Tracing my roots

Tracing my roots

A topographic map of Thacher Island and the Thacher family crest graced the walls of my grandpa Thacher’s home office. As I child, I found these to be curious, but, admittedly they were lost in a flurry of exotic items from around the world that filled my grandparents house. 

My grandparents were travelers. After they retired, which was probably before I was born, they bought a big long RV and took road trips across America. They also flew to far away places like Taiwan and Japan. They boarded cruise ships to Mexico and the Bahamas. Basically, they were always on the road and they brought back items from these far flung places – items which I studied with great interest, but could never, ever touch. This was forbidden! Their’s was a delicate house filled with glass curio cabinets in which we careful trod with our hands clasped tightly by our sides. 

I don’t remember my grandparents talking with me much about our ancestry, but when my grandmother passed, my father kept the box of family papers for safe keeping. Before I moved to Europe, he gave them to me in the distant possibility that I might go and visit the home of our ancestors in England. 

The box of papers sat in my attic and I nearly forgot about them. Until I started to plan our trip to England to visit my friend Adam. I recalled the Thacher Family hailed from England. So, in the last few hours of my trip home, I climbed the stairs to our attic and pulled out the box of papers. I pulled out the file, which was larger than I expected, and found a precisely organized stack of papers: a genealogy, a family history written by John Totten, and even an envelope of lovely old black and white family photos captured outside a farmhouse somewhere in middle America.

I didn’t want to risk taking the documents to Germany with me, too precious to loose, so I snapped some photos with my iPhone before we rushed off to the airport.

I noted the town where my oldest documented ancestor: Reverend Peter Thacher I, had lived: Queen Camel. After I settled back in to my apartment in Germany, I asked my husband if he would be ok with replacing a night in Liverpool with a night in this tiny town in the heart of Somerset county. Adventurer that he is, he agreed and I opened google maps and found the only hotel in town – the Mildmay Arms. There was no website, only a number to call. Straight-away I dialed them up and booked a room. Excitedly, I told the lady at the other end of the line my family story and she made a meek attempt to feign interest. I, for one, was floating! I could not believe I would soon walk in the town where my ancestors stood in the 1500’s!

But before we went to the town we enjoyed our Dead Guys Bike Tour of Oxford with Adam, followed by a few days hiking in the Lakes District. Finally the sun rose on the appointed day. It was time to visit the birthplace of Thachers!

Our journey took us south on the M5. Instantly, the Lake District fells disappeared below the horizon. I wondered if our near brush with death on the striding edge of Helvelyn had been a dream? We passed through industrial Birmingham before exiting the motorway in Bristol. As the streets narrowed, the number of pedestrians increased. The time was mid-afternoon and school kids in uniforms, reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, roamed the streets in packs headed for home.

We patiently sat in after school traffic and admired the interesting architecture.

Soon, we left behind the city and entered the beautiful, hilly countryside of Somerset county. The number of cows soon surpassed the number of people. As the kilometers clicked by, I anxiously searched the road signs for the first indications of Queen Camel. 

As we made our approach to town, we marveled at the beautiful scenery. Hedgerows butted up to rolling hills, carpeted in green grass, dotted with lush trees.

We entered the north side of Queen Camel via High Street – the English version of Main Street, and saw St. Barnabas Church on the left.  St. Barnabas is the church where my ancestor Reverend Peter Thacher I was the vicar commencing in 1574 and continuing for nearly all of his adult life.

We parked in front of the Mildmay Arms, I grabbed my camera, and we walked directly to the church. Hoping it was open!

The sun was shining and it was a gorgeous day! I walked up to the closed church doors, pushed on the latch, and was delighted when it opened with a solid click.

I had read in the family narrative written by John Totten that John Thacher – one of the sons of Peter and the brother of my ancestor who had sailed to America – Antony – was buried in the church and his headstone was inside the door. As I opened the interior doors to enter the sanctuary, I looked down and there it was! Even with the proper spelling of Thacher, which is often misspelled Thatcher. Our family name comes from the trade of making Thatched roofs. At some point Peter departed from the trade and became a Puritan preacher, his sons followed in his path – studying the ministry at Oxford.

