ship. The resort offers a lot of activities, too, like a cruise ship does.

9. Hotel Bareiss is very expensive, but offers an extremely high quality product.

When I compare Hotel Bareiss to Hotel Engel Obertal, I see some obvious similarities. However, Hotel Bareiss is an institution in Baiersbronn, and people come from all over to experience it. Service is mostly top notch, and they put a lot of effort into presenting a very pleasant experience for guests. That experience will cost you, of course! But if you have the means, and you just want to relax without worrying about anything, Hotel Bareiss might be just the place to go.

8. I wouldn’t call Hotel Bareiss a very “romantic” place for couples…

Although this is a five star resort hotel with a three star Michelin restaurant, it’s also a very family friendly place. There are lots of activities available for children, and they aren’t specifically prohibited from going into places. That means you might see them in the bar, or even in the sauna area. However, I did notice that visiting in late September/early October meant that most kids were in school, so their population was at a minimum during our visit. I would not book Bareiss in the summer if I was wanting to avoid running into families with children, though.

7. Baiersbronn and the Black Forest offer a lot to do outdoors. But maybe there’s not as many things to do inside. Planning for the weather is a good idea.

We suffered some rain during our visit, which made us not really want to venture out so much. A lot of the things I was thinking I’d like to do were strictly outside activities. There are some museums and other indoor activities for the resourceful, and the hotel offers excursions to nearby places like Strasbourg, France or Baden-Baden. The hotel also offers classes sometimes. For instance, they have culinary and wine courses that can be booked. I didn’t mind the rain so much, since we had such a hot, dry summer. Next time, maybe I’ll look for more inside opportunities, in case of inclement weather. Or, at the very least, I would bring clothes and shoes for wet weather. Baiersbronn is kind of a sleepy town, but there are other areas nearby that are well worth a visit.

6. Bring an extra bathing suit!

Hotel Bareiss has an AWESOME pool area, and it’s usable all year. If you like to swim or relax in the water, you may want to bring an extra bathing suit. They also have a dryer in the locker room that will wring most of the the water out in eight seconds.

5. You can bring your dog!

Although I tend to relax more when I travel without our dogs, I did miss them while we were at the Hotel Bareiss. I think Noyzi, in particular, would have loved the hotel. So many people brought their beautiful pooches with them, and there were a lot of amenities for them, including dog sitting! But bear in mind, if you do bring your dog, there are steep extra charges involved and not every room will be available to you.

4. Pack a nice outfit or two.

The Hotel Bareiss requests that guests dress nicely for dinner. That doesn’t necessarily mean putting on a dress or a suit, nor does it even mean they’ll turn you away at the door. But if you happen to be at the hotel on gala night, you will want to be dressy, as most people do put on their gladrags for the occasion. If you wear jeans and a sweatshirt, you might feel quite underdressed.

3. Don’t be afraid to try other area restaurants.

Baiersbronn is home to quite a few excellent restaurants besides the ones at Hotel Bareiss. Most are affiliated with other hotels, to include the ones at Hotel Traube Tonbach, another highly regarded hotel in the area. We ate at Traube Tonbach last year and had a very nice experience. We also tried the Meierei, which has a Michelin Plate, and liked that even more than the Michelin starred restaurant at the Traube Tonbach. But even if you aren’t into gourmet food, you can find really good eating in Baiersbronn. Especially if you like fresh trout, like I do!

2. You don’t have to spend a mint to stay in Baiersbronn…

It’s true that we dropped a load of euros at Hotel Bareiss. This year’s visit was about twice as expensive as last year’s, although we also stayed a day longer and in fancier digs. But if we’d wanted to, we could have easily bunked comfortably in less extravagant lodging and had a great time. In fact, in some ways, I think I might have preferred a less “structured” holiday. I don’t think I’m that into resorts and half board plans. I like having the freedom to try different places and do my own thing. Maybe next time we go to the Black Forest, we’ll try to find a self catering apartment in a different area.

