Dead Guys Bike Tour

Dead Guys Bike Tour


What follows is a (largely) unembelished tale of a wild bicycle tour through Oxfordshire – stopping to visited the graves of distinguished English gentlemen (and one very special lady), drinking pints of English ale in their honor, learning how to enjoy a proper English tea, a brief toedip into beetlemania, and stumbling across some very interesting pieces of American history…all squeezed in to a mere 8 hours so we could make it home for a proper English roast!

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Years ago on a work trip to Brazil, I was at the evening mixer and met an interesting English chap who worked in publishing. We talked and discovered we had a lot in common – sports, travel, reading. Wound up exchanging emails and ultimately stayed in touch on Facebook. Then, a couple of years back I received a message saying he was visiting North Carolina and would love to pop in for a visit and to meet my husband. At the end of our visit, our English friend, Adam, extended an invitation to visit his home in England. Time passed, and we didn’t manage a visit. Adam’s first visit was followed by another trip to America a year later. This time we again spun dreams of a visit to England and the dead guys bike tour idea was floated. We made plans, wondering if it would ever happen. Then I moved to Germany. Surely, we would make the trip since it was now within driving distance. Alas, time was slipping by, 12 months to go, now less than 6 months to go and I’m very pleased to say, we finally did it! We made it to England and you can guess our very first stop – to see our English friend Adam.

Now, in those years between when Adam first visited and we finally managed to visit England, the plan for our dead guys bike tour began to build. Adam lives in a town very near Oxford. The home of many, many famous dead guys (and ladies, as I learned). Adam also knows how much we love to bike, and drink the occasional pint of beer. So, he began to map out a route for a day of biking to grave sites, visiting nearby famous pubs, and experiencing “real” England (which I came to learn is basically any city outside of London).

Here follows the tale of our whirlwind dead guys bike tour.

The night before our tour we diligently studied the map over a pint of real English ale. Who am I kidding, we had already consumed a pint and this beer is strong!  We listened attentively as Adam mapped out our plans including more than a dozen stops and a few surprise locations for good measure. We had another pint, because we were in England, why not, and turned in rather early with a plan to be rolling down the driveway by 9 am the next morning. Adam is a military chap so I knew I must be on time! Otherwise… push-ups!

I’m proud to say that we departed a mere 5 minutes late, pretty good considering we were on holiday. The day dawned a bit cold and overcast with a promising forecast calling for sunshine and blue skies. I began to wonder what country I was actually in, could this be the same England where it allegedly rains all the time??? (Sidebar: You should have seen and heard the reactions of the Germans when I told them I was taking vacation to England. The most common reaction was “why?” accompanied by a quizzical worried face. Germans prefer sunny and warm places).

I didn’t have to wait long to be reminded that, yes, indeed, I was in England. Our first stop was in Sutton Courtney to admire an authentic Thatched roof house. This was a special stop just for me as Adam knew my maiden name is Thacher, originating from the trade of building Thatched roofs. Here is the fine specimen we admired.


We crossed over the river Thames via a lovely bridge that reminded my husband of Central Park. I had to agree. By now the temperature had climbed enough that we’d all shed a layer clothing. A good promise of the beautiful day to come.

The Thames was our companion for most of the day. A lovely river and rather small and natural looking in this portion of the country. Populated by a variety of ducks and people paddling in kayaks and row boats. Schools of tiny fish flashed in the water. Honestly,  a week later when we walked along the Thames in London, I found it hard to believe that it was the same river!


After a slight mishap on the trail (I leave out the details to protect the innocent), we made a B-line to our first stop in Abbingdonn. My first impression was the fresh green grass of the cricket fields bordering the town – this must be a very orderly place, I thought. We paused for a moment to admire the fine architecture before pedaling back out of the town. Onward to Oxford!


We departed Abbingdon via national bicycle route 5, a beautiful green path that mostly followed the Thames. Everything went ok after I avoided my first head-on bicycle crash due to the fact that I was riding on the right side of the road which is totally wrong in England. “Keep Left” became the command of the day!



Very soon we noticed more buildings along the Thames and suddenly popped out in Oxford.  I asked the fellows to pose on the first bridge for a picture and they happily accommodated, much more than 50 pictures later when they began to avoid the camera… until they had a pint that is… then they became very photo friendly again!

As we rolled through the city, I spotted Oxford press and asked for a picture with Adam who grudgingly agreed to snap a photo in front of “the enemy”. I have no idea how much profit Oxford press gained from all those textbooks I bought in college, but I would guess it was more than a 10 pound note, or few!

So, you’re probably beginning to wonder when the dead guys part of our bike tour began, be patient, it’s coming soon, and the first dead guy is huge!!!!

First, we biked across a meadow and made our first GPS map check. Boy, the guys had fun with that moment! ­čÖé Adam had a new GPS watch he wanted to test out and it worked like a charm.


Coordinates checked and having verified we were on the correct route, we did a time check and found we were running behind schedule. No time for leisure! Our proper English roast was being prepared and if we were late Adam would perish! Chas raced ahead and I followed, green grass flying below our wheels. 

We paused on a city street in Oxford and saw a couple walking by. This is the moment when we took a rather, I daresay, unorthodox decision… instead of consulting a phone for the location of the first dead guy, we spoke with the lady walking by! It was amazing! She was helpful and pointed us to the right and instructed us on a few turns. Between the 3 of us we could remember the instructions, and off we charged down the road to visit the spinner of Fantastical tales. None other than J.R.R. Tolkien!

