Scotland in 4 days

What would you do if you only had four days to visit a country, to experience as much of its culture, countryside, arts, architectural splendors, festivals, gastronomy, among the many other countless reasons one travels? Would you go to major cities and walk around sightseeing and eating to your hearts content? Would you seek out specific festivals for cultural engagement? I know when I start to think about a country or exotic city I have never been to before I think about what it is that exactly draws me to this place. I was drawn to Paris and London and Barcelona for the exact reasons that they are large marvelous cities with much to see and do; however, I realized through several of these big city trips that they certainly are not necessarily representative of the culture and people of those countries – the dark side of globalization, but I digress. The ultimate question remains: why do each one of us that enjoy travel, travel? For me it’s the seductive draw of making the unknown known and hopefully discovering more unknown along the way. And with only four days to tour through Scotland, seeking out and experiencing the unknown surrounded by lush verdurous terrain only proved to me once again of why I’m passionate about travel.

The beauty of the U.K. and Ireland is that it’s a short flight from Spain, usually a direct flight, and everything is drivable. Granted, it is a bit unusual at first to drive on the opposite side of the road but after a couple hours of white knuckling the steering wheel and a few cars blaring their horns at you, you eventually find your pace and shifting with your left hand becomes quite enjoyable. We landed in Prestwick, Scotland, which is located about a half an hour south from Glasgow, and immediately drove three hours north to Inverness. The name of the town might not seem all that memorable, however, the loch it borders has been famous for decades due to a timid monster that only appears to the lucky few every couple of years or so.

When I was a kid I believed that Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, existed. My belief in Nessie was set in stone long ago and withstood the destructive forces that come from an elementary school’s cafeteria where often other fairytale hopefuls found their demise. And it was for this reason alone Loch Ness was to be the first stop. We chartered one of several boats that cruise the loch in hopes of finding the Loch Ness Monster. Several other Nessie hunters also accompanied us from several other countries. It appears now that the legend of the Loch Ness Monster is a world phenomenon and not just localized to western cultures. We cruised the open waters and made our way to the Urquhart Castle that stands dilapidated, overlooking the loch; like some ancient stone caretaker watching over the waters and the creatures within, yet to relinquish its post. And though the wind was frigid on our skin we kept our eyes steeled upon surface for any disturbance that could result in humanities ultimate prize. Nevertheless, Nessie proved elusive that day and did not appear.

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After our failed hunt and disembarking the boat with our heads hung low, we made our way north to Dingwall. Some of you may recognize the name from the Pixar animated film Brave which lampooned the Clan of Dingwall in a very humorous light. The fact is, is that there is no clan of Dingwall, only a town with a tower and small castle that has since been transformed from housing its original lords to a B&B for tourists. We went to Dingwall because I once had a grandmother with the same last name. Like most Americans my ancestors came from somewhere else and Dingwall was one of those places. Which also may explain some of the red I get in my beard when it grows to a respectable length. However, there is not much to see and do in this small town except for one who may have ancestral ties. We visited a small museum, took pictures of the quaint street full of shops for local residents – no tourist shops – and ate lunch in a small cafe. After about an hour of seeing if a part of me may encounter nostalgic feelings on some genetic level – I may have felt a whisker tickle – we left south to Fort William.

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Fort William is an outdoor tourist town that sits near the base of Ben Nevis, which of course as one local explained to me is “the highest peak of the British Isles.” The height of Ben Nevis is not that formidable. Sitting at 4,409 feet it is definitely no Everest, heck, it’s not even a Mt. St. Helens. But for a hike that one can do in a single day reaching the peak of all the highlands, not to mention the U.K., it is quite formidable in its elevation gain ascending 4,344 feet over five miles of grueling loose rock to reach its summit (ten miles round trip). I have most certainly hiked higher peaks, most hikers have, but to hike not only in the beauty of the Scottish highlands, from lush green valleys into clouds and sparse terrain of stone and snow, this hike was and is an adventure waiting to happen for anyone willing to take up the challenge. Just make sure you come prepared. My legs remained sore for nearly a week after the hike, but it was an unforgettable experience and something that I will have with me for the rest of my life. After descending the “Ben” we went to the visitor center where we washed the sweat from our faces, changed our aching feet from our boots and drove three and a half hours south to Ayr. I initially feared that the drive would be difficult after such a strenuous hike and so I drank whatever caffeine was available – one coke. What I wasn’t prepared for was a drive through a part of the highlands we didn’t know even existed. Soon after leaving Fort William the west highlands and their true beauty laid out before us, untouched and wild with low mountains and valleys and green, everything absolutely green. Simply amazing. We remained in Ayr the last night we stayed in Scotland and flew out early the next morning.