1. On the other hand, I would NOT turn down another visit to Hotel Bareiss…

It really is a lovely hotel, with friendly and mostly professional staff, and magical surroundings. We really did enjoy ourselves, and would heartily recommend that others visit. Just remember that when you book Hotel Bareiss, you’re likely to be committed to going. You may wish to purchase travel insurance, in case you need to cancel. In our situation, I was worried about Arran being sick with lymphoma and needing us to come home to take care of him. However, he has now shown us that he is clearly not ready to leave us yet… so I’m glad we didn’t cancel! In fact, as I write this, he’s visiting the vet. I have a feeling she might be pleasantly surprised by how he’s doing today.

Well, that about does it for this year’s visit to the Schwarzwald. I hope this series has been entertaining, informative, and inspirational. If you’re living in Germany, I highly recommend taking the opportunity to visit The Black Forest. We completely missed it the first time we lived here. I’m so glad we came back and rectified that tragedy! And if you are into good food, especially fine dining, you may want to make a point of visiting Baiersbronn. As I mentioned in 2018, when we first heard of Baiersbronn, there are lots of (Michelin) “stars” in them there hills!


Ten things I learned in Antwerp, Belgium…

Here it is, my usual list of ten things I learned on my latest trip. I like to do these to remind myself that travel is a way to expand one’s mind, pick up new knowledge, meet new people, and broaden perspectives. I also find that the ten things I learned posts are more likely to be read than my blow by blow accounts of our travels, especially since we tend to do a lot of eating and drinking instead of visiting exhibits. So, here goes… ten things I learned in Antwerp, Belgium.

10. Antwerp is a major port city.

Antwerp is located on the Scheldt River, and it’s partially located in the City of Antwerp and the Province of East Flanders. It is Europe’s second largest seaport, after Rotterdam.

Het Steen, a building that has been used many ways… including as a cruise terminal.

9. You can’t come to Antwerp and not learn about A Dog of Flanders.

I’m sorry to admit that I had not heard of A Dog of Flanders before we visited Antwerp. The novella was written by the English author, Marie Louise de la Ramée (also known as Ouida), and it was partly based on Antwerp. The story is about a poor boy named Nello and his dog, Patrasch, who were very loyal to each other. Ouida’s book was very popular in Asia and Russia, was made into a film, and translated into different languages. Because of the book’s popularity, there are two monuments in Belgium dedicated to Nello and Patrasch. One of the monuments is located in Antwerp, and you can’t miss it if you go to the cathedral.

A boy and his beloved dog.

8. Antwerp is famous for diamonds.

One of the reasons we visited Antwerp is because Bill thought maybe we’d shop for a diamond, since it was my 50th birthday. But we ended up skipping the diamond shopping, having been warned by Trip Advisor reviews. 🙂 Nevertheless, I had no idea diamonds were notable in Antwerp before I visited there. Maybe we’ll still shop for a rock, since this year we will also celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary.

7. Antwerp is very LGBTQ friendly.

Which isn’t to say that Europe, as a whole, isn’t friendly to the LGBTQ community. But I saw signs that Antwerp is especially open to people of all orientations. I liked that about Antwerp.

6. It’s also very artist friendly!

Perhaps because it’s such an “open-minded” place, Antwerp is also home to a lot of artists and fashionistas. We saw all sorts of awesome fashion interpretations during our visit, and I saw more than a couple of art galleries I wouldn’t have minded exploring.

5. And there’s lots of food to suit every taste!

We found exotic cuisines ranging from Israeli to Peruvian-Japanese! And, of course, there was also the usual stuff, like Italian food, Greek food, Thai food, and Belgian food. There’s something for everyone.

Israeli food.

4. COVID rules are pretty relaxed.

Actually, I would say they’re non-existent. Masks are recommended, but aren’t required, on trains or buses, nor did I see anyone wearing them voluntarily. If COVID is a worry for you, you might want to keep this in mind. We were not asked about our vaccines, except in a casual conversation with the hotel staff who was comparing rules in Germany to rules elsewhere.