We confidently followed the path markers and then walked right past the grave twice before realizing that JR stood for John Ronald. I think he has a beautiful resting place. Much simpler than I expected and the forget me nots are a nice touch. Most delightful was to discover that someone had left a “precious” on the rose bush planted in the grave.


Now it was time to raise a pint in honor of J.R.R. Tolkien. We shoved off to the Eagle and Child. Sadly the doors were not open at noon on Sunday, fancy that! I snapped a photo as we checked the train timetable. 

The Eagle and Child was selected because it was a gathering place of the likes of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis during the days when they were crafting tales such as the Lord of the Rings and the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. The tales that shaped the fantasy world of my childhood!

Since the pub was closed, we made our first, of many to come, plan B deployment. No good adventure is without a complicated Plan B! We popped into a burrito shop to grab a quick lunch and our first beer – a cold Modelo! You know it wasn’t a real English ale because it was proper ice chilled cold! 

Refueled, we quickly pedaled to the train station for our journey to Cholsey: Adam’s hometown! I have to say it’s hard to beat the fun of taking a bike on a train! This was a first time for Chas and he was excited.


Now, you might be remembering that I mentioned beetlemania… as we departed the train station in Cholsey, Adam shared a story about a time when his mom had a Beetle sighting right here at the train station back in the 60’s! We also spotted an interesting looking alleyway, but alas, no time to explore, we were off to find another dead guy!

We pedaled through Cholsey, past Adam’s childhood home, then climbed across a steeply banked train bridge and were greeting by a beautiful sweeping scenery. 

Hiding behind the giant blooming chestnut trees, we discovered St. Mary’s church and the resting place of none other than the queen of mystery: Agatha Christie.

After our train journey and climbing that train bridge, we were thirsty again and popped in to The Red Lion for a half pint. Not a full pint, only a half. Why, you ask did we drink only a half pint of fine English ale? This is why: we were racing against the clock as we had a strict tea time to make at Adam’s family home. No time to dilly dally.

Adam poured pints here when he was a young chap!

I left with a souvenir Brakespear glass! I couldn’t resist, it was decorated with a beautiful bumblebee.

We soon arrived at a beautiful brick home, which is a new house Adam’s parents have recently built on their family land. They are a lovely couple, wonderful hosts and full of stories. Adam’s mom set about making us some proper English tea. She asked if we’d like to use the fine China, to which I responded, yes, of course. Owning a set of China myself, I know how much we ladies love to have an occasion to pull it out and dust it off. As Cecilia and I chatted during tea preparations, the fellows again consulted the maps to plan our next stops. 

The home has a beautiful backyard beyond which is the banks of the Thames. We enjoyed the warm sunshine and watching a family of Kites flying about landing in the trees. They have a family of Kites living in one of their trees and they are just beautiful birds! 

Cecilia brought out our pot of earl grey tea along with shortbread, biscuits and cream. We filled our fine china tea cups with tea and a spot of cream and proceeded to sip it with pinkies in the air! I learned how to properly hold the tea cup plate in my left hand above my lap while holding the tea cup in my right. We had a proper good time! As we sipped tea, we chatted, and this is when I discovered that Agatha Christie’s home was right next door!

Before we continued our journey we stopped off for a visit and a selfie! How could I resist!

Adam’s mother accompanied us on the walk to the Thames where we found the Oxford university boat house, Agatha Christie’s boat house and even met up with one of Adam’s great cousins walking along with a German friend. It’s a small world, especially in Oxfordshire!


While we enjoyed our tea, Adam had informed his parents about our next graveyard stop and instructed them to not give away the surprise. So, I was very curious to see who we would meet next! We pedaled into Wallingford and I noticed a very distinctive church spire looming above the town. Would this be our destination? Yes, it was! We leaned our bikes up in the cemetery and walked in to St. Peter’s. My curiosity peaked as I wondered when we would explore the graveyard.

Instead of going outside, Adam directed our attention to a marble slab in the aisle near the alter. Then the story began. Back in the 1760’s William Blacktone wrote a document commenting on the laws of England. Around that time, ahem, a group of folks decided to have a revolution! Yes, you guessed it, we were admiring the grave of the man who wrote a document that largely shaped our Constituion and Declaration of Independence! Don’t know about you, but I never learned about this guy in history class! I also found it fitting that his grave was marked with a black stone. 

I had told Adam about my puritan preacher English ancestors (you’ll learn about them in another post) and he pointed out the eagle statue to the right of the alter. This eagle is a puritanical symbol and also reminds me a lot of eagle symbolism which is common in America. 

We pushed our bikes to a pub on the banks of the Thames.


The line for beer was long, so we again deployed plan B and pedaled over to the town park where a car show was underway.


We topped up with a pint of Fuller’s London Pride – a beer advertised as being made from water out of Thames. The barkeep dubiously confirmed this was true. ­čÖé After admiring the cars a bit, we pedaled out of town for what I thought was an easy run home. Boy, was I wrong. Soon, the elevation began to climb as we trudged up the only hill in the area. I’ll admit that I struggled a bit on trusty Apollo, my wheels for the day. Neither of us was prepared for the climb. We pushed on and soon reached the mountain peak. As I panted to the top Adam explained why we had made the trek. These hills – the clumps as they’re called in the area – are ancient lands where the Celtic people lived and shaped the land into defensible forts. We also had a chance to admire views of the valley and Thames below.


