Travel Flashback: St. Moritz 2012

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

The exclusive Swiss village of St. Moritz is a very famous mountain resort.  In fact, some say that winter tourism was invented here in the 19th century.  Having that kind of history, as well as hosting the Winter Olympics on two occasions, you can imagine how much it costs to vacation in St. Moritz. When you also consider the strength of the Swiss Franc and the high cost of living in Switzerland…let’s just say St. Moritz will never top the list of budget-friendly ski resorts.

However, it *is* possible to ski here without bankrupting yourself.  My friends and I stayed in the nearby village of Celerina and relied on the very efficient (it is Switzerland, after all) shuttle bus system to get around.   The buses were included with our ski pass, even in the evenings.

At the summit of Piz Nair (Corviglia, St. Moritz, Switzerland)
At the summit of Piz Nair (Corviglia, St. Moritz, Switzerland)

We also stayed in a very “basic” B&B with shared washrooms and shower facilities. We avoided dining in St. Moritz itself, opting instead for local haunts in Celerina and other neighbouring villages such as Samedan. It was also a pleasant surprise to discover that on-mountain lunches in quaint alpine huts were relatively affordable.

We ate outside at this mountain restaurant on Corvatsch
We ate outside at this mountain restaurant near the top of Corvatsch

Was it worth it? Absolutely.  While St. Moritz is full of very wealthy visitors, not that many of them actually ski on the slopes of Corvatsch and Corviglia. There are relatively few lift lines on sunny days (it’s one of the sunniest ski resorts in the world) and no lift lines at all when the weather is less than brilliant. Similarly, hardly anybody bothers to venture out to the remote but thrilling glacier skiing at Diavolezza and Piz Lagalb. We couldn’t believe how often we were the only skiers in the cable cars that were built to accommodate 80 people.

The rest of my ski posse, enjoying an empty cable car at Piz Lagalb (near St. Moritz, Switzerland)
The rest of my ski posse, enjoying an empty cable car at Piz Lagalb (near St. Moritz, Switzerland)

The skiing itself is wonderful too. There may not be a mountain that dominates as much as the Matterhorn (Zermatt) or the Eiger (Grindelwald) but there are still massive peaks in every direction. The pistes aren’t crowded and everybody takes relatively long lunches.  At Diavolezza and Lagalb (see my “About Me” page for another photo from this area), the pistes were basically empty and we were making “first tracks” long after we arrived.

My ski posse at Corvatsch.  Even on a beautiful day like this, the pistes are not crowded at all.
My ski posse at Corvatsch. Even on a beautiful day like this, the pistes are not crowded at all.

6 days of skiing was just enough time to experience all that St. Moritz has to offer.  We spent 2 days in each of the Diavolezza-Lagalb, Corviglia-Piz Nair and Corvatsch ski areas.   The layout of Corviglia-Piz Nair was a little awkward and  accordingly it was probably our least favourite of the three areas.  However, when you made it to the highest pistes, even Corviglia delivered its fair share of “wow” moments.

View from the top of the Corvatsch ski area:  3303 meters above sea level
View from the top of the Corvatsch ski area: 3303 meters (almost 11,000 feet) above sea level

The St. Moritz area is also notable for reasons unrelated to wealth and skiing.  It is one of the areas where  Rumantsch, Switzerland’s fourth language (after German, French and Italian), is spoken.  Rumantsch is spoken by maybe one percent of the Swiss population but is enjoying a renaissance after being discouraged for many years.  It derives from Latin and sounds somewhat like Italian spoken with harsh German consonants…just like Ladin in Val Gardena, Italy.

I'm enjoying the empty slopes at Piz Lagalb!
I’m enjoying the empty slopes at Piz Lagalb!

Actually, because St. Moritz caters so much to foreign tourists (many of whom have relatively little interest in skiing), I think staying in a nearby village is the best way to ski this beautiful terrain while still getting a feel for the local culture.  If you want to see how the truly wealthy guests experience the Swiss Alps, you can still crash one of the opulent hotels.   They usually open their doors to non-guests in the evenings and we took advantage of that at one of the posh Celerina hotels.  It was like stepping back in time to the 1920s, with waiters in tails, salon orchestras, nameplates for guests and the like.   We lingered over our drinks for a long time and enjoyed a “genteel” experience at a budget price.

I don't remember what I was celebrating here, but I'm sure it was very important (Diavolezza, near St. Moritz, Switzerland)
I don’t remember what I was celebrating here, but I’m sure it was very important (Diavolezza, near St. Moritz, Switzerland)

That’s really the key to budget travel:  with a bit of research, you can save bushels of money on food and accommodation but still experience  the essence of almost any place in the world.

