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.
IMG_1886 IMG_2140
IMG_1514 IMG_1516 IMG_1521
IMG_1511 IMG_1525
IMG_1554 IMG_1798
 IMG_1705 IMG_1724
IMG_1686 DSC05295
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.
 IMG_2155 IMG_2163
IMG_2172 IMG_2157 DSC05447
IMG_2174 DSC05434
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.
IMG_2379 IMG_2366
DSC05656 IMG_2266
IMG_2300
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.
7 DSC05642
26
“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.
22
IMG_0863
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.

DSC04580 IMG_0819

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.

IMG_0885 IMG_0842

IMG_0740 IMG_0608

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).

IMG_0575 DSC04388

IMG_0530 IMG_0478 DSC04586

 

DSC04404

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.

DSC04436 IMG_0879

 

IMG_0902 IMG_0701

 

IMG_0760 IMG_0610

IMG_0651 IMG_0628

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.

DSC04506 IMG_0714

DSC04539 IMG_0676

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.

DSC04622 DSC04621

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.

IMG_0710 IMG_0670

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?

IMG_6257 IMG_6258 IMG_6267

IMG_6335 IMG_6343

IMG_6284 IMG_6271 IMG_6329

IMG_6280 IMG_6301

IMG_6295 IMG_6325 IMG_6328

IMG_6304 IMG_6336 IMG_6353

IMG_6362 IMG_6363 IMG_6426

IMG_6467 DSC04214 DSC04218

DSC04308 DSC04281 DSC04192

DSC04265 DSC04374

IMG_6641 DSC04321

(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.

IMG_0673 DSC04072

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.

DSC04081 DSC04167

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.

DSC04142 DSC04139

DSC04089 DSC04119

IMG_0696 DSC04115

IMG_0700 DSC04127 DSC04092

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.

DSC04152

AmsterDAM!

 

DSC04188 DSC04189

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.”

IMG_0634 DSC04002

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.

DSC03923

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.

DSC04025 IMG_0660

IMG_0649 IMG_0655

DSC04041 DSC04057

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.

DSC03919 DSC04187

DSC04068 DSC04070

DSC04072 IMG_0673

 

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!!!

IMG_0584

 

 

Gladiators and Pizza

When we went to Rome, Italy, I believe I was a bit delusional to think that I might actually see Russell Crowe dressed up as a gladiator signing autographs and performing live reenactments from his movie. And of course he was not there. Although I did see a gladiator – or at least a man dressed up as one – order an espresso from a local coffee shop we were eating breakfast at. I guess today’s gladiator needs to get his caffeine fix before his long day of taking photos with tourists in front of the Coliseum.

IMG_0420

Rome is the ultimate sightseer/tourist destination. You can walk anywhere in this beautiful city and turn a corner to see something utterly remarkable. It could be an ancient Roman structure, fountain, statue of some naked person, or a string of wonderfully delicious and creatively designed restaurants with dog parking. In fact, one of my favorite parts about visiting Rome was that if we got tired of walking around we could simply stop at any restaurant, order wine and pizza, and enjoy the view. No matter where we were at in the city we always had a view of something. But other than meandering the streets of Rome for hours – with our mouths gaping wide at everything we saw like we were a part of some Charlie Brown Christmas special – we did have an agenda to keep.

DSC03243 IMG_0406

DSC03398 DSC03402

Our first stop, of course, was the Coliseum. However, some research before arriving in Italy proved extremely helpful in avoiding the long lines. The Coliseum can be purchased as a package deal with some other attractions, and by buying the combined ticket at one of the other sights we avoided the hours of standing in line. There were literally only ten people in line at the Roman Forum compared to the hundreds waiting to buy tickets at the Coliseum. And after buying our tickets we then walked to the Coliseum, passing all the other tourists impatiently waiting in line, and gained entrance in seconds. This just goes to prove that a little research beforehand always pays off when traveling. The Coliseum itself, to my surprise, is not round. This might just be me but I always thought the structure was designed as a perfect circle when in fact it’s oval, and very similar to the way football stadiums are designed today; although I doubt many football stadiums have an underground network of walkways and rooms caged off for wild animals right under the main floor. The Coliseum is an amazing feat of engineering and just beautiful to explore its many levels, and if you want the experience to feel just a little more epic then watch the movie Gladiator before visiting. Just don’t expect to see Russell Crowe.