The rest of the trip was smooth sailing. We flew downhill and what happened next was one of the coolest moments of the day. Three white swans flew direcrly over us, not more than 10 feet above our heads. I listened blissfully to the flapping of their wings and gentle honking sounds. I have never seen swans flying before, a rare, delightful sight!

We made our final dead guy stop in Adam’s church graveyard. This one surprised me the most, and I can’t explain why I was so surprised, but I was!


Here we met none other than Eric Blair (pen name: George Orwell!). The author of Animal Farm and many other wonderful stories! Once again I was struck by the simplicity of the grave.

Our guide had again planned well and there was a pub right next to the cemetery. This one had my favorite name of the day: the George and Dragon. 


We had just 20 minutes before the roast would be served. Barely enough time to chill on the grass for our final half pint. I couldn’t resist a pour of Thatchers cider knowing we would pedal back by the thatched roof house on our way home.


As we basked in the final rays of sunshine we reminisced about our adventure. A day filled with wonderful scenery, remarkable literary history, friendly folk and many miles along the beautiful river Thames that ties the shire of Oxford together. Thanks, Adam, for an unforgettable adventure! Until next time, Cheers! 

And if you love the dead guys bike tour idea send me a route for your area and we can set up another!

Surprising Slovenia

Surprising Slovenia

This post is the first in a small series about my long-weekend trip to Slovenia. I visited Ljubljana, Bled, Planica and Podkoren. It’s a beautiful country, the people are friendly, the food is good, castles and dragon stories are found in every little valley and mountain region. I highly recommend it for a holiday in the mountains.

Four days ago I landed in Ljubljana, Slovenia to attend the FIS ski-jumping world championship event held at the famous Ski-Flying hill called Planica (here’s the song – more about it later). 

Ski-jumping…. I think I’ve watched it on TV a couple of times. So, why did I travel to Slovenia to watch the final championship event of the year? Well, one day, after moving to Germany I took a long bike ride with a friend I had met years ago on a field trip in California. After riding for a few hours, we stopped for a coffee break at a restaurant next to the trail. As we rested and chatted, she mentioned how much she loved watching ski jumping. Her enthusiasm was contagious and I asked if I could possibly accompany her sometime on a weekend excursion. She said we could discuss it over the coming months, and here we are! Sometimes you just need to jump at life. Why not jump off a high hill with only a pair of skis strapped to your feet?! 

The funniest thing about planning this trip was the reaction I received when I told folks my plans for the weekend. So many people asked if I was going to jump myself! What, are you kidding???!!! I laughed. Then I felt a little bit of pride that people who know me actually thought this was a possibility. Or maybe they were just pointing out the apparent oddness of just spontaneously deciding to head off to Slovenia to watch a ski jumping event. Whatever it was, it made me smile and laugh. So, it was good.

We made our plans, the months passed on the calendar and, finally, last Thursday was the day. We arrived in Ljubljana around noon and headed into the city center to explore.

I hadn’t done any research for this trip – I booked a flight and my friend helped with buying my entry tickets to the ski-jumping event. I had no idea what to expect in the city. As we drove from the airport to the city, I took in the beautiful mountain scenery bordering the valley. After about 20 minutes, we turned off the highway and entered the outskirts of the city. The buildings lacked decoration – a reminder of the stark communist era. Maybe for this reason the city seemed even more magical when we turned a corner and found a bridge guarded by a pair of dragons on each bank of the river.



This was the first of many dragon sightings on this trip. They form a strong theme in Slovenian lore and culture. We roamed around the bridge snapping pictures. Then headed toward an outdoor market to search for some local treasures to remember the trip. The offerings were clothing and fresh produce. Slovenia borders Italy and the market stalls were stocked with tomatoes, strawberries, clementines, carrots, lettuce, and every other vegetable and fruit you could imagine. We decided to stop by on our way out of town and buy some produce for dinner and snacks during our trip.



We noticed a castle on a hill loomed over the city and decided this would be our destination. It was easy to find signs pointing to the castle and we began the long walk up to the top, pausing to admire the unfolding city views and decipher the graffiti lining the walls. The hills were dotted with wildflowers and trees were breaking bud. The sun shone over head and bird song filled the air.




As we reached the top of the hill we looked up at the castle – a quite impressive and well-preserved structure. When we entered inside, we were surprised to find a variety of museums, shops and a restaurant and cafe. We decided to sit outside in the square and take in the warm sun while enjoying a local bier with a super-cool label. You guessed it, more dragons! 


To mix things up, we walked back down the opposite side of the hill and then popped in to town for some shopping along the river banks. 


As afternoon approached evening, the tables outside the cafes began to fill with people. Music flowed through the air. Some bouncinf out of the turn-table of a DJ dressed in a black suit jacket and hip clothes. I was mesmerized by the city scenery and architecture. The colors contrasted with the river and the streets were filled with young people. Energy oozed from the place. At the same time it felt peaceful and calm. An interesting paradox of emotions.


As evening approached, I was sad we needed to leave the city, but it was time to go on to our next destination. We drove through the countryside toward Kranska Gora and our hotel room in a neighboring town. The scenery was beautiful – fields and farm houses. One interesting feature was wooden panels in the fields. My friend told me they’re used to dry the hay after harvest. Apparently, a similar structure is found in Japan’s rice country. That was just the beginning of geologic and natural similarities between this landscape and Japan. It was intriguing to learn how two places so far away could be so alike.

As we neared our hotel, the country roads were lined with billboards promoting the ski-jumping event. 


Anticipation was building, but fortunately the day had been long enough, and our home-made dinner filling enough, that I had no trouble to fall asleep. 