Travel Flashback: Iceland 2008

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

After nearly 140 posts, it is finally time to move on from my 2014 travels.   This is the first in a series of “Travel Flashback” posts that revisit some of my pre-2014 travels.  Of course, I still have some  travel plans going forward, so I will report on those too as they happen.

Like most great trips, our trip to Iceland in the summer of 2008 was not the culmination of years of planning.  I had always been intrigued by Iceland but assumed that it would be too expensive for a high-season trip.

Geyser at Geysir, Iceland
Geyser at Geysir, Iceland

Iceland *was* expensive while we were there, as this was just prior to the Icelandic banking crisis of late 2008, but we were prompted to visit by a tremendous promotional airfare from Icelandair.  We committed to our extremely cheap flights about 6 months in advance and began reading up on economical ways to travel through this notoriously expensive country.   In a nutshell: we kept our costs down by utilizing shared bathrooms and eating lots of Thai food.  Iceland has a small Thai community and it turned out that our favourite international cuisine was the cheapest dining option (other than hot dogs)!

It was apparently safe for me to stand this close to a geyser!
It was apparently safe for me to stand this close to a geyser!

We saw so much in Iceland that it is impossible to capture it all in a single post.    How much did we like it?  We often joke about applying for accreditation and/or compensation from the Icelandic tourism authorities, as we have said on many occasions that it was our favourite trip ever.   In short:  if you love the outdoors and have any sort of interest in geology, Iceland is a stunning place to visit.   It may not get hot in the summer (the high was 16’C when we were there) but there is plenty of daylight.   Thanks to the moderating ocean currents, the winters aren’t as cold as you might expect:  we were told that it rarely drops below -10’C.

Seriously big waterfalls (note tiny people near top left) at Gullfoss, Iceland
Seriously big waterfalls (note tiny people near protruding rock at far left) at Gullfoss, Iceland

We flew into the capital city of Reykjavik after a flight of less than 5 hours from Toronto.   Iceland only has about 300,000 inhabitants, two-thirds of whom live in Reykjavik.    This is where you experience cutting-edge urban Iceland.  After a couple of days in the Reykjavik area, we set off on a day-long journey to the northern city of Akureyri.

Our bus, taking a break right in the middle of the bleak Icelandic interior
Our bus taking a break right in the middle of the bleak Icelandic interior, “near” Bláskógabyggð

I’ll focus on the even more spectacular Northern Iceland in a future post.  For today’s post, I’m focusing on the photos from our trans-Icelandic odyssey.    We had not yet been to Nunavut but the Icelandic interior looked like our “mental image” of Canada’s northern tundra.

This is the road we took across Iceland.
This is the road we took across Iceland.

The road is only open for a couple of months of the year.  *Nobody* lives in the interior.  In fact, rather than put them into prison,  it was an ancient Icelandic custom to exile serious criminals to the bleak interior.   If they survived for 20 years, they could return to society.

One of the legendary Icelandic horses (apparently just sleeping) near Gullfoss, Iceland
One of the legendary Icelandic horses (apparently just sleeping) near Gullfoss, Iceland

There is plenty of bizarre geological bubbling, gurgling and exploding in Iceland, as it lies at the intersection of the North American and European plates.  In fact, the word “Geyser” comes from the Icelandic “Geysir”.  Hot springs, geysers and riotously coloured landscapes are everywhere.   So are massive waterfalls…and we saw all of these within the space of a couple of hours, in addition to the stark desolation of the Icelandic tundra.

More bleakness in the Icelandic interior
More bleakness in the Icelandic interior “near” Bláskógabyggð

I’ll eventually write some more about Iceland but the next post will be about something else altogether.   I’ve also just committed to some shorter trips in the next couple of months…stay tuned for a series of surprises!

The Lost Blog Entry from Bosnia & Herzegovina

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

In reviewing my photographs of the past year, I realized that there was still at least one untold story from my visit to Bosnia & Herzegovina. Here is a “previously unpublished” blog entry dating back to April of 2014.

The city of Mostar suffered terribly during the 1990s. I’ve shared some stories and pictures about the destroyed bridge and some of the damage that was done to the people and buildings. But I didn’t say anything about one of the monuments…

View of the "east bank" of Mostar, from the top of the famous Old Bridge
View of the “east bank” of Mostar, from the top of the famous Old Bridge

Yugoslavia was a communist country but it wasn’t really behind the Iron Curtain.  Marshal Tito followed a relatively independent course and, as a result, Yugoslavia was the most accessible of the communist states in Eastern Europe. However, as in most of the communist countries, there were many monuments built in Yugoslavia to commemorate the struggle against fascism during World War II.