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And that’s the thing with travel, isn’t it? We travel because it’s the experiences that put us out of our comfort zone just enough to get our hearts pumping, literally. What ever that may be. There were countless options for our trip we could of done. But for me, when I had thought about Scotland the only thing that stood out in my mind was adventure. With only four days, that adventure for me was to search for Nessie and conquer the highest peak in the highlands and all of the U.K.

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Hvala Croatia

“You want to hike in a national forest with a flyer?” he asked, but it really wasn’t a question and we both knew it.
Of course, the story of our trip doesn’t begin here. It begins at our arrival in Zagreb, Croatia while waiting in a baggage claim with only two belts for our final suitcase to arrive – the one with all our hiking gear. The end result was an attempt in futility; the bag never showed.
“This is very strange. We have another flight coming in tomorrow, maybe it will be on that one.”
She rambled off a few more lines of rehearsed sincerity. Lines we became accustomed to every time we checked the status of our missing items in the days that followed.
We set out, nonetheless, on our adventure of exploring some of Croatia’s most renowned parks. Our first stop was Plitvice National Park, a land of cascading water into pools of teal teaming with inquisitive fish with red fins. Everywhere were miniature bodies of aquamarine pouring one into another, a seemingly endless fall of liquid dominoes as verdure burgeoned in every speck of soil that could support it. The landscape revealed itself in hues of blue and green and always covered in dampness, that was the constant. A spectacular beauty only held in suspension by the continuous renewal of flowing water.
The majority of the paths that snaked their way through the park are of a simple rustic construction of log planks. Their simplicity lends not only to the aesthetics of the environment but also to the enduring hardiness of their purpose. The path itself if no larger than four feet wide, but somehow bolsters the continuous cycle of mobs that to explore the park’s splendor. Plitvice sees thousands of tourists from around the world daily.
Luckily for us the relatively flat surface was fine for our only walking shoes, a pair of Vans and sandals. Although it rained throughout the first day we were there, we remained only half saturated by the constant deluge. Our jackets were also apart of our missing luggage, but a hoodie and a fleece proved almost worthy of keeping us warm and dry. The second day in the park proved exceedingly better for weather, although by the end our feet were nearly run through – pun intended. If it weren’t for the constant beauty that surprised at every turn in the park I’m sure we would have felt the pain permeating from our feet miles before we actually finished the day. Plitvice is truly a park of aesthetic exploration.
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Hvala (pronounced wala or u-ala) was one of the first words I learned in Croatian, though my vocabulary still is only a few words in total. Hvala means thank you. A word or expression that should be learned for any country you visit. Hvala always gained an expression of gratitude from anyone I said it to. Although I could not communicate beyond this in Croatian I could communicate my appreciation for an action or assistance to someone who went out of their way for a foreigner in their country.
After Plitvice National Park we headed south. The freedom of the open road and a rental car in my mind is one of the only ways to visit a new country. If I had time I would slow my pace down by either cycling or hiking across the land, to see landscapes transform more subtly and to really understand the country on a more intimate level that can only be achieved by being in to constant contact with it. But, unfortunately, time is precious when your vacation has an expiration date and there is much to see and do.