Up next: first day at a ski-jumping event. It was off the rails!

Belgian Bridge City

Belgian Bridge City

As I approach my last 6 months as an expat, I’ve started to plan my weekend trips more deliberately so as to have no regrets. I’ve struggled to balance between the places I want to go and the places I think everyone expects me to go. That might sound odd at first, but I think other expats might understand what I’m feeling. When a person has a chance to live in Europe the first thing they usually do is build a bucket list of the places they’ve heard of, or that a friend visited. As such, the list usually contains primarily typical tourist towns. Some of these are amazing, some are disappointing. Either way, they are often over-run by hoards of tourists. After a couple of trips where I found myself wondering what additional value I was bringing to my life by embarking upon yet another typical American tourists weekend, I started to assess my bucket list through local eyes.

As 2016 turned to 2017, I reflected upon the memeories I had made on my own and with my husband, my parents and fellow expat travelers. Which places were remarkable, which were slightly disappointing? Which places surprised me and which were predictable? Sometimes predictability is good, by the way. How did I want to spend my time in 2017? Did I want to be inside or outside? Did I want to return to places I knew or focus on new adventures? Did I (finally) want to see some good art? After this reflection I started to plan my year.

I decided to visit a different country every month – at first I wanted it to be a completely new country, but the trouble is I’ve visited most of the countries that border Germany. This means it requires more time to travel to a new country – more than I can spare in a weekend trip. Instead I compromised with myself and decided to see a different country every month. In January, I visited the Netherlands – you read about this in my art post. This past weekend I visited Belgium. Actually, I went to Belgium twice in one week. I chock this up to bad planning, but in the end it turned out to be all right. Turns out I really like Belgium!

When I moved to Germany I had planned to spend a weekend in Brussels. The weekend I planned to go fell right before a big work meeting, so I delayed my trip. Then the Paris attacks happened, followed by the attack on the Brussels airport and I did not go to Belgium. I focused my energy elsewhere. Last week I traveled to Gent for a work trip and was so delighted that I planned a weekend in Br├╝gge and Neuiwpoort with my friend Tilghman. 

If you ask a random handful of tourists what the most popular city is for tourism in mainland Europe, I think Paris might be the answer (especially if they’re from America), but Br├╝gge will certainly be coming up in the conversation very soon after. If they’re British, it might be first. Add on top of that visiting on Valentine’s weekend. And, as we discovered when we arrived, the city was hosting an “Urban Trails” night race through the city. Let’s just say there were plenty of people enjoying Br├╝gge with us. 

In spite of the crowds, I can still say I found it to be one of the most charming places I have visited in Europe. What makes it so charming? Well preserved churches, old building in abundance, and the city layout is fascinating with all the buildings constructed continuously, making the entire place feel like a maze where you’re the mouse leisurely racing for the prize of (pick your poison) Trappist bier in a cellar, Belgian chocolate from one of a multitude of shops (seriously there were dozens in this tiny city), or, and this should not be neglected a warm Belgian waffle with cream. Because I’m an equal opportunity kind of a person, I tried out the Trappist bier, chocolate and waffles, and it did not disappoint. I was tempted to sign up for the urban trails race, but it was already fully-booked. Instead I took a morning run through the city, but I’ll get to that later.

As I planned my trip, many people told me it’s no trouble to see all of Br├╝gge in a day, or a few hours, and this is certainly true. We left Dusseldorf at 8:30 – super-early for us – and arrived in town around 11:30, then the fun task of locating parking began. I usually prefer to drive in Europe in order to have flexibility with my travel plans, but parking, parking can sometimes take as long as another train connection! Alas, after about an hour, we finally located parking and could sniff out our first Belgian bier.


We stopped in a place called Cambrius cellars and sat down at a tiny round table next to a young British couple. I remarked at how it was such a mistake to come to Br├╝gge on Valentine’s Day with the hordes of romantics in town. My friend Tilghman said I was being quite a cynic and that’s when I realized they were probably valentines romantics. Oops! Never fear – bier saved my mood. At one point I looked up and was delighted to find lights made out of bier glasses – very clever!


The bier is offered in a larger volume glass – not too much though these Belgian beers are high in alcohol – or a common offer was a paddle of 5 tasters: .15 ml each bier. We ordered a paddle to share. My favorite bier on this weekend adventure was the Timmermans Lambic Faro. Delicious! I also fell in love with sour biers on this trip. The biers were complimented with an assortment of meats, cheese and fruit. A great way to sink ourselves into the city.


Warmed up by our first biers we struck out to accomplish our priorities sight seeing stops.my friend Tilghman and I travel together often and one of the keys to our success is that on the way we decide which 3 to 5 things we must do. It’s impossible to see everything in these towns so it helps us to focus our time and leave time for leisurely photo snapping strolls. 

First stop was at the church of the holy blood. This church houses one of the most important relics held by the Catholic Church. A vial that is said to contain the blood of Christ. I’ll be honest here, I had never even heard of a relic until I started traveling with Tilghman. My first experience with a relic was to see the actual mummified foot of John the Baptist at a church in Budapest. Very strange and thrilling at the same time. Who decided it was important to preserve these bodily items, and then to protect them over the centuries with high levels of devotion? This is very intriguing to me. We were prepared to be disappointed on this Saturday afternoon because the tour book said the relic was on display only on Fridays. We entered the cathedral, admired the stained glass and art work and then noticed a priest standing up on a platform in chapel to the side and a line of people. We realized that the relic was on display. So, of course, we got in line. I will say that it really did look like some sort of coagulated fluids, maybe marrow. But, the most important thing that struck me was the devotion of the people kneeling before the alter and the priest standing there for the day with the sole purpose of protecting the relic.