3. Not all stores take Visa (or American credit cards).

We should have known better, given that we live in Germany, and we don’t have European credit cards. A lot of European destinations have gone cashless, so we have gone that way ourselves. But if you carry an American card, you might want to bring euros with you, just in case.

2. Bill rode his first ferris wheel in Antwerp.

Bill is afraid of heights, so before my birthday trip, he never voluntarily took a ride in a ferris wheel. I did not know, as we were looking at Antwerp from the top of the wheel, that this was his very first time on such a ride. He had a good time. I’m sure it comforted him that the car was enclosed, though.

Bill lost his ferris wheel virginity here.

1. You have to pay to see the Cathedral of Our Lady if you aren’t from Antwerp…

However, it’s worth the price of admission if you like art. The cathedral is loaded with paintings, sculptures, and relics, as well as beautiful stained glass windows and a fascinating crypt. And, when you’re finished gawking at all of the beautiful art, you can visit the bistro, enjoy a beer or a coffee in the courtyard, and use the toilet. That’s a pretty big deal.

One of many paintings you can see at the cathedral!

So… there you have it. We had a great time in Antwerp and I hope we can visit again. It was a great place for me to turn 50. I found many friendly locals who were willing to celebrate with me! As long as you aren’t driving– or you have a very good GPS that can get you where you need to go– it’s a total pleasure. Driving in Antwerp can be hellish if you don’t have accurate GPS. But once you park, good times are to be had! I can still say that I’ve never had a bad time in Belgium.


Ten things I learned in Switzerland, Italy, and Liechtenstein…

Now that my latest travel series has been completed and up for a few days, it’s time for my usual “ten things I learned” post. I like to do these posts after most trips, if only to offer a quick recap of our travels and make myself feel better for all the money we spent. 🙂 I also think these top ten posts are a bit easier for the casual reader to get through than the heavily detailed, blow by blow accounts. So, here goes…

10. Italy was actually stricter about COVID rules than Germany was!

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that Italy was strict about masks and “green passes”, since Italy was one of the first countries hard hit by COVID-19. However, Italy is typically “slacker” about a lot of things than Germany is, so it was a bit strange to be allowed to visit a rest stop maskless in Germany, but not in Italy. By the time our trip was over, the mask rules and green pass rules were dropped, anyway, in most places.

9. But Switzerland and Liechtenstein were both pretty “slack” about the COVID rules.

I wasn’t that surprised that Switzerland and Liechtenstein were liberal about masks. In 2020, when the pandemic was just getting started, we visited Italy, Austria, and Switzerland, and were very surprised that of the three countries, Switzerland’s rules were the least strict. Since Liechtenstein is basically a tiny country akin to Austria and Switzerland, it’s not too surprising that their rules were more like those in Switzerland.

The drive was breathtaking!

8. Modena and Parma are refreshingly non-touristy.

I was especially surprised by Modena, which really felt like an authentic Italian town. I didn’t hear any other American accents during our visit there. Parma was maybe a touch more touristy than Modena, but we didn’t get the sense that a lot of Americans were there during our trip.

7. Cortona is a super cute town, perfect for Tuscan getaways and fans of the film, Under the Tuscan Sun.

The 2003 film, Under the Tuscan Sun was partially filmed in this very lovely town, which also boasts at least one excellent winery.

6. Liechtenstein is a fine place to be if you want peace and quiet… and if you have money.

Like neighboring Switzerland, Liechtenstein is very sedate and civilized. It’s also expensive! But it was nice to be there for a couple of nights, if only to decompress a bit and gaze at the Alps. You can also find some nice wines there, with grapes from Austria, Switzerland, or even locally.

5. Andermatt may be halfway between Wiesbaden and Florence, but it’s not easy to get there!

We had to climb a mountainside with our Volvo to get to the ski town. I saw so many bikers who looked like they were in the seventh ring of Hell, trying to get up the steep incline. I alternately felt sorry for them, and felt glad I no longer have to ride a bike to get from point A to point B. It’s a pretty place, but not what I would call super beautiful. I probably wouldn’t make an effort to go back, although we did like the hotel we stayed in.