The church was empty and we slowly roamed in the quiet space admiring the architecture and searching for other signs of my family heritage. 

We found a plaque commemorating the visit of another Thacher relative from Florida. We learned that he made donations that contributed to the creation of a small chapel which is called the Thacher chapel and is used for small services.

Around the corner from the commemorative plaque we found a roster of church preachers.

I eagerly searched the list and quickly found the name of Peter Thatcher, 1574. Again, the spelling was wrong but, enough genealogy work has proven that it’s the same guy.

We continued to slowly roam around the church and I admired the detailed wooden carvings and decorations.

We met a deacon who is one of the church caretakers and he explained a bit of the history of the church. It was built in the 1300s and has been through some transformations over the years. When it became a puritanical church in the 1500s, perhaps when Peter was the Vicar, some of the colorful decorations were painted over. These have now been restored to original color and you can see them in this photo.

An eagle hovered behind the pulpit. Adam had informed me that the eagle is a puritan symbol. I wondered if this one went back to the time of Peter?

As we left for the evening, we paused to admire the impressive doors.

We checked in to our room for the night. Then we made our way to the pub at the Mildmay Arms and met some friendly locals. We had some good-natured debates about vocabulary and they pulled out the local translation guide!

The next morning we roamed a bit more and met some friendly cows and another chap who was also on (as he put it) “the dawn patrol”.

The surrounding pastures were connected by walking paths and very interesting steps to make it easier for walkers to cross fences.
We entered back in to town and roamed the streets taking in the beautiful architecture and pausing along the Cam river.

As we ambled through town, we met up with the deacon who was on his way to open the church and he gave me the key to hold! 

We spent our last few moments taking photos and writing postcards in the church cemetery and reflecting on the multitude of changes in the world since this church was built in the 1300’s! 

Finally, we shoved off for the drive to London. It was hard to leave behind lovely Queen Camel. Along the way, we quite by accident stumbled across Stonehenge. So, we stopped to snap a few photos from a pasture road.

As we left behind the beauty and peace of Somerset county I reflected on my ancestry and the courage of my relatives who crossed the ocean in a boat in the 1600s. Only at that moment did I realize that I am perhaps a 20th generation American! No wonder I’m so addicted to Liberty and our American principles. My freedom loving ancestors must have passed down the dominant Rebel/explorer trait. Perhaps I’ll write more about the family history later. Now I’m off to enjoy a rare sunny day in Germany.

The Striding Edge

The Striding Edge

The guidebook warned – “not for people who suffer vertigo”. I’ll say!

Our first hike in the Lakes District was a trek to the peak of Helvellyn. A beauty of a mountain, distinguished as being the favorite hike of William Woodsworth, the romantic poet. Two days before our hike we sat at Adam’s sun room table, fresh pints of English ale within arms reach, carefully studying trail maps. We had 2 full days to explore the wonders of the Lakes and Adam recommended that we make two hikes: Helvellyn and Great Gables. The hikes were expected to take between 4 and 6 hours each. We checked the forecast and the weather promised to be beautiful during our visit. It’s not advised to hike during inclement weather, which I completely understood after we were on the trail!

On the day of our ascent, we started our hike around 9 am, half expecting to get in another hike in the afternoon, on the advisement of Adam who indicated we could cover the trail in a few hours…. 7 hours later, as we hobbled down giant stone steps, our only destination was a shop to acquire a few hard-earned cold British beers and meat pies. But I’m getting ahead of myself, here’s the rest of the story.

We parked in the lovely village of Penrith and asked a local where we could locate the trail head. This is much easier, by the way, in England, where everyone speaks (some version of) English. A brief instruction, “walk up that road, look for the sign” and we were on our way.

