Sierra Nevada, Spain

The wind tore at my face with frozen teeth taking even more of my flesh into its insatiate bowels and numbing anything left exposed to its assault. We were on the second day of our ascent of Mulhacen, Spain’s highest peak, slowly approaching the summit with one meditated footfall at a time. Each step was mentally contemplated before planting into the frozen earth, snow drifting upon frozen waves of blue ice. A miscalculation meant crashing into that dead terrain and risking bodily harm; a terrain not meant for the injured. We distracted ourselves with games of the mind to cloud the pain in our legs, the burn in our lungs, and the deep cold that pounded upon the exterior of our jackets trying to penetrate our bodies. Finally, we reached the summit; our grins chiseled in stone. We had made it. It had been a difficult hike, but an exceptional adventure.



Below is a video of our ascent.



Edinburgh, Scotland


The one thing I absolutely love about the U.K. and Ireland is that no matter what you’re doing, no matter how cold it is outside, or wet, or how miserable the weather may be, there is always–and I mean always–a pub that is warm, inviting, and just permeates an environment of coziness. For our last New Year’s celebration in Europe we decided to head to the beautiful city of Edinburgh. I could live in this city. If you have followed our little adventures then you are quite aware that we have traveled to several of Europe’s big cities and each is unique and beautiful in their own distinct manner. However, Edinburgh is my kind of city. First and foremost it’s a walking city and unlike some other cities where tall buildings obstruct views and sometimes create a feeling of being boxed in, Edinburgh is entirely the opposite. Many of its buildings are low standing, and turning a corner I was often surprised by scenes of ruins on hills, the castle standing above everything, and a small mountain in the distance. Not often can one see more than a few blocks in a major city, but here you could see miles (well maybe a kilometer or two, but you get my meaning). The city itself kind of reminded me of going to a favorite pub. The people and the ambience of the city were friendly and welcoming, and no matter where we went we could always find a cozy place to sit down and get a pint.


The Scottish celebrate the coming New Year a little differently. The four day celebration known as Hogmanay is a large event attracting thousands upon thousands of spectators and initiated through a procession of 35,000 people holding torches–a slight resemblance to medieval swords–tromping through the city. We couldn’t help but pose and play like we were knights or samurai–even after they were set ablaze. The procession took place on the day before New Year’s Eve, or as I like to call it New Year’s Eve Eve, and a walking distance of roughly two kilometers in length. It was initially slow going but after our torches were lit and we began walking among thousands of other torch carrying participants each warming the cold night’s air with their glowing flames, we couldn’t help but get excited at the prospect of what was happening around us. The Scottish and several thousand tourists from many different nations, including ourselves, had all become united through the fire we carried.



That night at the end of the procession and after dipping our torches into vats of water, we headed out in search of food and drink. I think living in Spain worked against us that night. It was near 10pm and no matter which pub we entered we could not find food anywhere, beer sure, but no food. In Spain the Spanish don’t even really begin eating until 9 or 10 pm, and becoming a little acculturated over the last two and a half years, our eating habits have also changed a bit. So there we were running around going in and out of countless pubs looking for some bit of morsel we could stick down our gullet. All kitchens, however, were closed. Ultimately, we called off the pub food hunt and went directly to a fish n’ chips food vendor on the street and satiated our hunger. Then we went to a pub to satisfy another hunger.

The next night we gathered ourselves among the many, joining our persons to the growing mass of that mad mob awaiting the arrival of 2015. It was the largest street party I have ever attended. Bodies everywhere slowly moved up and down Princes Street like an intertwined network of arteries pumping people through to varying parts of the festival, as if we were the blood that gave life to the party. Yet with so much congestion I was surprised that the  congeniality we had discovered in the streets of Edinburgh days prior still abounded in that chaotic swarm of excitement. No matter how many bodies bounced into one another, everyone was still extremely friendly. When the countdown began drawing the year to an end, we looked up to the castle on the hill turn different colors with every second chanted in unison. Then fire lit up the sky in colorful explosions.