Second World War Monument (Trebinje, Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Second World War Anti-Fascist Monument (Trebinje, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

Last year, I published a photograph (see above) of a Yugoslavian era anti-fascist monument in Trebinje. This monument is well maintained and is right in the middle of Trebinje’s main downtown park, suggesting that it is considered to be very important.  However, another (much, much larger) Yugoslavian era anti-fascist monument is located in Mostar.  Unlike Trebinje’s monument, however, the one in Mostar is crumbling, waterlogged, and completely overgrown with weeds. There are no signs showing the way to Mostar’s monument and some maps don’t even include it…despite it being close to downtown and sprawling over the equivalent of several city blocks. How could this happen, when the two cities are in the same country and barely 100 km apart?

Anti-Fascist Monument in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Anti-Fascist Monument in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

The answer is complicated and obscured by past conflicts. In a nutshell, however, one ethnic group is seen as having been sympathetic to the communist cause…while another is seen as having been sympathetic to the fascist cause. As a result, the interest in maintaining anti-fascist monuments varies according to which ethnic group dominates in a particular place. The interest in developing “Yugoslavian Civil War” tourism varies in a similar way, as one ethnic group is not as keen on having its role being placed under scrutiny.   You can imagine how complicated this gets, as there are actually three ethnic groups in Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Overgrown monument in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Near the top of the overgrown anti-fascist monument in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

I was tempted to use quotation marks with put the word “ethnic” in the above paragraph:  you may remember from my earlier posts that these “ethnic” groups historically were essentially the same in appearance and language:  it was mainly religion that divided them.

Looking from the monument itself to the formerly grand entrance (Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Looking from the monument itself down the formerly grand entrance boulevard (Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

Anyway, I spent a fair bit of time exploring and climbing on the Mostar monument.  It is huge and built in an over-the-top style that is typical of communist-era monuments.  I was the only person there:  I saw somebody walking a mean-looking dog there when I first passed by the entrance, but he was gone by the time I visited the park.  It felt really creepy,  as if nobody was really welcome at the monument.  I kept looking around to see if somebody was going to tell me to leave…or even to escort me away from the monument.  That never happened but I would not have been surprised if it did.

A smaller arched bridge in Mostar
Another arched bridge in Mostar

This massive monument would have been a major attraction in other Eastern European countries, as they certainly don’t make monuments like that anymore.  However, the rawness of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s recent past means that it will probably continue to crumble for quite some time.     In the meantime, if you want to see the monument in Mostar, try not to rely too heavily on locally-produced maps:  it is possible that something will be missing.  You may also want to visit with a group and during daylight hours, as I didn’t feel completely safe visiting the site and I think there is only one way to get in and out.

Travel by the Numbers

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Statistics can make for very dry reading.  However, I did promise that I would do a statistical recap at the end of my travel year.  Here are the gory details, along with some previously unpublished photos from Peru’s Sacred Valley!

I had to resist the temptation to visit as many countries as possible during my travel year.  Rather than taking a scorecard or checklist approach, I wanted to focus on memorable and unique experiences.   Despite this lofty goal, I still kept track of the countries I visited…and kept coming back to the “Saskatchewan Question”, as it was the only Canadian province/territory that I had never visited.

First glimpse of the Sacred Valley, just outside of Cusco, Peru
First glimpse of the Sacred Valley, just outside of Cusco, Peru

In the end, I visited 21 distinct countries in 2014:  Canada, the United States, Italy, Vatican City, Austria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Peru, France, Luxembourg, Germany, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Panama and Costa Rica.  However, I visited both Northern Ireland and England within the U.K…which some people would consider two distinct “nations”.   A similar argument could be made for visiting both the Federation and the Republika Srpska within Bosnia & Herzegovina.  I also made it to the United States, the United Kingdom and France on more than one trip.  Alas, I didn’t make it to Saskatchewan.

Some fun hiking at Pisac, Peru
Some fun hiking at Pisac, Peru

I also came very close to visiting some other countries.  I was within a few kilometres of the Nicaraguan border when I was on a river safari in Costa Rica.  I was very close to Belgium during my adventures in France and Luxembourg.  I also tried to go on a day tour to Albania from Montenegro but the tour didn’t run because of insufficient demand.

Ancient rock bridge in front of the ruins at Ollantaytambo (see also photo at top of post)
Ancient rock bridge in front of the ruins at Ollantaytambo, Peru (see also photo at top of post)

Countries I had seriously considered visiting (to the point of checking airfares and flight schedules) included Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Fiji, French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Namibia, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia, Russia, Ukraine, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, Bermuda, Bhutan, the United Arab Emirates and Greenland.   Not a bad list!  However, for various reasons, these countries just weren’t in the cards for 2014.  A number of these places are still in my “someday” category but others have been removed.  I now have a much clearer idea of what I still want to do…as well as the kinds of things that are no longer as important to me.