 We left the church humbled and quiet as we began our walk to see one of the only Michael Angelo pieces outside of Italy: the Madonna and Child. The set up for the art is a bit odd. It’s housed in a cathedral behind what appear to be temporary white wooden walls. The closest you can get to the art piece is about 5 yards. It is protected by a thick piece of plastic. In spite of this, it was a remarkable piece of art and worth the price of admission. Again, it’s amazing that we have been able to preserve this art piece for more than 500 years!


Next stop was chocolate shopping. For this important mission, I had consulted some traveling buddies who always know the best places for things like chocolate, wine and bier. Her advice was to go to “The Chocolate Line“. We stepped in to this decadent den of chocolate, took it in for a bit, then I packed a box for my next trip home and bought a couple to enjoy on the spot. 

As the light began to fade in the city, it seemed like the perfect moment for a canal tour. Surprisingly, the lines were low, which struck me as a bit odd considering that the light was now perfect for reflections on the water. We paid the fare, a reasonable 8 euros, and boarded the boat. The boat driver appeared fluent in about every language he encountered. Since just about everyone on the boat spoke English he narrated our 30 minute tour through the city canal network in Flemish and English. Br├╝gge is known as the Venice of the north due to the extensive canal network that weaves through the city. Definitely a big contributor to the romance and charm. It’s worth taking a canal boat tour.

The oldest bridge in the city dating back to the 14th century.

We left the boat in search of more bier and to scope out a place for dinner. As it turned out, we found them both on the same street: Kuipersstraat. We were warned it could be easy to walk by Le Trappiste – a bier cave serving a variety of Belgian biers. Luckily the sign was well-lit and we descended into the belly of the city. 


The architecture was fabulous, reminding me a bit of the vaulted ceilings of the city churches. And, of course, the bier was great! The bartenders were friendlyand the prices surosignky reasonable. We ordered a paddle of 5 bier tastings and paid 12 euros. Not bad, not bad at all. I’d definitely recommend taking a bit of time to visit this unique bar. 


As you recall the city was full of couples celebrating Valentine’s Day, so it was impossible to get a reservation for dinner. I had popped in to a restaurant on the way to Le Trappiste and booked a table, but I really had my heart set on going a place my friend Katie V recommended – she knows good food! Luckily, as we walked from Le Trappiste to the restaurant, I looked up and saw the sign for ‘t Zwart Huis. I popped in to see if we could get a table. The kind manager seated us at the bar and we enjoyed a delicious local meal of female codfish – apparently a regional specialty only available during the month of February. 

After the long day we headed back to our hotel and found the final groups of Urban Trail racers crossing the finish line. We roamed the streets a bit burning off dinner and snapping pictures of the beautiful nighttime scenery.

One habit I picked up years ago, is to always throw some running shoes and an outfit in my travel bag. I love to strike out on a tourist a run through a new city and take it in. I can cover more ground and I give myself the option to stop whenever I want to take a picture or just admire the scenery, or a bird, or whatever strikes my fancy. On Sunday morning, I woke up to my alarm at 7, pulled on my running clothes, and stumbled downstairs to find a cup of coffee. Fortunately, a pot had been brewed. I threw back a cup, started up map my run, and struck out in a circle around the city. I was thrilled to explore the city at sunrise. The streets were empty of people, giving me a chance to quietly absorb the architectural beauty of the buildings and canals and admire the ducks. Bonus: I burned off the bier and chocolate from the day before and could start with a blank slate.

My goal was to go as far as I could, creating a circle, without consulting a map. My sense of direction has drastically improved living in Europe and it mostly worked out today, until I consulted my map at the end and saw I’d overshot my turn by about a kilometer. Never mind, I retraced my steps and made it back in time to get ready for our next stop at the beach. 

We drove about 30 minutes to Nieuwpoort on the North Sea. Our goal was to find a big breakfast (I’m not sure why we were hungry after all the food the day before…), but it was before 11 am and so it could not be found. An early big breakfast is just not a thing in Europe! We settled for a quick bakery breakfast which turned out to be great because we discovered a delicious fish soup a few hours later for lunch.

I have this running bucket list of places where I’ve stood in the ocean in my bare feet on a new shoreline. Actually, now that I think of it, I haven’t tracked it very well. So, let’s see what I can remember: California, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Hawaii, Oregon, Georgia, Virginia, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, I feel like I’m missing some but that’s good for now. The weather was cold on Sunday, probably around 30 F on the beach. But, I knew, I just knew, that I couldn’t let myself down. So I pulled off my shoes and tights, awkwardly, fortunately I had a long coat on… (yes, I picked the wrong day to wear a dress and tights) and ran in to the ocean. Tilghman, of course had to follow my lead. We’re both ocean people. And we laughed as we froze our toes in the North Sea. Now I can add Belgium to my list.


After freezing our toes we rambled along the beach searching for shells en route to a pier. As we walked, the sun came and went, occasionally peeking between the clouds and lighting up the drifts of broken razor clam shells on the beach. A couple of guys were kite-skating (I guess that’s what it was) on the beach riding on modified skate boards. Wow that looked fun! 


As we walked along the pier we observed the gulls and shore birds below hunting for food and when I reached the end a gull visited me for a science lesson. He bounced along the railing and after a few minutes made a funny movement of his head, stretching out his neck before promptly regurgitating a pile of shells. So, that explained the strange clumps of broken shells along the railing. It appears that the birds would harvest shells off the rocks. Grind down the shells in their crop to harvest the meat and then regurgitate the remains. Pretty cool!


