Posted by: Mary | December 20, 2012

Not All Christmas Markets Are Created Equal

In 2003, I went to Prague in early December.  I didn’t know about their Christmas markets throughout the city when I planned the trip, but discovered them during the week’s stay.  There was an ice skating rink, roasted chestnuts, food and wine booths, and lots of Christmas crafts and gifts to buy.  My sister and I had a great time in Prague and the Christmas market was an added bonus.  We bought several gifts to bring home.

Last year, I planned an entire trip around the Christmas markets in Germany and Strasbourg (France).  Most of the markets were large and filled with food booths, Glühwein, Kinder Punch, and lots to buy.  There were Christmas ornaments, lights and decorations, gloves, scarves, candles, food items, etc.  There was plenty of variety at each market, but much of what was offered at one large market was offered at others.  During the day, they weren’t too busy, but at night, everyone came out to socialize, eat and drink.  The atmosphere was festive and each booth was decorated in a unique fashion…some quite extravagant.  Some of the smaller towns also held Christmas markets, but were such a small-scale that they were really focused on the eating, drinking and socializing, and not on the shopping.  (See my previous posts on a number of these markets for more information.)

This year, a friend and I planned a trip to Spain and scheduled it to coincide with their Christmas markets.  Barcelona held a market just outside La Sagrada Familia and Madrid’s large Christmas market was held in Plaza Mayor.  We weren’t sure what to expect, but it was quite different form the markets in Germany.  There was hardly any food or drink for sale, and very little variety of items for sale.  Most everything were Christmas decorations for people who live nearby or nativity scenes.  It seems to be tradition that when children leave their parents home, they start their own nativity scene.

These nativity scenes were pretty extravagant and were more like full villages.  There were several styles to choose from, and you could purchase multiple buildings, villagers going about their daily lives, livestock, produce, etc.  In Madrid, we noticed that the market had more of a carnival atmosphere with lots of cheap plastic toys for sale, along with balloons and colorful wigs.  There were a number of street performers and people dressed up as cartoon characters.  There were also lots of cheap, brightly colored wigs for sale, which were popular with children.

The bottom line is that the Christmas markets in each country can be quite different, even if the descriptions you find on websites make them sound similar.  If you’re going to plan a trip around Christmas markets, especially for shopping, do your research to plan the trip that’s right for you.

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Posted by: Mary | November 8, 2012

Does it Snow in Venice?

When I tell people that my sister and I once got stuck in Venice, Italy due to the snow, I always hear the same thing.  “I didn’t think it snowed in Venice!”  Neither did we until we found out first hand.  We spent a week in Venice in February 2005 and the first several days were cold but dry.  Then one morning, we woke up and I hear my sister say “it’s snowing”.  I got so excited that I took out my camera and took pictures of the little bit of snow on the roof top below our hotel room window.

By the time we finished breakfast and headed out for the day, it was still snowing, and it was sticking! It made for such a beautiful, magical sight.  Unfortunately, this trip was just prior to the purchase of my first digital camera, so I didn’t take nearly as many photos as I do now, and I had no way to know if my photos turned out.  Only a few did.  the others have large white dots.

For those who have never seen Venice in the snow, here are two of my better photos. (Click on them to enlarge.)

Posted by: Mary | November 7, 2012

The Florida Keys Brighten Up London’s Grey Days

Florida Keys Taxi Ad

Florida Keys London Taxi Ad

I always find it interesting to see what’s being advertised in other countries and I’m especially interested in the travel ads.  They often provide some insight into the popular vacation destinations for the people living in the region I’m visiting and sometimes I discover someplace I hadn’t known about before.  I saw this ad on a taxi in London and it really stood out because it was so brightly colored among the other vehicles, especially the black taxis.  I had to do a double-take because I hadn’t expected an advertisement for a U.S. destination when there are so many other sunny destinations in Europe so close by.

The colors really do represent the Florida Keys and brighten up an otherwise grey day in London.

Posted by: Mary | October 30, 2012

Historic Yorktown

Originally published on my private blog on February 28, 2010

On the fourth day of our trip to historic Virginia, we set out to visit the Yorktown Victory Center and the Yorktown National Battlefield, the site of the last major battle of the Revolutionary War. The Victory center was a great museum of the history of the Revolutionary War up through the adoption of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It was worth spending a couple of hours and watching the brief video.

Outside, there was a replica of a military camp. Staff in period dress answered questions and made presentations about the doctor’s tent, cooking food, women and Native Americans who followed the camp to handle laundry, etc and a demonstration of firing a rifle.  There’s also a replica of a farm from the period, showing how Americans lived during the period around the Revolutionary War.

By the time we finished at the Victory Center, we were hungry and headed to the nearby Yorktown Pub. We had a great view of the York River and after lunch, we walked out for a few photos on the most historic beach in America. It’s hard to believe that so many ships were sunk in that river and remain there today.