Our first encounter was with a friendly couple who spend all their vacations hiking in the Lakes and sleeping in their caravan – the British term for a camper. Genuinely friendly and upbeat people, we had a nice chat as we began our hike and they reconfirmed our path to the peak. They reassured us that we could certainly make it up the striding edge. As we walked, the terrain almost immediately was nearly completely vertical, or at least that’s how it felt to me, and I silently thanked my lucky stars for my months of stair climber training over the winter. We shed our outer layer as our body temperature climbed with the elevation.

Half-way up the first hill, we reached a livestock gate and they split left as we continued up, now moving slightly laterally and a little less steeply up the mountain.

Our first destination was “the hole in the wall”. A curious name, I thought, “why do they call it that?”. Well, actually, because it is, literally, a hole in the stone wall! 

The area is crisscrossed with beautiful hand-built stone walls used to separate pastures which are grazed by sheep. Luckily we arrived on the tail-end of lambing season and our soundtrack for the duration of our visit was the bleats of sheep. Such a lovely sound!

After we climbed across the “hole in the wall”, we marveled at our first views of the peak of Helvellyn – hugging a lake called Red Tarn. 

We paused for a bit to ask a chap to snap a photo of us. 

Then we reciprocated by taking a photo of him for his wife. He had lived in the area for over a decade and was hiking the infamous mountain for his first time. We talked about our impending encounter with the striding edge, and he expressed he was also a bit worried… this did not help!
After a stroll across a high mountain meadow, we were suddenly on the striding edge. Which is basically, a ridge ascent where you climb across rocks with, ocassionally, nearly shear drops that it is best to avoid looking at, if you know what I mean. In the beginning, it was easy going. 

Then, the path narrowed and we began hand-over-hand bouldering, if you will, at great height. 

The most challenging part came when we came down the backside of a rocky ridge requiring quite a bit of triceps and careful foot placement. This is where we met a chap in his 50s who was on his last nerve. We helped him down and he decided he would not continue. It was sad, because we’d met him on our way up the first mountain ascent and he was excited to be finally hiking the mountain after considering it for years. But, as he made the decision to bail out and literally slide down the gravely backside of the mountain mere feet from the summit, my husband and I reflected on the power of intention. When we first met him, he said that he was going to “try” to make it but he wasn’t sure he’d be successful. We, on the other hand, perhaps foolishly, certainly boldly, never doubted our ability to make the ascent. And, you know what, we did!

But first, after we completed the rocky ridge grappling, we needed to make one final push. I’ll admit, seeing a grown man bail out, got to me a bit, so I focused my attention on quickly pushing up the ridge to the peak. Here the trail became more vertical and more of a scramble with lose rocks and not as much solid footing. We charged up quickly, and suddenly we reached the peak.

It was time for lunch and some fellows were rising to continue their hike. We grabbed their spot on the rim to savor the view as we refueled with salami and blue cheese sandwiches. Yes, an admittedly strange combination, which turned out to be delicious! 

After our lunch we spent a bit of time on the peak taking in the views of Ulswater in the distance.

We read a monument to a hiker who died on the mountain and his skeleton was later found because his dog stayed by his side for 3 months! Quite a tale of loyalty, or desperation (she allegedly consumed his flesh), you take your pick.

Fortunately, this was not our day to die, but we weren’t quite certain of this yet. We had ahead of us the descent down the Swiral Edge. Not quite as steep as the striding edge, but challenging, nonetheless. A group of college kids skipped across the rocks and we watched in wonder at their nimble steps.

We found ourselves wondering, where is the trail? Seriously, y’all, I have never encountered such trails in America! It was rather invigorating and felt like a real adventure!

Clouds passed overhead, altering the colors of the landscape moment by moment. As we descended, I snapped photos of the changing scenery. 

We paused for a moment on the banks of the tarn to admire the reflection of the mountain in the water. Then we continued our descent.