Incan agricultural terraces near Moray, Peru
Incan agricultural terraces (and tiny people) near Moray, Peru

At the beginning of the year, one of this blog’s readers wondered about how many passport stamps I had in my current passport (at that point:  6) and how many I would end up with at the end of the year.  I didn’t think I would get too many, due to the absence of border formalities within in the European Union.   Nonetheless, I now count 30 stamps in my current Canadian passport, including one from the non-country of Machu Picchu.  A number of airline agents suggested that I should get my battered passport replaced.

Climbing out of the terraces at Moray, Peru
Climbing out of the terraces at Moray, Peru

I love travel but I am really not that keen on flying.  Nonetheless, I took a total of 37 flights between March 2 and December 1, 2014.  It would have been 39 but my flights between Chicago and Memphis were cancelled due to an ice storm! On each trip requiring air travel, I passed through Toronto’s Pearson International Airport at some point.  I prefer taking the train to Dorval and flying out of Trudeau International Airport in Montreal but it just didn’t work out this year.   I only used the Kingston airport on two of my trips,  as I don’t like the very small planes that fly out of here.

At the top edge of the spectacularly sited Moray Salt Pans
At the top edge of the spectacularly sited Moray Salt Pans

The total number of kilometres travelled, the total number of frequent flyer points, the number of restaurant meals…with a bit of digging, I could probably come up with many more statistics-oriented blog entries. However, I think I’ll save those for the book…

More of the Moray Salt Pans
More of the Moray Salt Pans

In the meantime, stay tuned for the previously-unpublished “lost post” from April of 2014 and a collection of posts from non-2014 trips.  I’ve got some very interesting off-the-beaten path travel experiences that I look forward to sharing.

Unique Experiences from my Travel Year

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

An important part of travel is doing things that you just can’t do at home.  This chronological list contains some of those unique experiences that haven’t found their way onto any of my other year-end lists.

The horses who "lifted" us to Armentarola
The horses who “lifted” us to Armentarola

1.  Horse Ski Lift in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy

After skiing for miles and miles to the bottom of the stunningly beautiful “Hidden Valley”, we faced a long, flat traverse to reach the only lift in the area.  We could endure an arduous “skate” to get to Armentarola or we could hitch a ride behind a team of horses.   They loaded up about 20 of us on a series of strong ropes…and away we went!   It wasn’t as unsteady as I thought it might be and we were soon at the base of our next lift.

The briefing room at the Pentagon (Washington, D.C.)
The briefing room at the Pentagon (Washington, D.C.)

2. Tour of the Pentagon

The security was very heavy but not much different from what you would expect at an airport.  In fact, once I was inside, it felt more like a shopping mall with a very large school attached (some of the hallways were more than three football fields long) than a military command centre.   However, our visit was still strictly controlled:  we could not stop walking, not even for a drink of water, nor do I think we saw anything *truly* confidential.  Nonetheless, I felt privileged to be on the inside of the Pentagon:  how many people can journey deep into the bowels of their own military headquarters, never mind those of a foreign country?

Koski Mehmed-Pasha Mosque (Mostar) - was the minaret really leaning that much?
Koski Mehmed-Pasha Mosque (Mostar) – was the minaret really leaning that much?

3.  Climbing to the top of a Minaret (Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

It is not often that non-Muslims can explore an active mosque, let alone climb to the top of its minaret.  However, as the Koski Mehmed-Pasha Mosque in Mostar is also a national monument, such access is granted to visitors for a small fee.  The climb was steep, dark and claustrophobic…and then the exposed platform at the top was flooded and had a very low guard rail.  Fortunately, the view was amazing (see photo at the top of this post)!

Future hurling stars at the Gaelic Athletic Association Museum in Dublin
Future hurling stars at the Gaelic Athletic Association Museum in Dublin

4.  Hurling at the GAA Museum in Dublin, Ireland

While this was not as intense as climbing a minaret or skiing with horses, trying my hand at the very Irish game of hurling was still a unique experience.  I had never played it before, nor had there even been an opportunity,  but I thought I did pretty well at whacking the ball towards the target.  It was a lot of fun, actually, except that I developed blisters on my hands after only a few minutes of thrashing!

Shift change at the Moray Salt Pans (Moray, Peru)
Shift change at the Moray Salt Pans (Moray, Peru)

5.  Wandering Through Peruvian Salt Pans

This was an unearthly experience:  a mysteriously salt-laden stream flows out of a mountain and into acres of pools that have been built below it to trap the salt.  It was ingeniously low-tech and looked like a massive paint set.  Best of all, we were free to wander around on the salt-encrusted walls between each of the pans!  I am still eating the salt that I brought home from here; it’s nice to remind my taste buds of the culinary treasures that I experienced in Peru.