Our last stop was the Yorktown National Battlefield, where we took a guided tour by a park ranger who really loves his job and was very enthusiastic about telling the story of the Battle of Yorktown. He really brought history to life and we made it through an hour in the cold and wind without hardly noticing. I’d highly recommend that anyone visiting take advantage of the ranger tour, as you will get so much more out of the visit than you would if you make the trip on your own.  When the ranger was finished, we had just enough time to drive through the battlefield route to see some of the sights, but not enough time before the sun set to take the audio guide tour in our car.

For those really interested in history, I’d suggest breaking up these sites over two days so that you can do the audio guide car tour to make the most of your trip.  Tickets are good for seven consecutive days and there are multiple passes available that include combinations of Jamestown, Yorktown and Williamsburg over seven days.  We made this trip with our nearly 15-year-old niece and four straight days of history was as much as she could handle, but if you are taking kids and have more time, breaking up the sites over a week would work well.

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Posted by: Mary | October 24, 2012

Autumn in the Midwest

I just got back from a short business trip to Indianapolis.  In trying to make the most of my time out there, I booked a redeye flight (ugh!) out just after midnight Friday morning and landed in “Indy” at 10:30am.  I picked up my rental car and headed off for a four-hour drive (that turned into a five-hour drive due to road construction) to the Bowling Green, Ohio area to visit some friends.  After I got out of the city, I began to notice the beautiful Fall colors on the trees and wished I could snap a quick photo to remind me of how pretty it was.  Of course, there is no place to pull over on the highway for a photo and I started to realize how rural the area was when I noticed that the exits were miles apart with nothing but farm land around.

Maumee River in Autumn

Maumee River in Autumn

I loved the farm houses and the barns, especially the ones that look like traditional red barns surrounded by corn fields.  This time of year, they are even more picture-perfect with the Fall leaves in their shades of red, gold and green.  I also noticed how flat the landscape was.  I live in a state with lots of hills and mountains and am so used to seeing them that I don’t notice it anymore until I’m someplace flat, like the Midwest.

Farm in Ohio

Farm in Ohio

The weather was rainy off and on both Friday and Saturday, so we didn’t go out much, but I had a lovely visit with my friends and then it was Sunday and time to head back to Indianapolis for my conference.  The weather was clear and had warmed up, and I was able to stop along the rural highway outside of Bowling Green for a few photos that don’t really do the landscape justice.  They’re also taken through the car’s windshield, so there’s the occasional splatter from the bugs, but they serve my purpose to remind me of how beautiful the colors were.

Red Barn in Ohio

Red Barn in Ohio

For those who live in areas with real seasons, you may not notice the colors or be as impressed with them as I was (like the way I don’t notice our hills and mountains all the time), but in California, our seasons are mild and while some of the trees do change colors and many lose their leaves, it’s nothing like the Midwest or East coast.  While the highlight of the weekend trip was visiting with friends, the drive with its beautiful landscape was a close second!

Posted by: Mary | October 9, 2012

Change of seasons in the “Mile High City”

Last Monday, I arrived in Denver for a business trip and it was a beautiful 85F outside.  For two lovely days, I experienced summer in Denver (when I was able to get outside).  On Wednesday, the temperature dropped by about 30 degrees, and by Thursday night, we received snow.  That’s right, snow!  In less than 48 hours, we went from summer to winter.  Living in California, I’m not used to such a drastic change of seasons practically overnight, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for it.  I had last checked the weather about four days prior to departure and it showed sunny weather in the mid-70 to mid-80 degree range.

Here’s my tip for anyone planning a trip to Denver in the Fall.  Pack in layers and expect the unexpected!

Posted by: Mary | September 23, 2012

Oklahoma City Never Made My Bucket List, But….

Oklahoma City Federal Memorial 9:01 Gate

Oklahoma City Federal Memorial 9:01 Gate

Oklahoma City Federal Memorial 9:03 Gate

Oklahoma City Federal Memorial 9:03 Gate

I never thought that Oklahoma City was Bucket list-worthy for me, but had a business trip out there for two days last week.  On our first day, we finished early enough to make it out to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum before dinner.  We had about an hour and 20 minutes, which was just a little too short.  I’d suggest allowing an hour and a half.  We started our visit at the outdoor memorial, with a reflection pool flanked by two gates – the 9:01 gate and the 9:03 gate – which mark the moment of destruction at the site.  It was at 9:02am on April 19, 1995 that Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, ultimately killing 168 people and injuring over 800 more.

Oklahoma City Federal Memorial - Field of Empty Chairs

Oklahoma City Federal Memorial – Field of Empty Chairs

Oklahoma City Federal Memorial Survivor's Tree

Oklahoma City Federal Memorial Survivor’s Tree

Along one side of the memorial is the Field of Empty Chairs, 168 chairs representing each person who died in the attack.  They are arranged by the floor on which the person was located, with smaller chairs representing the 19 children from the daycare center who were among those who perished.  On the other side is the Survivor’s Tree, which survived the attack.  On the east end next to the gate is the Survivor’s Wall, the only portion of the original building wall that still stands today.  Along the outside is a Fence where people can leave tokens of remembrance.  They are collected periodically and stored in the museum’s archive.  It is a moving display that memorialize those who lost their lives on that day in 1995.