For a bit, we climbed out and back, basically up to the hole in the wall. This is where we needed to make a decision – go back the way we came, or take a looping path back to Glenridding. Of course, we went for the loop, we always go for the loop option. The first portion followed the rock wall along the ridge, then made a descent down what could best be described as steps for giants. Huge rocks which basically formed a stairway. By this point we were a bit tired and our feet began to complain about the pounding on the rocks. 

We persisted, occasionally stopping to admire the views and say hello to the sheep. 

After what felt like a very long time of walking down giant steps, we re-entered the valley. The first person we met was a boy and we asked him the way to Penrith. In the most delightful Lakes District accent, he informed us we could either walk up the hill (my legs cried: “please, no more hills”) or along the beck (the local word for river or creek) in to town where we would find a store and then turn right and follow the road to Penrith. We opted for the Beck path and happily soaked in more scenery.

A stop at the market to assess supplies confirmed they had a good selection of beer so we pushed on to our car and then drove back to stock up. We ended the day with beer and reheated meat pies as we soaked up the sunset over Ulswater.

Such a lovely day! We were filled with a sense of accomplishment and a bit of worry about the chap who bailed and went down the side of the hill. We wondered if we should have taken his number to call and make sure he was ok. We also wondered how he felt after bailing halfway and were grateful for our convinction and ability to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

As often happens on a hike in the woods. Once again, the mountain was our teacher and reminded us that a prepared body, supported by a sound mind, can accomplish any challenge.

It was one he** of a day on Helvellyn!

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!


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! 🙂 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. 🙂 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!

A Blooming Good Time

A Blooming Good Time

March rolled around and I noticed flowers were blooming in Düsseldorf. Not just any flowers, these were the ones that sprout from bulbs, which come from Holland. Got me to thinking that I should try to find a weekend to swing up to Keukenhof to visit the flower gardens. It’s been on my list since I started my expat and it slipped away last year, so this spring it was do or die, with respect to, I could possibly die without seeing the flowers at Keukenhof. Which got me to thinking, how badly did I want to see the flowers…? It’s a 2.5 hour drive after all. I decided I did want to see them, bad enough to make the trek.

Then life started to happen, road blocks built themselves and I was forced to set priorities. A trip home, a small head cold, an expat farewell party, a general state of travel exhaustion from constant suitcase loading and unloading… everything seemed to stand in the way of this particular adventure. I decided that if this was going to happen it was going to be a long day trip – not one more night in a hotel for me!

I opened up Viber and shot a message to my travel buddy Tilghman to see if she’d be up for a trip. My compelling pitch consisted of two main points: 1. I’ll drive and 2. I have some podcasts (and I finally figured out how to stream them through my car stereo via Bluetooth…) we can listen to on the way.

She bit, we made a plan, then I woke up super-early (ok, not really true, my cat wakes me up at 5:30 nearly every day, 6 is sleeping-in around here) and I still managed to arrived 10 minutes after our agreed upon 6:30 departure time. Just ask Tilghman, this is my pattern. I predict that she now just waits until 10 minutes after the appointed time to head to our meeting point.

6:30 you say! Yes, 6:30, a time when most Europeans are just entering the REM stage of sleep. We had one goal – beat the crowds. Even at this early hour, we didn’t beat the crowds completely, but a bit, and besides I was awake at 6 (like every other day of my life, just as cat people you know), so no reason to dily daly.

When we arrived we made our first sound decision of the day (right before I decided I was carb loading and bought a waffle with cream). We decided that we would freely and proudly behave like American tourists. What does this mean you ask, no, actually if you are an American living in Europe you know exactly what I mean. At the core of this behavior is being loud, really loud. And, you know what, it felt amazing! Our excuse for being loud was that the hoards of people from all over the world including loads of American tourists, so why not, this was not our moment to follow our usually MO and float around quietly disguising ourselves as polite, unassuming (although still bold in ques) German tourist. We went full-bore American. I discovered Keukenhof had free wifi so we even did a Facebook live session, out-loud, loudly. It was awesome!