Keystone placed by (and naming) my ancestor Isaac van der Hout (Maassluis, the Netherlands)
Church keystone placed by (and naming) my ancestor Isaac van der Hout more than 400 years ago (Maassluis, the Netherlands)

6.  Reconnecting with my Dutch Family

One of the reasons my wife and I went to the Netherlands was to reconnect with my Dutch relatives as, despite many visits as a youth, I had not been there since 1991.   We ended up touring The Hague and the Westland region for a full day with one cousin, met another in Maassluis, went to a soccer game in Rotterdam with a third, and spent several days in the northern Netherlands with a fourth.  All of these experiences were great; all of my cousins have very nice “significant others” and children as well.  The hospitality was wonderful throughout and I’m really looking forward to seeing each of them again.

Our group heads into the rainy rainforest
Our group heads into the rainy rainforest at Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

7.  Nighttime Reptile-Searching Walk in a Tropical Rainforest

The title says it all…and yes, it was as damp, steamy and creepy as you can imagine!

This is the last of my year-end lists.   Stay tuned for the “statistical summary” of the year, a previously unpublished lost post from April of 2014, and some *new* travel experiences from both the past and the present!

Cultural and Historic Highlights of the Year (Part 2)

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Continuing my chronological list of cultural and historic highlights of the year…

Donwtown Split - my sobe is down the alleyway in the centre left of the picture
Donwtown Split – my sobe is down the alleyway in the centre left of the picture

9.  Split, Croatia – Diocletian’s Palace

While I visited Rome itself very early in the year, I encountered Roman reminders throughout my adventures.  Split, on the Adriatic coast, looks like any other city when you arrive by bus.   Once you get to the walled city, however, it becomes unique. The Roman emperor Diocletian built a massive palace here many centuries ago…and rather than remove it, the locals kept recycling and building on top of it!  It reminded me of the Forum in Rome, except that in Split my room was actually “in” Diocletian’s Palace!

View from the inner wall of Dún Aonghasa
View from the inner wall of Dún Aonghasa

10.  Dún Aonghasa on the top of a cliff on Inis Mór (Aran Islands), Ireland

Dún Aonghasa is a 2,000 year-old fortress located at the highest point of Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland.   The fort is so remote that you must hike up a rocky path:  even my locally-rented bicycle had to be left at the base of the path.  This cliff-top location made the fort impenetrable…until the cliff began to crumble and the fort slowly began to disappear with it.  Only about half of the fortress is left but it is still possible to walk right in and go to the edge of the massive cliff.  No security barriers are here to prevent you from tumbling into the sea below!   This is one of many Irish sites that combined a fascinating cultural/historic site with a stunning setting.

Terraces at Moray, Peru.  Notice how small the people are?
Terraces at Moray, Peru. Notice how small the people are?

11.  Incan Terraces at Moray, Peru

The Incan Empire was around for a very short time; it is remarkable how much they accomplished and learned.  The terraces here were agricultural and not just for show…each level was a microclimate and plant species were moved around in order to adapt them to different altitudes, etc.  Above and beyond that, it was a lot of fun to climb around the terraces using 500 year-old stone ladders!

Climbing the ruins at Ollantaytambo, Peru
Climbing the ruins at Ollantaytambo, Peru

12.  Ollantaytambo, Peru

While not quite on the same scale as Machu Picchu, this was another Incan site that leaves you in awe of that empire’s accomplishments.   People still can’t figure out how (or even why) these structures were built, let alone how they could engineer the site so that nearby mountains would glow on the summer solstice.   Once again, the site was fun to explore even without considering the thought and technology that went into it.  Breathtaking in more ways than one, given the high altitude!IMG_380513.  Old Delft, the Netherlands

These are by no means the most impressive buildings in Delft, but where does one start?  The massive churches, the huge city hall, the canals…all of it beautiful and all of it carefully restored.  If I had to pick one city in the Netherlands for historic sightseeing, I think it would have to be Delft.

Front view of the Adriaan windmill (Haarlem, the Netherlands)
Front view of the Adriaan windmill (Haarlem, the Netherlands)

14.   Adriaan Windmill in Haarlem

I’ve chosen this particular photo because the neighbouring three-story houses help show the massiveness of the Adriaan Windmill.  We went on a tour of the windmill and were amazed by not just the size but also the highly advanced technology that was inside.  They were awfully clever, those medieval Dutch!