We found ourselves in the small town of Seline, near the main gate to Packlenica National Park. Packlenica is renowned as a rock climbing paradise. Numerous competitions are held here for speed climbing annually, but the park is also known for its amazing network of strenuous trails that stretch for days. And unlike Plitvice, this park did not have a flat surface for our beach wearing footwear. Fortunately, we found an outdoor store not too far from where we were staying, but because it is the only outdoor sporting good store (a chain of stores really) in all of Croatia, their prices are ineluctably through the roof. Nonetheless, we were not going to let a lost suitcase – which contained our hiking boots, camelbacks, and all essential gear for our hikes – be the source of a failed adventure. So we purchased some brand new hiking boots for a very long hike. Ironically, the boots my wife and I bought also matched. They were the only ones of a decent quality and a swallowable price. So although we are experienced hikers, it appeared to any passerby on the trail as if we were a new couple that just started dating and that we were exploring activities together in our matching gear. I didn’t have a problem with that as much as I did with the newness my boots exhibited. I wanted to rub each boot in the dirt and mud just to make them appear somewhat abused and not so novice in appearance.
As we left the parking lot in our new mountain footwear and a backpack filled with plastic bottled water and snacks from the local minimart, we entered the trail which immediately ascended at a steady degree that warmed muscles in our lower extremities to a light burning sensation. We knew we would have a good hike. Cliff faces of beautiful granite towered on us from both sides, and dozens of rock climbers worked their respective routes with audacious ease and accuracy. Like Spiderman doppelgängers in training, I thought. The day was beautiful and warm. Sweat easily budded on our faces and fell to the ground. When we found a rhythm to our breathing our pace increased as nature unfolded itself to us. Trees and rock jutted up around us, yet pealed away like an onion revealing new layers to the park’s hidden secrets as we climbed further on. Three hours later we approached the Mountain Hut – a cabin for hikers who plan to continue further on into the wilderness. It’s a sort of starting point, like base camp at Everest, just relatively a lot lower in altitude. Inside it we found a man willing to assist us in our exploration of the park.
“You want to hike in a national forest with a flyer?” it was never a question, simply a rhetorical statement.
The man’s sinewy form with long lean muscles could only be formed from a life in the wilderness, though his face possessed a character that belied the hardships his body had endured.
“Do you have any jackets? The weather up top can change from sun to rain to ice in minutes,” he said almost prophetically.
“All we have is a hoodie and a fleece.” I bit down hard, clenching my jaw, knowing fully well that our gear was still missing from our flight and how we must appear to this man of the mountain in our new matching boots.
“Those aren’t jackets. I wouldn’t recommend going up. You two look young and healthy, let me see your flyer.”
I handed him the flyer I took from the rangers office at the main gate to the park, which etched only a couple of paths up to the Mountain Hut. He pointed to a trail off to the side and said to follow that, and then referring back to the flyer traced his finger along a ridge we could follow for some time before reconnecting back to the main trail again. We thanked him (hvala), and a little embarrassed for being ill-equipped we went on our way.
The trail turned into a fantastic trek up steep switch backs that eventually brought us to the ridge the mountain man had described with a magnificent view of the surrounding valleys. We stopped here to eat a small lunch and take pictures. However, only minutes passed before we saw dark clouds barreling slowly over the peaks to the north. We packed up quickly and began walking again, but only twenty or so minutes later the rains came followed by flashes of lightning and a cacophony of thunder. We quickened our pace but our new boots were beginning to work against us. Soreness and blisters were beginning to form, as well as our boots began to fill with water – soaking in from the tops of ours socks down – prevented a speedy descent. Eventually we ran into a young couple from Denmark slowly making their way across the ridge. We joked about the weather and walked with them until we were completely saturated through, then said our goodbyes so we could descend a bit quicker. We laughed and joked our way down as small streams converged into small rivers and as every inch of our being was soaked thoroughly from the deluge falling from the skies. After lurk trail reconnected to the main one, we made our way back to our car walking on what felt more like sponges than boots by then. The next day we gathered our still wet clothing from their places hung around the flat into plastic bags and headed yet further south along the coast.