But enough intro, on to the important stuff, the blooms! Here’s my first proclamation about Keukenhof – it is everything you have heard and then some! All the rumors are true. It is beautiful. It is a once-in-a-lifetime. It is crowded. It is worth going even though it’s crowded. Yes, the food in the park is overpriced, but you won’t care because you’ll be high on flower blossom perfume. You will not be able to stop compulsively snapping photos. You will wonder how it is that all these people are just casually laying on the hills relaxing, yes relaxing(!), when there are a thousand, no make that at least 100,000 more flowers to photograph. Then you will find yourself laying on the side of a hill, basking in the sun and photographing your feet (basically a foot selfie) with flowers in the background.

What I’m saying is that if Life ever hands you roses, hand them back and say I want tulips. No, in fact, I want to go to the home of the tulips and gaze deeply into their beauty from behind my fancy schmanzy digital camera for hours on end. If there is nothing else you take from this blog, I will feel fulfilled if you ever have a chance to go to Keukenhoff, and you decide to go. It should be on your bucket list and you need to check this one off!

Now, I present to you the evidence. In photographic form of course. What I cannot share through this medium is the smell of the flowers. I have never experienced such a strong aroma of flowers. I truly began to suspect that they piped it in somehow under an imaginary Dutch bubble that surrounds the park. Alas, our canal boat tour guide informed us that locals are so sick and tired of the smell that he can’t wait for it to be over every season. Too much of anything can get old I suppose. Also, I cannot share the taste of the sweet, crunchy, but not too hard, waffles slathered in cream that are so much better than you can ever imagine.

So, get yourself to Keukenhof. If you’re lucky the flowers will all be in bloom and the crowds will be light. Scratch that – this combination will never happen! Just go and accept it for what it is – a huge flower park chock a block full of people from around the world- some friendly, many annoying, but you won’t notice because you’ll be too busy snapping photos to take in anything but the flowers anyhow!

Flying high at Planica, Planica

Flying high at Planica, Planica

“Planica, Planica 

snežena kraljica!” 

The song rolled over in my head as I caught myself humming the rhythm for days after returning from the Planica ski-jumping hill. The first chorus from this polish folk song is played whenever a ski-flyer lands past the 250 meter mark on the famous hill that is called Planica. In sync with the rhythm, hundred of fans waved their country flag: Slovenia, Polska, Austria, Netherlands, Deutschland, Japan, and one lone America flag, happily danced through the air. Music over the speak was accompanied by a variety of noise makers – horns and rattles creating a fantastic unified roar of satisfaction. I wonder now what it sounded like for the fliers clipping out of their skies as they waited for their score. The only jumper who was greeted by almost complete silence was the Russian jumper. Not too many folks cheered for America either. But when a Slovenian flier was on the gate, the crowd went crazy!!! It was a good weekend on the hill, so we heard it A LOT! 

But, let me back up a bit and set the scene. After our half day tour through Ljubljana. we checked in to our room in Podkoren. We stayed at a recently renovated lovely house/hotel that had been in the family for more than 100 years. The house was decorated in local themes – one dominant theme being a carnation flower pattern. As we checked in our lovely and accommodating hosts asked us when we’d like our breakfast. Then we made a little dinner from the foods we’d gathered at the market in Ljubljana and turned in for an early night. The next day we would head to the hill!

The next morning, we used this fantastic European invention (an electric tea kettle) to boil some water. Seriously, I don’t know why we don’t use these in America! Incidentally, I purchased one when I was home for Christmas because I now find life difficult without this kitchen gadget. I stirred up a cup of surprisingly good instant coffee and took a stroll through the town. I often have a hard time sleeping in, even if I’m late to bed, which is why I don’t stay up late too often nowadays. One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to take a sunrise run or walk in the neighborhood where I’m sleeping, which is why I prefer to find a central city hotel, or a place in an interesting neighborhood. Sometimes I meet folks, but often I’ll meet a friendly cat or focus on listening to the birds chattering to each other. I notice more details as I walk with the absence of human interaction – beautiful lace curtains, interesting architectural details on the buildings, slightly hidden political messages in the stickers attached to a power box.