In Liechtenstein, you might see cows from your office.

4. If you need to pee in Switzerland, you can use euros at the rest stops.

I probably already knew that, but we so seldom go through there, I might have forgotten.

3. It’s possible to have a bad meal in Italy.

Avoid fast food joints called Old Wild West at all costs! Or, maybe just avoid fast food joints altogether.

2. But if you need to buy groceries or gifts, the rest stops in Italy have you covered.

And you will have to run the gauntlet when you leave the rest stops, too. There’s no other way to exit without walking past all the wines, olive oils, vinegars, and whatever else.

Italy is always beautiful!

…and .1 Bo and Luke Duke are still famous in Italy.

Actually, we saw a lot of 80s era TV shows in Italy, but were especially surprised by The Dukes of Hazzard. No wonder we’ve seen the rebel battle flag in Italy so many times! It obviously doesn’t mean the same to Italians as it does to us Americans. Back in the 80s, it was everywhere in the US, too. Maybe Italy is still kind of stuck in a previous era.

Sure, there were other things we learned while we were on our trip. But, this particular journey involved drinking a lot of wine, and my memory is probably a little fuzzy due to that. We had a wonderful time during our travels. I’m already looking forward to our next trip, which will probably be next month when I– gasp– turn 50.

It still snows in late April in Switzerland.

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Why “I Ain’t Been Nowhere” and ten more things I learned in Alsace, France…

It’s time for me to write another one of my “ten things I learned” posts. This one is coming a bit later than usual. I’m going to preface the post with a bit of an explanation for the people who still follow my travel adventures.

I’ve held off on writing my usual “ten things I learned” post for our most recent trip to France. I’m sad to say that I’ve kind of lost some of my desire to produce travel blog posts. There are a couple of reasons for this development.

Ever since I moved my blogs to WordPress, I’ve been struggling with lagging morale, particularly regarding the travel blog. Part of the reason I’ve been struggling has to do with people who were following me on Blogspot and decided to cause trouble. That situation was what led me to move my blogs in the first place. I suspect they just didn’t like me personally, for whatever reason, and decided to stir up some shit. It all ended badly, and ultimately, not in their favor, but it left me with some significant psychological angst that has taken some time to overcome.

I spent a year struggling with feeling really violated and angry, mainly because the people who were causing issues were being creepy, dishonest, and toxic. I’ve written quite a lot about that situation, mostly on my main blog, so I don’t want to rehash it here. I do think it’s really sad that some people feel the need to meddle in other people’s business and try to sabotage something like a personal blog. What those people did caused real damage on many levels, and there was absolutely no reason for it, other than their need to be destructive and creepy.

The second reason I’ve been less enthusiastic has a lot to do with the pandemic, and how difficult and annoying travel has been since COVID-19 became part of life. I was finally starting to feel better about writing in early 2020, only to have everything fall apart due to a deadly novel virus. The below song by Rhonda Vincent is pretty much a good summation of my feelings about COVID… If you haven’t heard it, I highly encourage you to listen. I promise it’s good, unless you just can’t abide bluegrass.

Sometimes, I think I’d like to go back to the USA, just so I can see Rhonda Vincent perform in person. Even if you aren’t a bluegrass fan, this song is awesome. Those harmonies make me want to cry! (in a verklempt way)

I am happy to report that Europe really is FINALLY opening up again, and COVID measures are becoming less obnoxious. This is happening, even though COVID infections are on the rise again in Europe, and I was actually exposed to COVID on our latest trip (though I haven’t been sick). I’m hoping the “red tile” on my Corona Warn app will go back to green today. Bill and I had a wonderful time in France, and now we want to travel more. So, I’m hoping we can move back into our former lifestyle, and I will recapture the joy of travel and experiencing new places and things. And now, on to the ten things I learned…

10. COVID-19 measures in France are currently much less annoying than they’ve been in Germany.

One of the reasons Bill and I went to France in the first place is because we didn’t want to be bothered by strict COVID rules. France doesn’t require FFP2 face masks, and if you are vaccinated, you don’t have to bother with masks in public indoor areas of restaurants and hotels. You do still need to wear a mask in shops, because they don’t check for vaccinations at the door. This was true during our visit, but as we know, rules are always subject to change.