After the lovely science lesson my bird friend flew away, and we realized we were COLD! Time for soup and shopping. Then the drive back to Dusseldorf.

I returned home satisfied with the weekend and reflecting on the friendly people I met in Belgium during my two visits last week. A lovely country, worth a visit.

Paralyzing Prague

Rain
Sun
Laughter
Tears
Simplicity
Luxury
Prague is a city ripe with contrasts.

Beer flows and the babble of a hundred languages saturates the air. City squares pulse with people, necks bent, faces tipped upward admiring buildings looming overhead. To call these works of art buildings is to fall short of their grandeur.
For these are much more than buildings. These are structures, elaborately and painstakingly decorated to send a message to every soul who gazes their direction.
“I am important” they scream.
“I am valuable” they bellow.
The noise too intense, I flee the city center for a quieter part of town.
Here I find a green oasis rising above the city, hillsides cut with cobblestone switchbacks. Climbing to the top, I look down upon the luxurious city skyline and my ears are filled with whispers of trees, birdsong, the stirring of grass. I study the green space and find a welcome respite from the cacophony of buildings and people.
Slowly, carefully, I stride down the hill, picking my steps across the slippery stones. Hands hovering at my side, ready to catch me should I spill.
On the climb up, I felt bold, each step placed with confidence. Now, descending, I step lightly, careful to avoid a mistake.
As I near the bottom, the volume of the city increases. The rumbling of a train fills my ears as it rushes by. Through steamed windows I peer a crowd of passengers. I can almost smell the sweat and closeness of the people. People once again crowd into my camera viewfinder.
As the rain builds, I search for my next escape and quickly duck into a quiet art shop. The city is filled with Ateliers hawking pens, pencils, notebooks and canvases. This place compels creativity. It appears to be bursting from every corner.
Perhaps I misinterpreted the message of the fine buildings in the squares. Perhaps they spoke another message. Do they instead call upon us to reach deep inside, into the messy, beautiful part of each of us and pour ourselves into paper as art, words, expressions of our love for the world?
Perhaps it’s time to adjust the signal, listen differently. Find the quiet places to complemplate the noise and translate the message.

Doors

Doors

 

Today a friend posted a picture of a beautiful door – coated in a fading azure blue paint. The top of the door was rounded and I thought, if I saw that door I also would have stopped on my stroll and snapped a photo. This got me to wondering about why I’m so fascinating with doors. It’s a rare day when I walk through a new place without admiring a beautiful doorway or going so far as to pull out my iPhone for a picture.

Why?

Why the fascinations with doors?

There are very few things that are constants in my life – my husband, my parents, my wanderlust, my love of two wheeled transportation (either human or petrol powered), an intense need for time in nature, being in the middle of three books at the same time. Ok, more constants that I thought.

But, taken on the measure, the majority of my life has been a theme of change. Walking through a new door into the unknown, this might be the strongest theme of my life. I’ve lived in 16 homes in 2 countries and 4 US states. It’s possible I forgot a few, but I doubt it. Each of these places has held a special meaning for me and made a little memory bank in my soul.

I’ve experienced living in a variety of conditions – from a cinder block room in a chicken slaughter house, to various styles of apartments, the living room of a lovely English lady named Lilian who was a war survivor and normally boarded to Japanese exchange students but with great trepidation took an American girl as a boarder. This woman was the one who convinced my mother that at 20 I was going to marry my husband. So, if she didn’t want a wedding in Reno she better make me a dress. Incidentally, she also taught me that it’s worth collecting the dripping off of baked chicken in the oven and using it for all sorts of vegetable dishes. Now I split my life between two homes – a lovely country home in North Carolina with the typical southern wrap-around covered porch which I absolutely love, and an apartment in downtown D├╝sseldorf that overlooks a beautiful garten and has a grocery store right up the road. These places are as different as night and day, and both perfect in their own way.

Back to the blue door… They say doors are the window to the soul. Maybe for me behind an old door I will find an old soul. With age comes wisdom, and perhaps this is what I crave, the wisdom that comes from opening a door into the unknown and learning what life will teach me next.

Of Romans, Communists and Christianity

Began this post on Sunday…and I had a lot to say in bits of free time this week.

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A couple of hours ago we arrived in Luxembourg, grabbed a quick lunch and then I started to re-explore the city with my travel companions. As we stood overlooking some of the city views, I realized that I’m feeling a little tired and this afternoon might be a nice time to rest and refresh myself for the week. I decided to be self-aware and take care. So, we made a plan to meet up at the parking garage and I set off in search of a cafe that I fell in love with last time I was exploring the city. Strangely enough, the weather was very similar when I visited last fall, overcast and drizzling, albeit a little colder. On that day, like today, a warm, cozy cafe with good music pumping was the place to be. After a few turns, I found the Konrad Cafe. It is just as I remember! I wish I could transport this place to everywhere I live, although then it might lose its novelty.

imageWe arrived in Luxembourg just after lunch after a fun morning exploring the German city of Trier (pronounced Tree-air). It was a quick spin through the city. We stayed at a hotel in the city center that had a very reasonable rate and nice, clean rooms. The rooms were a little larger than the average German hotel. Last night we had dinner on the Marketplatz while admiring a beautiful sunset.