On this morning, as I strolled through town, the sun slowly crested the mountains. As I held my coffee mug in my hand to stay warm, I greeted a man out walking his dog. A few blocks later, I paused to admire some horses in a small corral in the center of town. The town was very small, maybe 10 blocks, and as I made a right turn to loop back toward the hotel for breakfast, I could hear a burbling brook and was delighted to find a functioning sawmill! I took pictures and a small video to send to my dad in Oregon who is a lumberjack and has his own sawmill.

After a delicious breakfast of fresh local farm eggs, local yogurt and delicious Turkish style coffee, we took off for a hike to the ski-jumping hill. This is one thing I loved about the event – the only way to arrive was by shuttle bus, helicopter, or the best way of all, a hike through the forest! Fans proudly flew their flags and happily chatted as they trekked to the ski hill. Some already with a bottle of bier in their hand at 8 in the morning. Yes, I kid you not. The atmosphere was a bit NASCARish. How was it like NASCAR? The first thing is the flags (country flags instead of numbered car flags but some flags were emblazoned with the name of a favorite ski-flier) and country scarfs (in the place of ball caps), copious volumes of bier, greasy food, loud noise (in this case coming from the fans and not the athletes – cars on the tracks), and lots of friendly folk happy to meet fellow fans. 

On the first day the jumping began in the afternoon, so we planned a diversion hike on our way to visit Zelenci Spring – the headwaters of the Danube River. Trees were breaking bud and the forest floor was dotted with wildflowers. Very few people hiked along the same path. We were enveloped in the gentle sounds of the forest. As we walked, we were amazed at the spring scenery because we expected everything to be covered in snow. In fact, the weather seemed a bit strange – it was very warm and sunny and I regretted that I hadn’t packed a light weight long-sleeved hiking shirt to protect my arms from the sun.

As we walked the meandering path to the spring we enjoyed the shade and after a short distance, caught our first glimpse of Zelenci spring – sheltered on one side by trees and opening up onto a meadow with mountains towering above. We approached the spring bank and looked to the left to find an observation tower with some people taking in the views. Ahead of us was a small dock. We walked to the edge, sat down, and swung our boots over the water. After a few minutes the folks in the tower headed off down the trail and we had the spring to ourselves.

I began snapping pictures as we studied the spring, searching for signs of life. After a few moments we spotted a trout swimming through the crystal clear water. Then we saw another, and another. In total we watched about a dozen beautiful trout lazily swimming through the water. Midges danced above the water, providing bait for the fish, who occasionally broke the surface leaving behind circular ripples in the wake of their attack. As we continued gazing in the water we saw caddis fly larvae walking along the floor. Caddis flies are amazing creatures – the larvae build for themselves a case that they carry with them to protect their soft body. The case can be used to identify the location where they live because they use local “supplies” – rocks, twigs, bits of plants – that are glued together with silk. My mind flew back to my aquatic entomology course at UC Davis as I explained to my friend the curious details of the life of a caddis fly.

Time passed quickly as we shared memories of fishing in our home countries. The silence was broken by a runner who burst out from the trees and stopped to say hello. She asked where we were from and we answered Japan and the USA. Her face was puzzled, and we went on to explain our connection via a German employer. As we chatted we discovered that she worked with the US and Canadian ski-jumping teams. We inquired about the health of Kevin Bickner, who had recently had an injury during a jump. I was looking forward to him jumping in the team competition the next day and she reassured me he was in good health and would jump! We snapped a photo for the memories. Then after a quick viewing from the platform, we continued onto Planica.

The trail was now filled with more fans traveling to the event. We strolled up the hills and through a meadow, then a path through the forest and suddenly we were there and I had my first view of a ski-jumping hill! 