9. Soufflenheim is French pottery heaven!

We have been to the Alsace area of France many times, but we’ve always stuck to the Wine Route. This was our first time exploring the area above Strasbourg, and we decided to go there because we knew Soufflenheim was where Alsatian pottery is made.

8. But there isn’t that much else going on in Soufflenheim…

Or, at least that was our impression during our visit. It’s a great place to go pottery shopping, but I wouldn’t say the town is particularly picturesque. However, nearby Sessenheim, where we stayed, is very cute!

7. There’s more to Alsace than the Wine Route.

On our previous trips to Alsace, we stayed in pretty, tourist friendly towns like Riquewihr, Colmar (Bischwihr), Ribeauville, and, of course, Strasbourg. We have visited the picturesque hamlets around Riquewihr and Ribeauville, and even made a point of stopping by Kaysersberg, where Anthony Bourdain took his life in 2018. If you go north of Strasbourg, you’ll still be in Alsace, but it feels different… and it’s well worth seeing.

6. Auberge Au Boeuf is a really cool place to stay!

I think the main reason we enjoyed our trip so much is because we discovered Auberge Au Boeuf, which is a wonderful, historic restaurant. But it also has four really cool bedrooms that can be rented. We were delighted by how thoughtfully designed and beautiful the hotel was. The little town of Sessenheim is also notable for its historic connection to Johann von Goethe, a very famous German poet, playwright, novelist, and statesman.

5. Michelin starred restaurants are not the end all, be all…

I do enjoy eating fancy food on occasion; but I’m really much more of a comfort food fan. We ate at the Michelin starred Auberge Au Boeuf twice. I’m not sorry we did that, but we did learn that “fancy food” should be special, or the magic wears off. On the other hand, it had been so long since we last indulged!

4. Speaking German often, but not always, comes in handy in Alsace.

We kind of already knew this from other trips, but we did run into a number of people who didn’t speak German or English. It made me wish I had studied French, in school, instead of Spanish.

3. The town of Bitche, which is in Lorraine, is very close to Kaiserslautern and Ramstein.

I did not realize how accessible this town, with its impressive and famous citadel, is to Germany’s largest military community. Maybe if Bill had worked in K-town, we might be slipping over the border more often.

2. Saverne is a cute town I’d never heard of!

We visited Saverne on a whim after we got bored in beautiful Obernai. Seriously, Obernai is a very pretty town, but it reminded me so much of other wine route towns. It was a treat to discover Saverne, which was about 45 minutes away. It had a very different feel. I wish we’d had time to explore more of it. Maybe we can go back.

  1. It’s time to get back to enjoying Europe… for as long as possible.

One of our biggest regrets during our first time living in Europe is that we spent too many weekends at home. We completely missed out on the Black Forest and Alsace during our Army tour. In fact, I don’t even remember any visits to Stuttgart Mitte during those two years. When we came back to Germany in 2014, we were determined to explore more. For four years, we were able to do that, and we did it to great success.

But then, once we moved, we dealt with harassment and COVID-19, which knocked us off track somewhat. As we’ve learned from COVID, life is short and tomorrow is never guaranteed. Putin is making things in Europe a bit tense. Add that to COVID, and things can seem mighty grim. The truth is, every day there are risks to be faced. It’s time to face more risks and get back to living. I hope that’s what we can do more of in 2022.