Prague's famous Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square)
Prague’s famous Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square)

15.  Prague, Czech Republic

As with Delft, it is hard to know where to begin in Prague.  The ancient Charles Bridge?  Prague Castle?  The Old Town Square that dwarfs pretty much any other town square in Europe?   How about Wenceslas Square (shown in photo at the top of this post) – where the desire for freedom in Czechoslovakia boiled over?  It was somewhat unsettling to stay in a hotel on Wenceslas Square and then see a video (at the Museum of Communism) showing brutal police beatings in that very same place, as the communist regime of the late 1980s desperately tried to maintain its grip on power.

"Big Ben", at the northern edge of the Houses of Parliament (a.k.a. Westminster Palace)
“Big Ben”, at the northern edge of the Houses of Parliament (a.k.a. Westminster Palace)

16.  Houses of Parliament, London, U.K.

There was a lot of history and culture in London.  However, I’ve chosen the Houses of Parliament as a particular highlight.  The clock tower is iconic, the scale is massive…and the inspiration behind Canada’s system of government is suddenly brought into very clear focus.   On top of all that, I managed to see a debate in the House of Commons and to set foot in the House of Lords.  I’m very fortunate to have had that opportunity, especially after visiting Canada’s Parliament Buildings just a few weeks before.

Stay tuned:  there are still more year-end posts to come!

Cultural and Historic Highlights of the Year (Part 1)

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Even after removing the sights that appeared on other lists and those for which I didn’t have photographs, this was still by far my longest year-end list.  I then decided to put together separate lists of “Sobering Moments” and “Unique Experiences”…and still had to split this cultural and historic list into two parts.  Proceeding once again in chronological order…

Michelangelo's Pieta
Michelangelo’s Pieta

1.  Michelangelo’s Pieta at St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

Michelangelo carved this from a single piece of marble in his early twenties.  It’s absolutely mind-boggling and is much more impressive in person.  For most people, this would have been their life’s work.  However, Michelangelo did a few other things too, such as painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel…possibly the greatest work of art ever.  I would certainly have included that here as well, but photography is not permitted inside the Chapel.

Arch of Septimius Severus (The Forum, Rome)
Arch of Septimius Severus (The Forum, Rome)

2.  Ancient Rome

Right in the middle of the modern city of Rome, multiple generations of ancient Rome are built on top of each other.  This is most evident in the Forum but there are reminders of ancient Rome everywhere.  Just like in London, you will stumble across something familiar (Circus Maximus, the Colosseum, the Parthenon, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain…) without even trying.

Ostia Antica
Ostia Antica

3.  Ostia Antica (near Rome, Italy)

Ostia Antica was kind of a working-class version of Pompeii.  However, instead of being destroyed by a volcano, Ostia Antica was abandoned because of changing watercourses.  While not as opulent as Pompeii, Ostia Antica is huge…it is impossible to see all of it in a single day.  We really enjoyed walking and even climbing around the city; it’s a first-class site and not too crowded either!

IMG_12014.  Venice, Italy

I was prepared to dislike Venice, as I had read far too much about the crowds, the lousy food, the extortionate costs…even the smell.  Nonetheless, it really is a magical place and it’s best to just wander off and try to get lost.  While the picture above this paragraph shows some of the majesty of Venice, the narrow canals and lanes away from the Grand Canal are even more compelling…it’s just that photography in those tiny spaces is extremely difficult.

Washington Monument, as seen from the Lincoln Memorial (Washington, D.C.)
Washington Monument, as seen from the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial (Washington, D.C.)

5.  Washington D. C.

The National Mall feels like the biggest cultural attraction in the world.  It goes on forever, with one striking monument after another until you reach the Capitol.   If you tire of monuments, adjacent to the Mall are numerous branches of the Smithsonian…seemingly one for every branch of knowledge and culture you can imagine. It’s hard to pick one as the highlight, so I’m just lumping them all together here.

The Old Bridge at night (Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina)
The Old Bridge at night (Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

6.  The Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

I went to Mostar, more or less, to see this bridge (see also photo at the top of this post).  Dating back 500 years, it was a symbol of co-existence and tolerance between different religious groups in Bosnia & Herzegovina.  Sadly, it was symbolically destroyed during the conflict of the early 1990s.  Painstakingly rebuilt in an attempt to bring about reconciliation, it once again proudly spans the Neretva River.  It’s a beautiful bridge (and challenging to cross!) even without the history, but knowing the story behind it made visiting the Old Bridge one of the most moving experiences of my travel year.