DSC03378 DSC03335

DSC03345 DSC03322

IMG_0410 DSC03409

There is this famous fountain in Rome, the Trevi Fountain, which has been used in numerous films worldwide and is a must for tourists. There is also a tradition that goes along with visiting this sight. The tradition states that one must sit at the fountain’s edge and throw a coin with the right hand over the left shoulder, which signifies that you will return to Rome. There is also another legend stating something with three coins that leads to romance and marriage, but since I already had that in the bag, I threw one coin into the fountain and saved the rest for pizza. Only in Europe and possibly Canada can you have a pocket full of coins and be able to have a good night out on the town. The fountain itself is quite remarkable. It was the original end point to one of the many Roman aqueducts and features larger than life-size carvings of Tritons, horses, and a nearly naked guy that goes by the name of Ocean. We stopped by the Trevi fountain a couple of times during our visit and it always appeared to be very popular. So after squeezing our way through the crowd to the fountain’s edge, we threw our coins in and promptly left for more wine and pizza.

DSC03275

DSC03283 DSC03380

The last location on our itinerary was to visit Vatican City. How could we be in Rome and not go to Vatican City? After traveling for the last year and a half around Europe we’ve become accustomed to knowing which locations you should join a tour group and which ones you really don’t have to, and this is definitely one attraction that you should. Not only do you gain deeper insight to the history of such a marvel, but you also bypass all the other tourists trying to save a buck. I would gladly pay an extra few bucks not to stand in a line for hours. Vatican City is recognized as the smallest independent state in the world and governed as a monarchy, placing the Pope in the big chair while possessing all legislative, executive, and judicial powers. This independent state also has its own flag, minted coin, license plate, and postage stamp, and in my opinion it’s one of the coolest places to visit in all of Rome. Just make sure to wear the proper clothing or you will not be admitted beyond the security checkpoint (ie. no shorts or exposed shoulders allowed).

Because Vatican City sees roughly 25,000 tourists a day, hallways, rooms, even outdoor areas become extremely crowded with bodies from around the world. With so many people from all over the world it’s kind of like an international mosh pit of culture and language. No one really knows what anyone else is saying. Due to this roaming mosh pit of tourists everyone in our group were given a one-way radio where we could hear our guide and know exactly where he was at all times. Paintings, tapestries, and statues appear to be boundless throughout Vatican City. One could spend a lifetime looking at every single piece of art if they so desired. We took about four hours. I was surrounded by art from some the world’s most renowned masters, and it was amazing if not a tad overwhelming. Each piece desired hours of consideration, but my mental capacity nearly ran dry after the first. Again I walked in rows – lemming following lemmings – eyes unblinking, astonished at everything I saw but hindered in movement by the thousands of other tourists. Unfortunately I couldn’t land a selfie with the Pope, but I did capture a string of Cardinals off in the distance.

DSC03212 DSC03226

DSC03200 DSC03185

At the end of the tour we entered the Sistine Chapel as guards hushed tourists filing into the room. I figured them to be the Vatican’s noise police. I had seen the picture many times in textbooks growing up, but to my surprise when I first looked up to the ceiling and saw Michelangelo’s painting “The Creation of Adam,” all I thought was how small it was. The picture had always appeared larger than life in photos reprinted and commercialized in the U.S. It was an epic moment captured in fresco (paint on plaster). Not to reduce the significance of the piece – neither in its artistry or symbolism – but it’s funny how an image can aggrandize in one’s mind until he/she comes face to face with it. The image yet remained captivating but very distant (sorry no pictures, all photography was prohibited in the Sistine Chapel).

For the rest of our trip we lazily walked through the city, stopping to eat pizza or drink wine and appreciate the city for what it was: a unique blend of ancient and contemporary culture. Eventually I saw that pseudo-gladiator again, or one of his several counterparts, and this time he was eating a slice from one of the many pizza shops. I could only guess that he was carbing up for an epic battle, but then again that could just be my own wishful thinking.