imageWe wrapped up around 22:00 as the city bells were ringing. I’d read that these bells have rang every day for centuries to tell the city drunks it’s time to go home. Yes, Europe has some long traditions. After dinner we strolled through the city centre, paused to admire some nice courtyards and were walking at a relaxed pace when we heard a small explosion. My fight or flight instinct kicked in and I told my travel companions, “let’s go”. We began to speed up our pace on the 10 minute walk to the hotel. We avoided the city square and got home. When we entered the hotel lobby, I checked at the front counter and on Twitter to see if anything had happened. Fortunately, it was a false alarm, but, seriously, I didn’t want to risk getting caught in the middle of a bad situation. When I travel about now, I’m more alert than ever before. Honestly, being alert helps me feel like it’s still ok to be out and about. I read a blog recently that had some great advice on traveling safely in this changing world. One tip was to monitor your surroundings and always have an exit route mapped out. Once you make this a habit it becomes second nature and then you’re not as worried while you travel. So, like last night, I immediately knew where to go and how to get there without consulting a map. This is also helped by my increasingly good city navigational skills. Traveling around on my own has forced me to rely only on my self to pay attention to surroundings and get from point a to point b. Nice skills to build!

Trier was our destination for a few reasons. 1. I’ve had it on my list since a friend visited a while back and said it was great fun. 2. It’s in a part of Germany I’ve wanted to explore. 3. It’s too far for a day trip, so I wanted to combine it with another destination. On Saturday I went to Nurburgring to cheer on some friends who were racing in the Rad am Ring 24 hour mountain bike race. The race event was fantastic! Good enough to deserve its own post, so more about that later.

Then it was a quick drive to Trier – a winning combo. The drive from Nurburing to Trier is stunning. You’ll follow the Mosel during much of the route as you trace a winding highway through beautiful little country villages and herds of happy cows.

Trier itself is a small town. Touted to be the oldest city in Germany. Established in 12 BC, it housed a population of 40,000 making it one of the largest cities in Rome. Trier also claims the first Christian church in Germany and the birthplace of Karl Marx. As I reflected upon this later, I found it to be an odd trio. How one physical place could be the home of such diverse perspectives on life, society and humanity.

Trier has a rich collection of well-preserved roman ruins – some original and many rebuilt after the war. On the recommendation of a friend I’d thrown my Rick Steve’s guide into my Harley overnight roller bag. I read through it on the way to make a quick plan for our city tour.

Our experience was a great example of the best laid plans gone awry. In this case the reason was pretty odd – we started too early on a Sunday… One of my traveling habits is to accept the little city map that they usually offer at the hotel check-in. Then I’m not constantly consulting a phone while I’m walking about. It’s more relaxing, especially because I’m usually photographing with my Nikon and not my phone.  During breakfast on Sunday, I traced out a route on the little map. The plan was to walk a counter clockwise path around the city sites. Our first stop was the amphitheater. At one time large enough to hold 16,000 people, the remaining structure is worth checking out. We didn’t go inside because we’d spent so much time looking through the fence that by the time the site opened we had seen enough.

The most interesting part of this stop was when I spotted some bumblebees mating on the sidewalk in front of the amphitheater. My inner entomologist came out and I got some great photos of them. My travel buddies were entertained by me kneeling on the ground for macro shots.

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We continued on our route past the Roman museum and then through the city walls toward the imperial throne room / basilica – the largest roman ruin outside of Rome.

As we passed through the city gates we entered a lush green space dominated by a pink building ostentatiously looming above a reflecting pond. I read that this was the palace of the archbishop built in the 1700s as a wing on the basilica.

I felt a need to check the map and confirm that we were heading toward the roman imperial throne room. I was surprised to find it was actually connected to the pink building! It would be hard to find two more different architectural styles joined in one building. I much preferred the roman architecture.

The size of the imperial throne building is hard to describe. You’ll get a sense of it when you try to find me at the bottom of this picture. I’ll be the tiny ant you eventually find in the bottom middle.

 

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imageThe building is huge! Unfortunately we didn’t make it inside because on our first stop we were too early, then when we returned church was in service. I might go back another day.

We then proceeded to the nearby church which is the oldest Christian church in Germany. A beautiful structure. We explored inside and then the bells began to  toll calling the parishioners for Sunday mass. We sat out front and enjoyed the Bells echoing through the square while watching the folks enter the church. Most came by foot, and some by bike.

As the mass preparations were underway, we walked toward Porta Nigra – the old city  gate. The name means black gate and I read conflicting reports of why it has this name – either because it’s black from pollution, or from the fungus growing in the stone. Either way, it’s a nicely preserved structure and it’s worth the 4 euros entrance fee. His building was also at one time converted to a church. Ironic that Romans killed Christ, but eventually most of their structures were eventually co-opted by Christianity.

By now it was threatening rain, so it wasn’t a bad time for our final stop, which was to visit the birthplace and childhood home of Karl Marx. Honestly, I didn’t know much about communism before entering the museum. I probably wouldn’t have gone inside but one of my travel buddies is originally from China and he was very excited to explore the house. He was even kind enough to pay entry fees for all of us and we also were given English language audio guides. All the displays are in German language with some Chinese translations.

The museum is hugely popular with Chinese tourists and I saw more than I’ve seen in all of Germany so far. The museum does a great job exploring the life of Karl Marx and his legacy. I couldn’t help but think he left a sad legacy – a trail of death and disillusionment in his wake. My Chinese travel colleague left China to live in the US largely because of communists ideals and how much they limit freedom. As he described it the fundamental precepts of communism are not accurate and it’s a failed ideology. I picked up a copy of the Original Communist Manifesto to read and understand for myself an ideology that once held such a strong grip on the world and still causes much suffering even today. I would recommend to check out the museum which had a rich collection of images and texts putting into context many key historical events. It reminded me a little of the experience in the Museo Picasso which also was exclusively focused on one remarkable individuals contributions to society.