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The lush green forests gave way to a more arid climate with smaller and sparser flora, but then the blue of the Adriatic sea drew all attention. We entered Dubrovnik in the early afternoon, and after checking into our flat we walked down the hundreds of stone steps into the old city and within its famous walls. For those of you who watch Game of Thrones, the castle of Kings Landing is based off the walls of Dubrovnik. This magnificent construction is tall, wide, and formidable. Waves of the Adriatic crashed against the heights of the stone changing from a light blue into explosions of white foam. Kayakers and sail boats with masts bent with wind cruised past the walls and outer lying islands as we leisurely walked along the top of the wall and taking pictures of the red roofs that inhibited the old city. Croatia is hemmed with more than 1200 islands. If the weather held, we would go kayaking ourselves the following day.
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That’s when I woke the next morning to the sound of thunder rattling our windows. The storm seemingly followed us south out of the mountains and down the coast. We called the kayak touring company to see if they canceled the trip, and indeed they did. However, an hour and a half later they called back saying the tour was on again if we were still interested, and indeed we were. The storm appeared to be letting up and our planned day kayaking in the Adriatic returned.
We met our guide Vedran and a few others joining the tour at Gruz Harbor, where we hopped on a ferry and set out for Lopud island. Our group consisted of a unique menagerie of native English speakers all from different parts of the globe. There was a couple and a small group of three from Australia, a gentleman with an excellent beard from New Zealand, and another young lady from the U.K., and of course my wife and I represented the U.S. There were also three other girls from Malta, but after spinning in circles in their kayaks and one abruptly crashing back into the shore we set out from they decided not to do the trip after all. Not that one of the Australians did any better as he flipped his kayak over five times. I thought he was just messing around, but I later discovered he was just really bad at turning. He thought he needed to lean into it.
Eventually, we paddled our way across a long strip of ocean to another island where our guide surprised us with a hidden cave.
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“You have to swim under the rock and just aim for my legs on the other side. What ever you do don’t surface until your past me.”
Vedran’s words were of no comfort as I looked at the water crashing into a wall of rock. No entrance seemed possible. I felt as if I were in a Tolkien story and I had to recite something in elvish for the path to show itself. But one by one we went under water, holding our breathe, and swimming hard against the current rushing in and out of the cave, and focusing our goggles for the shadowy body suspended ahead in the blue water. I have never been a strong swimmer. Although I swam my hardest, the current pushed my body to the side of Vedran’s floating body. I tried to correct my course but by now the current began lifting my body toward the surface and if it weren’t for the hand of Vedran acting as a cushion between the rock and my head, I would have ended up coloring the water red. When I surfaced I had entered a nearly black room of rock only illuminated by the glowing pool of water from which we swam into and now treaded. The cave was unworldly, an alien environment that possessed an enchanting, even seductive allure that had to be experienced if for but a brief moment in time. Much in the same way Croatia itself must be experienced. Hvala.
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This by the way is their famous beer, which I could never pronounce correctly.