What a curious thing it is. A giant piece of ice and snow, striped with lines to mark distances. A narrow ramp at the top from which the jumpers leap after seating themselves on the starting gate – which looked to me to be a relatively small piece of wood. The ramp reminded me a bit of the giant slide at the pool that we all nervously waited in line for as a child. The courage of these jumpers. Hurling themselves through the air at speeds of 100+ km per hour!!!

The sun was beating down on us and I hadn’t brought a hat, so I bought my first souvenir – a felt Slovenian cowboy style hat. My friend bought us a couple of Slovenian team scarfs. We asked a photographer we met to snap our photo and then headed off to set up our viewing station.

My friend had a giant Japanese flag to wave after attaching it to a collapsible fishing post. Such a clever system! I never would have thought of such a thing, but she wasn’t the only one. Dozens of other fans were expanding their fishing poles and hoisting flags to the sky to cheer for their country jumpers.

As the crowds began to grow I ventured off to find lunch. We’d been hiking for a few hours and I’d worked up a hunger, besides I saw people eating these giant sandwich-type things and I was curious to try it out.

Verdict – not sure of the meat source – maybe grilled spam (?) on a focaccia style bread with a curry type sauce, peppers and mustard. It was good! I was now reloaded with energy and ready to cheer!

After a few more minutes, the jumpers began to fly. Between jumps we chatted with the Polish fans who were stationed around us. Friendly folk! German was the common language, although some spoke English, and we chatted about our respective country cultures between loud rounds of cheering for the jumpers. Bier flowed and the sound level climbed. I wasn’t drinking bier in support of my Project Life goals and it made the people watching even more entertaining. 

I used my telephoto lens to snap some photos of the jumpers and also found it served as a nice binocular to get a better view of the jumpers on the top of the hill.

After the jumpers were finished for the day, we hiked back to town to rest up for day 2. During the evening, we watched some local TV coverage of the day and my friend explained to me more about what was happening and how the jumpers were scored. I felt more prepared to watch the next day. It’s not all about distance. Points are deducted depending on the direction and strength of the wind, or the style of the landing. 

The second day was the team event and this was my chance to root for Team USA. I strapped my American flags on to my backpack for our hike to the hill. I’d bought them at Walmart on a recent trip home and was pleased to discover they were actually Made in America!

As we approached the ticket controls, we met a crowd of folks waving Canadian and American flags and enjoyed a round of high-fives. As we set up our cheering station, my friend attached one of my American flags to her pole so we could wave it wildly for the American jumpers.

The jumping began as we walked up and it was a spectacular day at the hill. Team USA wound up placing 7th out of 12 teams, which was a very respectable place for the team. But, the most amazing moment was toward the end of the day. The great Austrian jumper  Stefan Kraft set a new record on the hill. Everyone went wild! Then the next jumper from Poland, beat the new record!!! Everyone went completely nuts at this point!!!! The starting gate was moved to ensure safety of the subsequent jumpers. The guys were practically jumping as far as possible on the hill. Conditions were incredible – the perfect wind.

Jumping ended early-afternoon and we walked down the hill happy and satisfied with the day. After a quick lunch, we hoped in the car and headed off to explore Bled. Bled is fabulous enough o deserve its own post. More on one of the prettiest places on the planet later.

My impressions of a European ski-jumping event. It’s a lively, loud, friendly, rambunctious environment. I was so glad that I took a “leap” and decided to travel with my friend to Planica. As a bonus, the countryside and people of Slovenia are lovely. I’m tempted to return this summer for a visit with my husband.

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!

Tenerife hiking – pick your climate

Tenerife hiking – pick your climate

As demanded…. umm… requested by my buddy Mike, here’s part 2 of our Tenerife island adventure. This installment will focus on the variety of hiking adventure we enjoyed.