Happy New Year and have a fantastic 2015!

Click the links to view Hogmanay montage and firework display

The Valley of Bells

Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

When I was young I had a train set that I shared with my brothers. We built the whole thing by hand. The landscape was sculpted by our imaginations and each track was laid down with scrupulous design. It was kind of an anachronistic hobby of the 1950s that somehow made its way into our lives by way of our father. Strangely enough, it was also during the time of Nintendo’s infancy and the whole video gaming industry striving into new realms of 8-bit graphics and user interfaces that changed the dynamics of gaming forever. But, somehow, my brothers, father, and I were still drawn away from all that tempting technology to this little train that went around its simple little tracks on a flat green surface with a few sparse trees and a single depot—at least for a time.

Being a hiker I always wanted to experience the Alps since moving to Europe, and when my wife and I got the chance we jumped on it. However, the difficulty we were faced with was deciding which part of the Alps to visit. There are so many valleys, peaks, and towns one can stay at that a quick trip would only be hitting the tip of the glacier, if you follow my reasoning (not to mention my pun). After much research, deliberations, and some arm wrestling we decided upon the valley of Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, not only because of its many hiking trails but because the valley is encircled by 72 waterfalls fed from glaciers year-round. For our first time to Switzerland and the Alps we couldn’t have made a better choice.

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We flew into Geneva, rented a car (Fiat 500), and drove from the French speaking side of Switzerland to the German speaking side. What I hoped to be a beautiful drive through valleys and peaks turned out to be a couple hour drive in complete darkness due to our late arrival in Geneva. Nonetheless, we arrived to the valley and found our hotel. Though all we could see was the damp street we drove and some dim lights off in the distance, we were surprised by the sound of crashing water that penetrated the dark surrounding us. For me, there has always been something comforting and almost magical about moving water at nighttime, even if you can’t see it and simply know its there.

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The next day when I awoke to the sun beaming through our hotel window, I languidly got out of bed and walked out onto our balcony. What mysteries darkness had shrouded during the previous night daybreak now revealed. The valley of Lauterbrunnen rolled out before me in flowing green waves stretching into the distance until finally crashing against cliffs of rock that jutted skyward. The sound of cascading water that had filled my ears the night prior was revealed to be not one but several visible waterfalls from my balcony; a chorus of water in perfect harmonization filling the valley with its deep roar. If that were not enough to overwhelm my senses, I saw small trains trudging steadily up hills and mountains and along the cliffs of the valley transporting passengers from one small town to the next. Although I had never been there before, my throat tightened slightly as a wave of nostalgia crashed over me. We had entered a living train set much more beautiful than I could ever had imagined in my youth.

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I have read that the Alps and several of its valleys are the most supported hiking trails in the world. And I believe this statement to be true. It is so easy to begin in one town, hike to another, and if one so desires take a train to another. There are several smaller villages scattered throughout the valley with varying degrees of elevation (many have no cars and supported only by trains and cable cars), and its easy to find food/restaurants or even places to stay within each. For our fist day in the valley we chose to rent bikes (recommended by Rick Steves), to get a lay of the land and possibly do some reenactments from the Sound of Music. We took our rented mountain bikes on a trolley from the town of Lauterbrunnen to Murren. From here the walking/bike path was mostly a steady decline as we went from one village to the next tracing the rim of the valley. We lazily coasted on our two wheels as scenery of jagged, white mountain peaks and grassy hillsides filled with yellow flowers passed us by. However, it was when we first stopped to take pictures when I noticed a clanging sound off in the distance and which resonated above the rushing water. As we continued around a bend in the trail we ran into a small herd of cows being moved from one pen to another by a kid no older than the age of ten. There of course was nothing strange in that, but what caught our attention was that every cow possessed a collar from which dangled a bell so large that I could wear one as a helmet. Every bell varied in size, probably dependent on the animal’s proportions, and all clanged discordantly to some unknown rhythm as they swayed their bulky forms across the road.