Looking for Dracula

If you want to find a vampire then you are probably better off going to Forks, Washington – where you might run into one of those new sparkly versions – than going to Transylvania, Romania, where we recently returned. Romania has yet to truly market the hell out of the Dracula craze that we Americans like to impose as the long-standing symbol to Transylvania. Sure you can find some cheesy Dracula memorabilia; however, it is far less than what you would expect to see. And thank you god for that, because Romania is so much more than a fictional character created by an author that had never once been to this beautiful country.

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The peaks of the Carpathian Mountains are like massive stones jetting up out of a river and the extensive skyline diverging around them. Romania is a country of towering, jagged summits and low-lying valleys worked by the local inhabitants. The people are as friendly as any I have ever encountered, and even though language was a slight issue from time to time we never once had difficulty navigating through the landscape or culture. Although, our GPS was wrong nearly 80% of the time and forced us to resort to our basic map navigational skills, and, of course, asking a local of our whereabouts – usually we stopped at a hotel for better chances of a local speaking English.

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We only had five days to tour this extensive country and after a little preliminary research into the sights beforehand, we had decided to make Brasov (pronounced Brashov, with rolling the ‘r’ slightly like how the Spanish do with their r’s) as our base for exploration by car. It ended up being the right decision in the end. Everything we wanted to see and do primarily existed in the vicinity of Transylvania – which is a popular region of Romania, like a state or county, and not a city like a lot of westerners are led to believe, including myself initially. Brasov was the perfect city to stay in because it was large enough to offer different things to do every evening after returning from a long day of driving around and touring, but not too overwhelming where we would have to navigate a huge amount of traffic, such as we saw in Bucharest.

One of our first trips was Bran Castle, only 16 kilometers from Brasov. Bran Castle, which of course is the castle that was made famous by Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, sits hauntingly high and formidable as we curved through the winding roads to a parking area. But unlike numerous castles we have visited in Europe, this castle is entirely different in its design, and entirely refreshing. I would like to believe the physical difference between castles of Eastern and Western Europe possibly underscores the cultural differences that have existed for centuries, but that could just be me. Nonetheless, to the avid tourist it is like a breath of fresh air to visit a castle of unfamiliar aesthetic appeal. Many other websites and blogs have mentioned that this castle is a tourist trap, but I rather enjoyed it – plus if you want you can see the medieval torture exhibit which has numerous original grotesque devices utilized during the days of Vlad Tepes Dracula (or also known as Vlad the Impaler).

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Driving from one town to the next it wasn’t unusual to see horse drawn carriages, or get caught behind one. Of course, I do not mean the horse carriages that take tourists around like they’re princes and princesses for half an hour, but the working kind, which were typically hauling hay, produce, lumber, and sometimes a group of teenage boys cruising the strip. We stopped to see Vlad Tepes Dracula’s birthplace – which is a tourist trap – a citadel in Rasnov with fortified walls and sweeping views of the Carpathians as well as the valleys and towns below, and we snacked upon what we called Romanian road food, which consisted of a wreath of circular pretzels and a couple of wafer-type treats. Driving in Romania, overall, isn’t as bad as many make it out to be. Maybe it’s because I have lived in Europe for nearly two years now and I’ve become accustomed to varying styles of driving, or that I have driven in a handful of different countries – including Ireland, which driving on the left hand side of the road really takes a bit to get used to – but renting a car in Romania and driving around was actually quite pleasant and the more preferable way to travel. After all, we’re Americans and road trips are something we live for, and the constant switchbacks tracing up a mountain is always exciting to drive.

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On one of our few days in Romania we decided that we wanted to go on a day hike. I remember one of our hosts – we stayed in a BNB and had the best hosts, always pleasant and eager to share the wonders of their country – asked us “You want to see bears and wolves in natural habitat? Because I need to make call to arrange.” My wife’s eyes grew wide and she shook her head and said that we were only looking for something close and preferably without predators. Luckily, we found what we were looking for. In Brasov, such as in many of the cities and towns of Romania, there is a sign that sits atop a hill projecting the city’s name, much like the Hollywood sign in California. There is also a simple hike, or gondola ride, that one could take to the top for a viewpoint of the entire city. We got basic directions to the trailhead, and almost like everywhere else we went, we got a little lost. And just like everywhere else we asked for directions. A young lady – Romanian by birth but lived in Toronto, Canada for several years and spoke perfect English – helped us out as she was actually on her way to the same trail. The reason why we got a little lost this time was because the trailhead started behind someone’s house, and if it were not for the friendliness of our temporary Romanian friend we would not have found it. Nonetheless, the trail was beautiful, even if it were an inner-city hike. Trees and other plants were in their initial phase of blooming, and the trail was steep making our hearts pound within our chests. When we got to the top we walked over to the view point, which stands next to the city’s sign, and let the cool air whip past our bodies while we took pictures of the town below.

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Besides the natural, raw beauty of Romania, and the friendliness that we encountered with the locals, there was also something else that made this trip amazing in its own right: food. The food in Romania is outstanding, and best of all it’s cheap. I say cheap because currently their currency is a 5:1 ratio for the Euro and a 3:1 ratio for the U.S. Dollar – but it is said that Romania will be taking on the Euro as its currency by next year, so prices are expected to increase. Nevertheless, we ate a fantastic dinner every night with drinks and dessert and never once topping 100 Lei (Lei is the name for their currency and is pronounced “lay,” which was only about 20 Euro). We drank Tuica – a very strong alcohol made by plums and a national favorite in Romania – which burned on the way down and radiated from the depths within my gut, and, of course, keeping with the traditions of being a tourist we drank a bottle of wine with the face of Vlad Tepes Dracula plastered on the front label. How could we not? Although, I think I actually preferred the Tuica.