And to those who want to cause trouble and see me fail…

Austria, Croatia, road trips, Slovenia

Ten things I learned on my Aus-cro-slo-aus trip…

I always like to cap off my travel series with a top ten list of things I learned while traveling. Even when I’ve been to places repeatedly, I usually do learn something new on every trip. That was especially true as we visited Croatia overnight for the first time. We had visited there once before, but only for a couple of hours as we took a “joyride” while visiting Trieste, Italy. So, I’ll dispense with the useless palaver, and commence with my list. Here goes.

10. The word “slap” means waterfall, both in Croatian and Slovenian.

As we know, “slap” means something entirely different in English. But when you see it on signs in Croatia and Slovenia, it means you might be in for a beautiful view of something special.

9. Croatia is very friendly to English speakers.

I couldn’t help but notice that Croatia really seems to have embraced visitors who speak English. A lot of Europeans know English, because it’s a very practical language to learn. If one speaks English, he or she can communicate with Americans, Brits, and Aussies, just to name a few. But I was still surprised that so many people in Croatia spoke English so fluently, and many of the signs were also in English.

8. The off season in Croatia and Slovenia means very few crowds, but also a lot of closed businesses.

The Lake Bohinj area was especially empty of tourists, although to be fair, we were there in early November, rather than late October. November 1 seems to be the cut off day for things to close up for the winter.

7. But even though places were closed, the fall colors were fantastic, and there were still some things to do.

We still managed to see and do some things, even if it was harder to find open shops and restaurants. And the trip was so worth it, if only to see the incredible fall colors along with so many lakes and waterfalls.

6. Salzburg is still hopping, even though it’s November.

Of course this isn’t a surprise, but the fact that Salzburg was still in full swing was great, especially after spending time in places where it was so quiet. We managed to do a little shopping and enjoy a very fine meal in a restaurant. I could definitely spend more time in Salzburg, and Austria as a whole.

5. Wels, Austria is known for its catfish.

I don’t really enjoy eating catfish, but this was something I didn’t know before we visited Wels. In fact, I didn’t even know Wels existed before we took our trip.

4. Sometimes it’s interesting to visit lesser known cities.

I’m truly glad we visited Wels. It’s probably not high on most people’s travel itineraries, but I found it a pleasant place to spend a couple of nights. I wouldn’t mind going back. I’m also glad we visited different places. I’m rather proud that I came up with a plan to visit Plitvice Lakes and Lake Bohinj. And I’m glad I listened to Slovenians in Lake Bled who recommended Lake Bohinj.

3. I need a genuine kit bag for all my stuff.

I typically carry a digital camera, a phone, and my iPad when I tour places. I could have used a better bag, especially when we were hiking. If anything, I could have used a place to put my layers as I stripped them off. I got hot at Plitvice Lakes and ended up having to carry my sweater and hoodie. I also need to bring snacks.

2. The word “jezera” means “lake” in Croatian. And the word “ključ” means “key” in Croatian.

I only learned the word for “key” because the lovely couple at the house we rented used it several times.

And finally, 1. Planning ahead is difficult, especially in the age of COVID-19, but it’s always a good idea to try…

I wish we could have visited the Krka National Park during our time in Croatia, even though it would have been physically challenging. But now we have a reason to go back. I hope we’ll have the opportunity. It’s good that we came back when we did, as COVID-19 has become even more concerning in the past week. I still don’t regret our trip. We had a really great time, in spite of my occasional crankiness and griping.


Ten things I learned in Die Schweiz!

Back when I used to take a lot of trips– that is, before this COVID-19 bullshit began– I often summed up my blog series with a “ten things I learned” post. Basically, they served as summaries of my trips and reminders of new things I learned. I haven’t written one of those “ten things I learned” posts in awhile. There are a few reasons for that.

I used to have a larger readership than I have now. When I moved the blog to WordPress, I lost a lot of readers. A lot of former readers simply never found out where the new blog was, and some lost interest for any number of reasons ranging from leaving Europe to finding me an insufferable bitch. Then, COVID struck, I quit going places. I haven’t completely quit, mind you, but I haven’t been enjoying the travel perks of living in Europe like I used to. And the places we’ve been going are places we’ve been before– at least the same countries, anyway.