Oklahoma City Federal Memorial Fence

Oklahoma City Federal Memorial Fence

Oklahoma City Federal Memorial Survivor's Wall

Oklahoma City Federal Memorial Survivor’s Wall

Inside the museum, the story of the bombing is told, including the police investigation and ultimate conviction of Timothy McVeigh.  Early on, you walk into a room where you listen to the actual recording of the Water Board meeting that started at 9:00am on April 19th, 1995.  Two minutes into the recording, you hear the explosion and then move into the remainder of the exhibit.  There are items that were recovered from the wreckage, as well as photographs and descriptions recounting what happened during the rescue efforts and in the ensuing investigation and trial.  There is also a room with photos of each victim, along with items chosen by their families to represent their lives or their personalities.  In addition to the photographs, there are also videos, including news coverage and interviews from 1995.

Oklahoma City Federal Memorial and Museum

Oklahoma City Federal Memorial and Museum

Oklahoma City Federal Memorial and Museum

Oklahoma City Federal Memorial and Museum

The exhibit is moving and brought tears to the eyes of several in our group.  It is well worth the visit and is an important reminder of what happened on that fateful day in April 1995.  While this single memorial did not put Oklahoma City on my bucket list, it was well worth the visit and I’d highly encourage anyone planning to visit the Oklahoma City area to make time for a visit.  In addition, Oklahoma City has a nice downtown area called Bricktown, with a small river walk, some good restaurants, bars, shopping, and hotels.  There’s also a free trolley that takes you from the memorial to the Bricktown area.

Posted by: Mary | September 17, 2012

View from a Cafe in Quito

View from a Cafe in Quito

View from a Cafe in Quito

In 2008, I spent 10 days visiting Ecuador with my friend, “D”.  One morning, we walked to a cafe up on a hill for a late breakfast with a spectacular view of the city.  When we were finished and ready to start our day, I made a quick stop at the restroom.  When I came back, this was my view of our table and D taking in the view.  It’s still one of my favorite photos.

Posted by: Mary | September 12, 2012

Goodbye Free Transit in Portland and Seattle

Since 1973, Seattle has offered free public transit in its “Ride Free Area” and Portland has done the same in its “Fareless Square” area of downtown for nearly as long.  As of September, 1st, TriMet raised fares and eliminated the “Free Rail Zone” in Fareless Square in order to make up budget shortfalls.  Seattle will follow suit within a month.  Sadly, this free public transit is a loss to the many tourists who use it to visit the major sites in the downtown areas of these two cities, and to visit shops and restaurants (not to mention the employees of companies in the area who use it to get to lunch or run errands).  

If you’re a frequent visitor to either city, take note of this change and be sure to purchase a ticket or you may face a fine. One of the great cost benefits of Portland’s TriMet public transportation still in existence is that a 2 hour ticket for an “Honored Citizen” (65+) is still only $1 and a day pass is only $2.  That’s a bargain for honored citizens and visitors alike!

Posted by: Mary | September 11, 2012

Planning for Spain

My friend, “M”, and I got together last night to begin planning for our trip to Spain in December. We’ll be flying into Barcelona and out of Madrid, with a short flight between the two cities. There’s so much to see in Barcelona that it will be really hard to narrow it down to the highlights that we each most want to see. We both expect to visit these cities again someday, so we don’t have to pack everything in, but it’s hard not to want to see it all.  Of course, we both really want to see the Gaudi architecture, so Casa Mila (La Pedrera) and La Sagrada Familia are high on our list, as well as Park Güell.  We also both want to go to La Boqueria, Barri Gòtic and the Illa de la Discòrdia (Block of Discord), and we want to visit the La Seu Cathedral of Barcelona. Fortunately, the Christmas markets are located near the sites that are on the top of our list, so we should be able to do a little shopping in between sites and then come back in the evenings for the food and atmosphere.

We plan to spend only one full day site seeing in Madrid, and may have some time in the evenings there, too. In Madrid, the Museo Nacional del Prado tops the list, followed by the Palacio Real de Madrid and the Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de la Almudena.  We’ll also check out the Christmas Market in Plaza Mayor.  We will be making a day trip to Segovia to see the Roman aqueduct, the Segovia Cathedral and the Alcázar de Segovia.  After checking out photos of these places, they are a “must see” on this trip.  Our other day trip will be to Toldeo, where we plan to visit the Cathedral of St. Mary of Toledo and the Alcázar.  We’d also like to see the Gate of Bisagra and the Bridges of Alcántara and San Martin.

With only one full week, it’s a lot to pack in, but seems doable.  Of course, as we go along, if other things catch our interest or different opportunities present themselves, we’re both open to changing plans.  And who knows what recommendations we may receive between now and then!

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