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We never did find Dracula. But that’s o.k. I’m from Washington state and I bet someday I will run into one of those melodramatic teen vampires soon enough – although I bet just regular teenagers are often confused with their sparkly counterparts. One of the most beautiful aspects to Romania is that the country has not yet become inundated with tourism. Its awesome landscape is a hidden Mecca of outdoor activity – something I wish I knew beforehand and made time for – and the general hospitality of its people stays with you long after you leave.

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This older gentleman was actually very nice despite his stern expression.

El Caminito del Rey

I consider the personal comfort zone for every individual as a slight variation from the feared friend zone by singles failing to date someone outside their assumed expectations. But unlike the friend zone, where someone else determines this social station for you, the comfort zone is something we do to ourselves, most of the time unknowingly.

It’s the way we live our lives, comfortably. And in the big picture there is nothing wrong with living a comfortable, ordinary life. In fact, it’s something I strive for. But when the little things in life aggrandize themselves much larger than their inherent quality or character initially intend that is the moment you must push yourself outside of your own self-determined friend zone and reengage that seductive mistress that is your life – or if you prefer to picture a tall dark handsome stranger as the personification of your life, well, that is fine too.

My wife and I (and our friend Dave) did this recently with a little not very well known trail called El Caminito del Rey (The King’s Walkway or The King’s Little Road). This trail has been proclaimed as one of the most dangerous trails in the world, if not the most dangerous – although I believe there is this path in China that could easily contend, but I digress. Located on the cliffs of El Chorro, the trail is but three feet wide and hundreds of feet above a beautiful teal colored stream that would give no relief if you fell. Built originally in 1905 as a way for workers to access the hydro-electrical plant, the trail has long fallen into desuetude. The cement path has broken up in many parts, several gaping holes peer down to the trickling water below, and in a few areas nothing remains at all except the rusted steal beams that stand out as a skeletal reminder of the path’s former glory.

The technicality of the path is not difficult, especially if you have done any previous climbing before. It’s your own mentality that must be overcome, and the fact that people have died on this trail. I have rocked climbed before, but that has been a couple of years ago. There is no easing oneself into this experience. The trail begins with a shear cliff face traverse even before reaching the walkway. And even when upon the walkway itself there are numerous times when you are peering down to the canyon below as you inch along to the next section of the path. Hands against the rock and feet sliding along a rail, like a rib of a decaying corpse exposed to the elements, each movement is deliberate and planned. There were many times I had to steady my nerves, as my knuckles grew white and my hands clenched the rock face. The beauty of the trail is baffling, and mixed with the adrenaline of the climb there really is nothing like it.

The climb took half a day as we took our time exploring caves and taking pictures. After we returned from our time outside of our comfort zone, everything came into sharp perspective. How can anything seem to be so worrisome, so troublesome, when I just succeeded in traversing the El Caminito del Rey?

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(photography by Dave Meyers and Kelly Anttila)

I Dream of Brugge

There is a little town that lies just an hour outside of Brussels, Belgium. The cobbled stone streets are narrow such as the canals that cut through the town’s center in an almost unplanned network of waterways. Rooted structures of businesses and dwellings align in rows hemming the calm waters as boats full of tourists snap pictures and horse drawn carriages rattle along the uneven roads constructed lifetimes passed. And a charming village it is. A charm, ironically, that only maintained its pristine appeal by suffering through centuries of poverty. Nearly untouched since its golden age, not modified nor updated to the varying modern trends in architecture passed down through the decades, Brugge is a medieval town untouched and somehow lasted through the centuries and all the calamities that come with human idleness, such as modernizing and war. Brugge actually narrowly escaped a massive bombing by the Nazis in WWII because a German officer refused to bomb the picturesque town; something the locals have inscribed into legend as one of two miracles that saved their town from total destruction.