But I think I would like to revive my habit of writing “ten things I learned posts”, to keep this blog updated, and also to give people who don’t want to wade through the whole series a condensed version. So here goes… ten things I learned on our latest trip to Switzerland. Hope someone enjoys it.

10. Carl G. Jung was an amazing person… but he had lots of help.

Bill and I visited Jung’s home and museum during our trip to Zürich. We learned a little bit about the accomplished man he was. Last night, Bill was telling his Jungian therapist about how amazing he thought Jung’s accomplishments were. He read so many books, spoke so many languages, dabbled in art, practiced as an analyst, wrote books, smoked, and developed theories. He did this while raising a family and carrying on with his mistress. Bill’s therapist pointed out, “Yeah, he did all those things, and those things require energy. But he had lots of women around to help him.” It’s true. He had a wife, a mistress, and colleagues who worked with him. That freed up some of his time.

9. Jung’s family still live in the house he built on the shore of Lake Zürich.

When Bill and I were outside in the backyard, I looked up at the house and noticed people on the third floor. Later, when I read the official Web site for the museum, I read that some of Jung’s descendants still live in the house. No wonder it has such limited operating hours.

8. Swiss mac n’ cheese is pretty good. Ditto to Swiss wines!

Up here in Germany, particularly down in Swabia, a lot of people like to eat Spätzle, which is a type of pasta often served with cheese. I never really got into Spätzle myself, so I was a little skeptical when I spotted Älplermagronen on the menu at a restaurant. But as I didn’t really want a Schnitzel or a pork knuckle, I decided to order it. It was absolutely delicious, and even included potatoes! That did my Celtic heart proud!

I also really enjoyed the wines. I don’t know why they surprised me, given that Germany and Italy produce wines. Why wouldn’t Switzerland?

7. Zürich is a very lovely city… not boring at all.

One of the reasons it took so long to visit Zürich is that we lived close for several years. And I had heard from a lot of people that it was kind of a boring city that was mostly dedicated to banks. I should have known better, since I heard the same thing about Luxembourg (both the country and Luxembourg City), which I found to be untrue. The person who mainly passed on these opinions to me is an Italian friend I don’t get to talk to so much anymore… I guess compared to Italy, Zürich may seem kind of bland and dull. But I didn’t find it that way at all… of course, my Italian friend would also frown on the fact that I ate Swiss style mac n’ cheese. 😉

6. I finally know the names of the little towns near all those beautiful lakes we always pass on the way to Italy!

I think the reason I didn’t know them before is because I was always so busy looking at the scenery that I forgot to look at the signs. Now that I know some names, maybe we’ll plan a trip to stay somewhere really gorgeous next time! I am dying to rent a lakeside apartment or hotel room with a lake view where I can drink wine and enjoy peace and quiet.

5. The Swiss dialect renders my German skills useless.

I’m not saying I have great German skills to begin with… Luckily, many people speak English… and several other languages. Switzerland has four official ones. I also didn’t know William Tell was a legendary Swiss folk hero.

I’ll never think of the William Tell Overture in the same way… Here’s Bill’s distant relative playing it on the guitar. 😉 My own guitar skills aren’t this advanced yet. Incidentally, this was piece was composed by Gioachino Rossini, who was Italian.

And that was so good I have to add this video from 1974, which features Glen Campbell playing an acoustic guitar. I’ll keep practicing.

4. Watch where you park in Switzerland…

It’s best to choose a city garage rather than one affiliated with a fancy department store. Yes, we should have realized… now we know for certain! 49 CHF for a day’s parking! Whew!