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Eventually, we made our way down from the higher towns along the rim of the valley into the lower rolling hills within. Clanging bells abounded as we cycled along and through small roaming herds of cattle, sheep, and goats; each with their own bell as if by some greater design possessed a specific sound unique to that animal. Between the low roaring of waterfalls and the animals signaling their positions with their own chime, the valley opened itself up to a symphony of sounds.

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The next day we wanted to hike. We decided on a specific day-hike that would show us more of the valley. We drove our little rental car out to the opposite end of the valley from which we were staying and parked in the small town located just at the base of the trailhead. The trail was rated as medium-difficulty and would take about 4-5 hours to complete. Being the hikers we are we always like to gage whether the trails are rated appropriately, and of course much of this depends on the demographic of hikers in the area that mostly utilize the trail. Normally, we always come in under time when hiking in the United States. However, here in Switzerland and especially in the Alps–where people hike on a daily basis just to get groceries–we were put in our place in regards to our own abilities.

Nonetheless, the hike in itself was exactly what you imagine a hike in Switzerland to be: breathtaking. We began by walking up and through a thick forest only for the trees to part ways to open fields of cows with large clanging bells mooing to one another as if they were practicing their yodels. One cow would sound off with a guttural tone, only for that call to be answered by a cow on another hill or mountainside. Walking through the open fields we could see towering peaks of white and waterfall after waterfall carve down the face of cliffs. We stopped only a brief time when the view was perfect to eat a small picnic and enjoy the cows caroling. It was after our snack when we realized how friendly the cows actually were—too friendly.

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We had just packed up and began walking again when one cow after another began to become curious about us. For the most part they were timid creatures that simply backed away and watched us pass by. Younger ones sometimes followed us for a while and my wife would nervously look back to make sure they didn’t gain any ground. She has always been nervous around large animals. At one point when we were leaving one hillside pasture we had to wait for a train of cows to finish coming down the trail so we might go up. When they passed us by we began up the trail only to stop about fifty or so paces into it when another train of cows came down. We stood off to the side to let them pass again. Unfortunately, at this point we were at a very narrow section of the trail and we had no choice but to stand a few feet off the trail and on the ledge of a steep hill that descended quickly down into the valley from which we came. The cows slowly made their way down the trail and stopped every so often to look at us and make sure we were not a threat. Eventually they all passed us by except the last one to pass decided to turn around and make friends, nearly running us off the mountain. As the young steer turned back he made his way to the little ledge on which we were standing. He moved along side me as I patted him kindly and made way for his massive form, and my wife—taking another approach—flew up the hillside, through the bushes, and up the trail. I eventually caught up with her. And although we finished the hike within the standard time, we realized that when it comes to hiking the Swiss wrote the book.

After our hike we drove down the valley to visit a waterfall that is unique by any standards. Trummelbach Falls is entirely enclosed by rock and can be experienced only through a network of man made tunnels. Personally, I don’t think I have ever been that close to a force of nature so powerful in my life. I felt small and weak and stood in total awe of such a raw compilation of beauty and force. We had taken an old mining lift to the highest viewing platform and where the falls began. The deafening roar reverberated through our being as water shot from the rock face in an explosion, as if deep within the mountain was the source of its birth and the outpouring its first breath of life. Water crashed in torrents and into pools only to smash down into another and another in a seemingly endless game of liquid dominos. Until finally, the waterfall made the valley floor and left its rocky interior as a gentle flowing river into the open valley.


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I feel that Lauterbrunnen Valley is one of those locations–like Yosemite, like the Grand Canyon, or Plitvice Lakes–that you don’t truly believe can exist until you experience it. It’s a natural phenomenon so striking, so breathtaking that it sticks with you forever. And later, when recalled from memory its images are forged in sharp definition only because the impact of the experience was that profound. Or, at least, I know it is in this way for me.

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.


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.
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)