As we walked out of the museum rain began to fall and it matched my mood, which was now contemplative and a little sad. Contemplating the rich history of this place and all the people who have lived along the Mosel. Sad because of the legacy of communism and the influence one persons ideas can have on society. Mostly though I was sleepy and a little annoyed that both my umbrella and my rain coat were in the hotel room… Oh well, next time I’ll be better prepared for rain, which happens nearly every day in Germany, in case you wondered if the rumor is true…

Falcon hunt

Falcon hunt

Sometimes I plan my travels a little like my husband picks out movies to watch with me. I pull out my iPhone, open up Google, and enter “movie times” into the search box. Then I read to him the titles that sound interesting to me. If a title also peaks his interest, then I proceed to read the movie description and maybe watch a trailer, but this is where our experience differs. He doesn’t want to hear the description or watch the trailer – he wants it to be a surprise from the opening credits to the final scene. I love this about him, by the way.

Last Sunday, I took that same approach to travel. I knew the name of the city, I knew a castle would be involved (ok, I’m in Germany that shouldn’t be a surprise) and I knew I had a good guide. So, I set the alarm for 8 am, barely caught my train at 8:43, and met my travel buddy and her husband for a regional train to Bruehl. This trip has been in the works for about 9 months. The idea developed when I had a welcome to Germany lunch with a colleague I had met a few years back at a project meeting. When I arrived in Germany we met for lunch and he talked fondly about his hometown of Bruehl. Then he offered to host me for a day when the weather was nice in summer. Sunday was the perfect summer day for a stroll through Bruehl.

We originally planned to take an ICE train, they’re quick, but also expensive. Instead we selected a slightly slower, but much more economical option of a regional train. With a group of up to 5 people it’s possible to buy a day pass and save considerably on the fare. The train went fine, except on the way back when there was a problem on the tracks, but eventually we made it home. My friend met us at the platform and we walked into town. The first thing we encountered was the castle, directly across from the train station.

As we walked up our guide began to share the history of this place. The castle was built by a Baron in the 1600s as his summer home. He modeled the architecture after Versailles. I’ve never visited Versailles but my fellow travelers confirmed the similar style. We went into the gift shop and purchased a 60 minute tour pass. A 90 minute tour is also an option but it had already started. Since we had a few minutes before the tour we first explored the grounds outside the castle.


Adjoining the castle is a beautiful English garden that was designed to look like an embroidery pattern. They did a pretty nice job laying it out and the flowers and fountains were beautiful.


Inside the castle we picked up some English language audio guides. The main tour guide spoke German, and she was fast! I toggled between listening to the English audio guide, attempting to understand the German tour guide, and the occasional translation from my colleague. It was a great tour. No pictures allowed so you’ll have to visit yourself. The things I loved were the many nature-themed elements. 

When the Baron visited the castle in the summer the main purpose was to host falcon hunts. Apparently skill as a falconer was necessary for success in political life in Germany at this time. The Falcons were trained to hunt blue herons in trios – two Falcons distracted the bird while a third went in for the attack. After the bird was captured, the falconer banded the leg with his band to show he had successfully captured it. After banding it was released to the wild. I’d never heard of this type of hunting sport and learned it was started by the Romans. Nearly every room in the castle had some sort of art or design element that spoke of Falcons or herons – these ranged from paintings to delft blue tiles from Holland to tapestries. The theme became stronger when we visited Falconlust – the small hunting castle on the grounds. 

We learned that before reunification, Bonn was the seat of government and the German president used this castle to host visiting heads of state – including Reagan and Carter. The marble entry stairway was frankly stunning! I’ve hardly witnessed a more opulent design.


When we walked outside my colleague pointed out some fun-facts like this one. Study the castle. Count the windows to the left of the architectural feature, then count the number to the right. You’ll notice 5 to the left and 4 to the right. This happened because the baron began to run out of money during construction. The castle contains only one piece of furniture that was used by the baton – a writing desk. This is because his ancestors sold off his furniture to pay off his debts after he died. It appears to be a timeless story that when you have it all you still want more…

After we completed our tour we began the 1 kilometer walk to the smaller hunting castle called Falconlust. The walk is a beautiful stroll through the grounds and we were blessed with lovely weather. I particularly admire the keyhole type element the trees created as you can see in the photo above. It reminded me of something I saw in Rome.

We came to the end of the woods path and crossed a road and some train tracks following the signs to Falconlust. I have to admit I couldn’t help but think that in the US there would have been a shuttle service offered for such a long walk. I was glad that all we encountered were other people taking a relaxed walk between the castles. As we walked we passed potato and sugar beet fields.

Finally the hunting castle came in to view. My guide remarked that would be a big enough castle for him and I pointed out that quite a few private homes in the US are just about the size of this place. Really, it’s gotten a little out of hand I think…this place though, wow, I was very impressed by the strong singular focus on one theme – hunting Falcons. Again no photos allowed, you’ll need to see it with your own eyes.


The castle was really worth the walk and it made me want learn more about falconry. If you’re ever in the Rhein region, perhaps staying in Cologne and you have a nice day available to explore I’d recommend hopping the train the Bruehl to explore this gem. You’ll be impressed.