View of the old town (and Lokrum Island) from the city walls in Dubrovnik, Croatia
View of the old town (and Lokrum Island) from the city walls in Dubrovnik, Croatia

7.  Dubrovnik, Croatia

Another city in the former Yugoslavia that was pummeled during the civil war, Dubrovnik was rebuilt at a startling pace once the hostilities had ended.  My “pension”, like most other buildings, was bombed and lost its roof in the conflict.  Today, you can once again walk around the entire (and large!) old city on the ancient walls and not even realize that there was a war less than 20 years ago.   The city, formerly known as “Ragusa”, is beautiful at ground level too.

Climbing the walls above Kotor
Climbing the walls above Kotor

8.  Kotor, Montenegro…climbing the walls

While Dubrovnik’s ancient walls were massive, they can’t claim to go as high as the walls above Kotor!   Not just hundreds but even thousands of years old in a couple of places, this was like walking along the Great Wall of China…in Europe.   One needs to be careful, however, as many of the structures are crumbling.  The walls will also test your physical fitness!  But Kotor is a quaint medieval town and well worth a visit even if you don’t climb the walls.

Part 2 of this list is coming soon!

Natural Wonders of The Year

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

A couple of entries in my “Wow Moments of the Year” list could also go here, but there are plenty of others to include.   Listed in chronological order, here are 7 of the best natural wonders of my travel year…

View from Lagazuoi (near Cortina d'Ampezzo)
View from Lagazuoi (near Cortina d’Ampezzo)

1.   The Dolomites of Northern Italy

Rock, rock and more rock!  The Dolomites of Northern Italy attracted me back for a second consecutive year of great scenery, skiing and cuisine.  In addition to the dramatic teeth-like outcrops, the rocks also have a reddish tinge that makes them glow as the sun begins to set in the  afternoon.  Being able to ski beneath and even through the rocks made it even more impressive.

Looking toward the Pile district of the "new city" from the Dubrovnik city walls
Looking toward the Pile district of the “new city” from the Dubrovnik city walls

2.  The Impossibly Blue Adriatic Sea (Croatia)

It’s hard to properly capture in a photograph, so you may have to take my word on this:  the Adriatic Sea, off the coast of Croatia, has the “bluest” water I’ve ever seen.   Best of all, there are many places to enjoy the water…Dubrovnik doesn’t have a monopoly on it!

Overlooking the Tara River Canyon - northern Montenegro
Overlooking the Tara River Canyon – northern Montenegro

3.  Durmitor National Park (Montenegro)

Rugged, remote and unspoiled, northern Montenegro is a riot of alpine beauty.  This photo reminds me of a fairy-tale landscape but there are equally dramatic vistas (mountain lakes, sheer cliffs, etc.) throughout the Durmitor National Park area.  You’ll want a guide; remember to assess his/her driving style before leaving, however!

One of the friendly seals of Inis Mór
One of the friendly seals of Inis Mór

4.  The seals of Inis Mór (Ireland)

I suppose my entire day of biking around Inis Mór could qualify for this list but stumbling on these seals in their natural environment was an unexpected highlight.  While they are graceful swimmers, they are comically awkward above the water.  The bleak but still attractive landscape only enhanced this island experience on the far western fringe of Ireland.

Frolicking on the Giant's Causeway
Frolicking on the Giant’s Causeway

5.  Giant’s Causeway (Northern Ireland)

There is a complicated geological explanation for these geometric pillars east of Portrush but it is better to imagine them as part of a massive bridge for the ancient giants of Ireland and Scotland.  You’d be surprised how much fun it is to clamber around on geometric rocks; it’s particularly stunning with the dramatic coastal scenery of Northern Ireland in the background.

A bold caiman in the Caño Negro region
A bold caiman in the Caño Negro region

6.  Caimans and Howler Monkeys in Caño Negro, Costa Rica

My wildlife safari near the Nicaraguan border was filled with special moments but seeing caimans and howler monkeys in their home environment (often adjacent to each other) was the highlight. The caimans were respectful and photogenic, as you can see.  But seeing an albino hermaphrodite howler monkey (see photo at the top of this post) within 30 seconds of starting our river journey was also thrilling…and something that only a handful of people will ever experience.


7.  Sloths in Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

Sloths are, frankly, disgusting creatures.  Covered with algae and as slow as their name suggests, they nonetheless are fascinating to watch.  When you see one, it’s hard not to ask yourself how such a bizarre creature ever evolved.  We saw one trying to sleep on our rainforest night walk in the mountains of Monteverde but never thought that we would see one active and alert on the hot and humid Pacific Coast.  We also saw engaging capuchin monkeys but I’ve already described a lot of monkey business here.

More lists to come…

Best Events of the Year

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Travel is partly about freedom…so committing to a scheduled event is not something you want to do too often.  However, sometimes it is fun to anticipate a special event that you would never be able to experience at home.  Here are 6 of my travel year’s top events!