When I had visited Brussels – that unique city that could easily be identified through its savory gastronomy, wide assortment of beers, and a statue of a little boy peeing – the existence of Brugge’s charm eluded me. It was only when I returned back to Spain that a friend had inquired of my travels north and if I had visited Bruja (Spanish for Brugge and coincidentally means witch). After declaring my ignorance he showed me image after image of an anachronistic town that exuded beauty and graceful allure from a simpler era. It took eight months before I found myself in northern Europe again, but this time my wife and I were visiting Amsterdam. We found a bus that would take us to Brugge in three hours – two hours more than if we had traveled from Brussels. It was our best, albeit only, chance to finally visit Brugge and we were not about to miss it a second time. I had suspected the trip to be uncomfortable and long, but with the low lying lands of the Netherlands unfolding before us in varying hues of green and giant windmills turning in their process of irrigating the lands, it was difficult to be annoyed by tight quarters.

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After the bus dropped us off we remained with the tour group only so long as to determine the meeting time and location for departure. Our taste buds began to dance in anticipation. Returning to Brugge is like a kid going to a candy shop after eating only broccoli for a week.  You don’t count the calories, you simply allow yourself to forget the judgmental voices in your head and gorge yourself on all the delectable flavors Belgium offers. And after temporarily satiating our appetites on steamed mussels and fries we began to meander through the ancient walkways of Brugge.

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All those images my friend showed me of Bruja from before were now alive in front of me. It was almost like walking through a favorite painting. Everywhere I turned was a mental portrait I could easily frame and mount on a wall. Stone structures with modern businesses and century old family restaurants lined every street while an extensive plaza unfolded into a picturesque and tranquil setting. The canal tour, however, is by far the best attraction you could encounter. Unlike Amsterdam or Copenhagen or even London, Brugge is much smaller and so too is their network of canals and boats that float them. The canal boats are still elongated and lie low in the water, but they are an open boat which allows for a certain connection to the village from a point of view that cannot be experienced on foot. We floated under several walkway bridges as ducks and swans languidly moved from the path of our overfilled vessel.

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I wish I could have spent a week there, just eating and drinking and being merry in an environment that sheds stress as if it were a thick winter jacket. But in the end we were there only for a day trip and we had to catch our bus.

I do not know why the Spanish call that charming town by the name of Bruja. Maybe it’s a simple repurposing of a word – like many Spanish words I know – or possibly there is another legend I simply am unaware of. What I do know is that the town certainly possesses a certain attraction, an almost bewitching magnetism that draws on a deeper level of every tourist.

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AmsterDAM!

 

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Capital of the Netherlands and home to over 1200 bridges, Amsterdam is a city full of charm and character and several museums, including one on medieval torture. The museum that most interested me, however, was the Anne Frank Huis museum. Like most of you I was forced to read her diary in junior high, and back then it had little, if any, impact on my life that was already full of Nintendo and shyly talking to girls that had no interest in me. It wasn’t until my adult years that I went back to reread her diary that her words spoke more to me than ever before. Although I could not relate to her circumstances or the time and era in which she wrote, I did connect with the deep emotion and insights most kids her age simply are unaware of, at least I know I was at her age.

“We’ve been strongly reminded of the fact that we’re Jews in chains, chained to one spot, without any rights, but with a thousand obligations. We must put our feelings aside; we must be brave and strong, bear discomfort without complaint, do whatever is in our power and trust in God. One day this terrible war will be over. The time will come when we’ll be people again and not just Jews!”

Entering the building that was her father’s workplace and progressively moving toward the secret annex where Anne Frank and seven others, including her family, had hidden in secret from the Nazis for just over two years in near darkness, her words came back to me, her story coming alive before my eyes. We entered through the very bookcase that had obscured the secret entrance to the annex, ascended the neck-breaking staircases and room after room we moved in rows and totally in awe of the living history we were experiencing. Anne’s room had several photographs of famous celebrities of her time plastered to a wall of insipid color, making it more comfortable and inviting for her long seclusion from the rest of the world. It was the Annex’s attic window that was the highlight for me to see. The same window that Anne Frank looked out of for hours hoping, praying, wishing to be released from her cage, like some wild bird willing itself to be free again.