3. The Swiss apparently don’t “do” naked spas…

In Germany, it’s not uncommon to find textile free spas, or at least textile free areas of spas. That means everything is “textile free”– not just the saunas. Evidently, Switzerland doesn’t do that, which is okay with me. But it’s good to know what to do, just in case. You don’t want to bare it and share it unless invited to do so…

2. Switzerland has a soul after all…

I’m finding that the more I visit Switzerland, the more I like it. I had the same reactions to New York City and Paris. Switzerland has always seemed kind of sterile to me… but now that I’ve been to a few places, I’m finding myself liking it more and more.

And finally, 1. but it’ll drain your wallet!

I actually knew this before our most recent visit. We have yet to enjoy a budget holiday in Switzerland, although I’ll bet we could arrange something cheap if we put our minds to it. Frankly, though, I tend to want to go to Switzerland for rest and relaxation… pampering, if you will. So I’m prepared to drop some money on those trips. I’m never sorry I did so… although that’s probably because I’m not the one briefing generals and spending weeks working in Bavaria to pay for these trips.

So that about does it for my “ten things I learned” post. I hope I can write another one soon. I think our next trip will be to Stuttgart, and I’ve already written a shitload about that city.

Austria, Italy, Switzerland

Ten things I learned in Sud Tyrol and beyond…

I always do these “ten things I learned” posts to remind me that travel is a good teacher and to sum up why the trip was worth taking. This particular trip was very special because it was the first one Bill and I have done since the pandemic started. I was a bit nervous about taking the plunge, and to be honest, I am a little worried that maybe we might get sick. On the other hand, we had a great time and saw a lot of cool stuff. So, here goes with my top ten list of things we learned in Sud Tyrol and beyond.

10. People in Sud Tyrol are much more likely to speak German than Italian, even though Sud Tyrol is in Italy.

It’s true. Everywhere we went in Parcines– as well as in Merano and Bolzano and the little towns around them– people were speaking German first. I knew that it was a German speaking area because I had visited Bolzano before, but I didn’t realize that German really is what you’re likely to hear among the locals.

9. Agriculture is huge in Sud Tyrol.

Everywhere we looked, there were acres and acres of apples, pears, quinces, and grapes. I think there were a lot more apples than grapes, actually.

8. It is possible to have a bad meal in Italy.

Okay, so I kinda knew that… I was just sorry that it was proven to me on more than one occasion.

7. I probably shouldn’t do half board options in most places.

Half board options are very popular in some resort hotels. They’re not a good choice for me, though, because I’m a bit picky about a lot of things. And some things make me throw up. If you’re not a picky eater and you’re budget conscious, they’re a better bet.

6. Right now, Europeans are a bit leery of Americans… even more so than usual!

Actually, it seemed like Germans were leery. We did get a few side eyes during our trip because Americans aren’t supposed to be in Europe. But if you live here, you can travel as if you were an EU citizen, as long as you can prove you’re a resident. Still, people will look sideways at you if they hear an American accent.

5. But after a few days, they’ll relax…

4. The Parcines waterfall is not very accessible right now.

I wish we’d had the chance to visit the waterfall. It’s obviously a tourist draw. Too bad the landowner felt the need to block off the area around the waterfall. I wonder if she did it because of people being bad guests and leaving trash and COVID-19 was just a convenient reason to fence it off. I don’t know…

3. COVID-19 rules are different in different countries.

Seriously– we had to wear gloves in Austria, but no mask. We wore a mask at the buffet in our Italian hotel, but no gloves. And in Switzerland, we weren’t required to wear a mask OR gloves, even when we went to the grocery store.

2. I really need to visit the Reschensee area.

I was on the right track back in 2009, when I was looking at booking a hotel there. It’s a beautiful area, and I’d love to get a closer/better picture of the partially submerged church tower.

1. Austria is AWESOME.

I knew it was awesome from previous trips, but it had been four years since our last Austrian visit. We definitely need to visit there more frequently. I think, overall, our time in Austria was my favorite. It has stunning views, excellent food, laid back people, and many natural wonders, along with beautiful accommodations. I hope we’ll have another opportunity to see more of it. I also have a new appreciation for Switzerland. We need to see more there, too.