The home of Second City - near Lincoln Park, Chicago, U.S.A.
The home of Second City – near Lincoln Park, Chicago, U.S.A.

1.  Live Second City show in Chicago

I hadn’t planned to be in Chicago this year, much less attend a Second City performance.  In fact, I only bought my ticket 3 hours before the show began.  But when I had a free evening in Chicago, visiting the launching pad of so many comedic careers seemed like the right thing to do.  Just visiting the lobby was amazing, as the photographs show that virtually every comedian started their career with Second City.  The show itself was very funny too; as usual, I found the improv portion to be the funniest.  For some reason, the absurdly absurd  situations really resonated with me!

Reims supporters show their colours
Reims supporters show their colours

2.  Paris St. Germain v. Reims – Soccer Match in France

This one wasn’t planned either.  I was leaving Reims on a Saturday morning and assumed that their Ligue 1 team wouldn’t play until Saturday afternoon.  However, this weekend was the season opener and Reims happened to be playing a very rare Friday night game at home…against Paris St. Germain, the richest (if not the best) team in French soccer!  There were at least 10 national team players freshly returned from the World Cup on the Paris roster, so there was an exceptional level of skill on display.  Even more remarkable was the fact that Reims almost won!  Paris equalized the game midway through the second half, but the Reims supporters were still thrilled with a 2-2 tie.   It was a very exciting game and I had a great seat near the centre of the field.

Celebrating a Feyenoord goal
Celebrating a Feyenoord goal

3.  Heerenveen v. Feyenoord soccer match

This one *was* planned: my cousin belongs to the Feyenoord fan club and I knew seeing a Dutch “Eredivisie” soccer game in Rotterdam was going to be an overwhelming experience.  The crowd was definitely more intense than in Reims (although it was a little disappointed with a tie against underdog Heerenveen) and I will never forget the electrically-charged environment.  It was also great to see the game (and have pre- and post-game refreshments) with my cousin and his family.  I hope to take them to a hockey game in Canada someday.  Speaking of hockey…

Happy to be playing hockey in Hungary!
Happy to be playing hockey in Budapest, Hungary!

4.  Hockey Night in Hungary

When you get a schedule of a bunch of overseas hockey games, you never know which ones are going to be the most memorable.  From my perspective, they kept getting better as we moved from the Czech Republic to Poland to Slovakia.  I’ve already described the game in Slovakia as one of my Top 5 “Wow” moments of the year but the next evening’s Hungarian game was pretty special too.  As you can see from the above photo, I had a great time playing hockey for “Team Canada” on this tour and the Hungarian game was a wonderful “grass roots of hockey” way to wrap things up.  It felt great to be a Canadian: the level of respect and appreciation shown here, as in the rest of our games, was unforgettable.

Paul Young gets saluted by guitarist Jamie Moses
Paul Young gets saluted by guitarist Jamie Moses

5.  Los Pacaminos at the Half Moon in Putney, England

This was booked far in advance and was the “wild card” of my music tour of England.  After getting tickets for a couple of “big name” concerts, I stumbled across a listing for a band called “Los Pacaminos” who were performing in a small pub just southwest of London.  Quick research revealed that this Tex-Mex bar band (see picture at the top of this post) actually consisted of veteran professional musicians and was fronted by none other than 1980s legend Paul Young (“Every Time You Go Away”, “Come Back and Stay”, etc.).  I was mere feet from the stage and had a great time…as did the band, who played none of Paul’s hits but did play fun song after fun song (many of them being Pacaminos originals).   My university band used to play a dismal version of “La Bamba”…so it was fun to hear these guys absolutely nail it!  They only play a few concerts each year; I was exceptionally lucky to see them perform.

View of the Royal Albert Hall stage just before the show (from my seat, no zoom lens)
View of the Royal Albert Hall stage just before the show (from my seat, no zoom lens)

6.  Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall (London, England)

Booked even farther (more than 5 months!) in advance and anticipated to be one of the highlights of my tour, this concert more than lived up to my expectations.  Everything was exceptional:  the legendary and opulent 5200-seat venue was beautiful inside and out, the atmosphere was joyous, I had a great seat in the 12th row and the 20-piece band was excellent.  I never thought that I would hear Marc Almond (of Soft Cell) sing both “Tainted Love” and “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” with a swinging R&B orchestra, but that’s what happened.   On top of that, renowned soul vocalists Joss Stone and Ruby Turner delivered great sets too.  Both the venue and the orchestra are highly recommended for any music lover visiting London.

I’ve recounted lots of highlights already.  But there are more year-end lists to come!