“I go to the attic almost every morning to get the stale air out of my lungs… Whenever you’re feeling lonely or sad, try going to the loft on a beautiful day and looking outside. Not at the houses and the rooftops, but at the sky.”

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Afterwards we left the museum and went to a little café where continued to talk about Anne Frank and her experience, and the legacy of her and her father’s ongoing message of persecution of others based on irrational misconceptions. You can say it was an impactful experience. To cheer us up a bit we ate delicious pancakes, which the Dutch seem to separate into two categories: savory or sweet. I choose savory, which included spinach with ham, tomato, and cheese, whereas my wife went with sweet and enjoyed an extremely rich pancake that was similar to a flat, spongy apple pie. Later we went to the Heineken Brewery.

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The Heineken Brewery marks the third brewery we have visited since living in Europe; the first was Smithwick’s in Kilkenny, and the second was Guinness in Dublin. After visiting Heineken it has become very apparent that each brewery, through huge marketing endeavors on their part no wonder, project a particular image, style, and even personality that goes along with their beer, and the brewery tour is designed as a reflection of that personality. Smithwick’s was a quaint, comfortable, and personal type setting, where one feels almost at home the moment you walk into the door. You had a host that walked you through the brewery and answered every question as if it was the first time he heard it. Smithwick’s is the friendly beer. The beer you hang out with on the weekends and go fishing. I don’t fish but you get the point. Guinness is an institution for the every man. It’s the perfect beer after a long day at work, and when you need to revitalize your body with its rich dark flavor. Their brewery tour is self-guided, but makes up for the lack of personal attention through amazing attractions; including a small waterfall. Heineken is none of these. Heineken is a party, a club, a young, wild twenty something year old looking for the time of his/her life. Heineken is all about “yolo,” and what ever comes tomorrow can wait for tomorrow. And Heineken projects this through its club like atmosphere, music, games, and a small ride where you the audience personify the beer making process – bubbles included. A couple of beers at the end of the tour are always a nice touch as well.

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I wish we had a week in Amsterdam to explore everything there was, but as always, we never have enough time. We meandered the streets avoiding the hundreds of cyclists, trams moving back and forth along the roads, and crossed dozens of little bridges that span the network of canals dispersed throughout the city. We visited the floating flower markets and ate at a vending machine fast food place where you insert some coins then pull out a deep-fried delight from behind a glass door. We even saw the famous windmills the Dutch are famous for, but that was on a bus ride into the countryside on our way to Brugge, Belgium, and that is another blog for another time.

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The Land of the 12th Man

I am the reason why quarterbacks lose track of the play clock and offensive lines shift nervously before the hike. I am part of that mad mob that unleashes confusion and frustration among teams visiting our Great Northern house. I roar green and blue in my stadium known for causing geological tremors. I have become temporarily deaf and mute among my thousands of brothers and sisters united in cacophonous thunder. Together we swell in ranks and our team, the Seattle Seahawks, rain down upon all those who stand against us.

With Pete Carol and his gladiators of the field football has never been more exciting. Though the 12th man is largely concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, as it should be, our reach is vast. Well beyond the geographical borders of the U.S. the 12th man circumferences the globe. Fellow 12rs, like myself, cheer in unison at ungodly hours of the late evening that bleed into early morning and across countries and cultures that know nothing of our crazed pride. And here we are, going to the Super Bowl to prove ourselves once again that we have the better players, the better team. Although I may not currently reside in the land of the 12th man, I am a 12er through and through, and when kickoff launches into that frozen air of MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, I will be screaming at the top of my lungs in a small bar in the south of Spain at 12:30 in the morning and hoping, just hoping, that the pride of this 12th man will be felt half a world away.

GO HAWKS!!!

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