Our last episode ended when we arrived at our apartment rental for the week and admired a gorgeous sunset. My memory gets a little hazy here, but I think we were pretty lazy for a good day, or so, as we got our bearings in our new town: Adeje. Conveniently located on the southwest coast of the island. We picked this town because it was near enough to the tourist areas to have (we thought) lots of restaurant options and such. But, far enough away from Los Americanos to be not so touristy. Apparently the tourism barrons have also located this town because directly across from our apartment a Hard Rock casino was under construction. At first I thought it would be loud and annoying, but actually it was pretty interesting since both my husband and I enjoy construction work. Besides, our apartment faced the sea and was in the direction away from the construction and overlooking a small black lava rock bay which we were told was sometimes visited by sea turtles! 

The first couple of days at the apartment the weather was stormy and this caused the water to be cloudy – not ideal for snorkeling. We followed natures lead and relaxed. Soon, the weather cycle broke and we were greeted by sunny days, perfect for hiking. In the morning and evening we often walked on the path shown in the picture above which was also popular for dog walkers and runners. One day we met a cute dog, and his owner, who happened to be German. I asked for recommendations on a good beach to visit, preferably with a fun beach bar and cafe. He said (in German -my translation skills were becoming increasingly more valuable every day) that the best secret beach was in nearby Puertito with a fabulous Bodegon called Pepe y Lola. 

We noted this down as a destination of choice and that evening I began to research securing a permit to go to the top of El Tiede. As it turns out these are not easy to come by. Something like 50 people are allowed to the top each day to decrease the environmental impact of all the tourists. Passes were booked up for at least a month. So, that was out. We figured, well, so, we can’t go to the top, but I bet we can have some spectacular hiking in the park, and that we did!

We drove slightly south and then headed east climbing up the mountain roads to the volcano. I noticed that on this side of the island appeared to have a dryer climate and in the place of banana plantations the roads were bordered by tiered vineyards.

 As we entered the strange landscape of the volcano another rainstorm rolled in revealing other-worldly landscapes shrouded in clouds. 

We stopped to take a picture at the viewing spot for Roques de Garcia. A friendly German tourist snapped a shot for us and unfortunately our heads are completely blocking the rocks… 🙂 We popped back into the car and headed toward the visitor center to grab a map and figure out a good hike for the afternoon. Along the way we saw some incredible green rocks!

The park ranger recommended that we hike a trail called “Arenas Negras” which looped around a small peak. As we started off I noticed a big cloud bank approaching from the south and I fully anticipated we might get socked in my the storm which could likely bring visibility to a minimum as it passed over. This gave some urgency to our hike and we completed the trail much quicker than anticipated. The scenery was spectacular and, expect for passing a couple other hikers, we had the entire trail to ourselves. Quite different than our experience in the touristy valley we had left behind. My kind of hiking! Here’s some of what we saw.

On our way back to the hotel, we looped up for a quick visit to the spectacular rock formation called Los Gigantes – the giants. And giants they are! The cliffs soar over the ocean forming a fierce and unforgiving fortress.

We went to bed craving more time at the volcano, but we clearly wanted to stay away from the crowds, so the next day we headed to a region called Samara. The scenery was incredible – like walking on the moon! It was super cold, probably in the thirties, but the sun shined above us and again we had the trails nearly exclusively to ourselves. A day I will never forget as we crossed the everchanging terrain of volcanic rocks. We saw no less than Six different types of formations. One thing I particular enjoyed was admiring the sharp contrast between the pine trees and the black rocks. As we hiked, El Tiede loomed above us showing off her snowy cap.

I’m off to the gym for my morning workout. Next installment will include our beach hikes and our quick adventure in the Anaga mountains cloud forest.

Here’s a preview…

The next morning we popped into the Dino market and bought a cooler backup, loaded it up with bier and hiked off to the secret beach. The path was surprisingly easy to follow and after about an hour we found ourselves at the beach. Along the way we passed through some small camps. Crumbling brick walls marked the perimeters of old plantations…