Walk like an Egyptian, Part 2

The next day we headed out to scuba dive the Red Sea. Matt is certified, but I am not. As with many resort towns, Hurghada wasn’t too concerned. The last time I went scuba diving was on our honeymoon in the Caribbean (19 years ago) and I recall very specifically how my ears just wouldn’t adjust to the pressure. #tinyeustachiantubeproblems I had hope that somehow the intervening 19 years would’ve worked this problem out.

We had another early morning pickup and headed to a different marina where we were fitted for fins and filled out liability paperwork. On board the boat were around 15 other people who had been diving each day prior with this crew. Once notified that I was a newb, the instructor divided us up- Matt with another advanced diver and she would go down, then she’d come back and take just me.

The trip out was long- probably around an hour, and islands began popping up. Several did a moving dive into the water as we sped along. The wind was whipping and the sun was beating down, but the water was crystal blue as I steadied myself up top, focusing on my breathing and hoping that my body would cooperate when down below.

Matt headed out for his dive and I got suited up. Eventually, it was my turn and they put the weights and vest on me and told me to hop in. I placed the oxygen in my mouth and tried to steady my breath. Quicker than I would’ve liked, the brusque Russian guide grabbed my arm and motioned for me to dive. We pushed into the water and made our way to the reefs. All along, I chanted to myself- you can do this, you can breathe, you won’t die, you can breathe. My Slavic shepherd led me along, pointing out anemones and fish as we dove deeper. My ears felt like they would split in half. I continually blew my nose to make them pop, but to no avail. She checked in with me, and after my so-so sign, we pushed further. I tried to be present with the sealife, but with my intense focus on breathing and not busting my eardrums, I’m afraid I was poor sport. The next time she checked in, we mutually decided to surface.

Up above, I discarded my wetsuit and Matt and I headed up top to dry off and rest. We were both feeling a bit seasick, so we just let the sun hit us to warm us up and took anti nausea pills. Down below the cook on board made lunch, so we went and made ourselves some plates and took it back above. The food actually tasted quite good, but I could barely eat with the quease pulsing through me. We would all have one more dive that afternoon, but Matt and I both decided that we were kaput and not up for it in our current stomach state. The anti-nausea pills drowsiness effect hit hard and we napped down in the cabin while everyone else went on their second dives. We were glad to return back to the resort and lay low the rest of the day, tending to our now sunburned skin and bilious tummies.

The next day was a big one. Once again, we were picked up at the ripe hour of 5 am and loaded into our private car with Mohamed, our driver from the airport. Each time someone picked us up, they had to give all their information to the guards at the front of our resort- numbers, names, times and places. It’s a safety measure to make sure visitors aren’t kidnapped. We both still weren’t feeling tip top shape, and were glad to nap in the backseat as Mohamed made the arduous 4 hour drive from Hurghada to Luxor. There were military checkpoints about once every 30 minutes or less. Armed guards checked Mohameds papers and permission to drive the road to Luxor.

Hot tip from me: do not attempt to rent a car and drive around. Not happening. Only tour Egypt with a guide. Mohamed not only was able to navigate the combination of horse and cart, speed bumps and Tuk Tuk madness, he had the language, experience and papers that allow you to get from point to point.

We woke up at the end of the drive through the Saharan desert, and noticed the land change to more mountains and green. We were getting closer to the Nile. Soon, the towns leading to Luxor began popping up and we saw a tremendous amount of people out and about, hauling produce, farming the land, riding in a carts pulled by donkeys, hopping on the local bus that doesn’t actually stop- you just jump aboard. We picked up Sam, our Egyptologist for the day and he immediately launched into the history of Luxor, Egyptian rulers, and our first stop: Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple.

As we stepped out of the air conditioned car, we were immediately hit with the most intense heat you can imagine. Picture Needles, California x 3. As we walked up the long path towards the temple, Sam enumerated the feats of this woman-king. We passed the statues guarding the entry to the terraced temple and listened raptly as Sam pointed at each of the heiroglyphic images on the walls, telling of her reign. I was starting to feel a bit faint at this point and figured that the scorching heat, my sunburn from the dive and all the anti-nausea meds from yesterday were conspiring to make today difficult. We entered further into the temple into the Anubis shrine, where we walked down a tunnel covered on all sides with beautiful paintings and writings. At this point, I was positive that if I sustained this stuffy, crowded and hot atmosphere, I was going to pass out, so I let Matt know that I needed to exit, stat. He took me to Sam who graciously walked me back to the car while Matt continued taking in the temple. Along the way, Sam took me to the on site ambulance service where they checked my glucose and blood pressure. It was low. He put me in the air conditioned car next to Mohamed and went and grabbed me waters and juice. I was so grateful for his kindness and help!

The next stop was the Valley of the Kings. We took it slow and Sam grabbed a white shawl for me to protect me from the sun. This place was wild. In the middle of mountainous desert, with absolutely nothing to recommend it, there are an estimated 63 tombs cut into the rocks or caves of this barren land. It is the principle place for the burials of ancient Egyptian royalty. We entered 3 tombs, each more impressive than the last. Some wended their way into multiple chambers and most were covered in brightly covered hieroglyphics. I was feeling slightly better, but the heat was still crippling me. Sam took me back to the car and Matt walked around a bit more.

Up next was the Colossi of Memnon, of which I have very little to say. : )

Then, we were once more on the Nile in a motorboat, but this area of the Nile was much nicer than in Cairo. Sam had arranged for the boats captain to have our lunch catered aboard (made by the captain’s mom!) and it was the best food we had in Egypt. I was sad I couldn’t eat more of it due to my punk state. After lunch, we idled for a bit and I put my feet in the water to cool off. Sam dipped the shawl he got me in the Nile and told me it would be my “air conditioner” for our next stop. I was feeling much better at this point, thankfully, because the final stop was the cream of the crop for our Luxor tour.

The temple of Karnak equals or exceeds the splendor of the pyramids, both in size and awe. It’s a 70 acre temple complex absolutely bathed in hieroglyphics. Sam told us that it contains the complete history of all the rulers of Egypt. After he gave us some insight (Coptic Christians used this place for gatherings! Second tallest obelisk still standing on Earth!) we were then given around an hour to wander on our own. We feasted on the beautiful engraved walls and endless columns in the Hypostyle Hall and marveled at the continuity of the Egyptian dynasties that continuously added onto this place for close to 2,000 years. My “air conditioner” was working great and we drank in the beauty and wonder. This was the best way to end our day in Luxor.

We dropped off Sam and Mohamed took us back to Hurghada, where we had a late dinner and crashed. Our final day in Egypt, we took it easy on the beach, laying our in our beach chairs, reading, ordering lunch, and swimming every hour or so to cool off. We realized that we both were dealing with some Ramses Revenge, a nice bit of dysentery we suppose we picked up on the dive boat. It took around 10 days to fully disperse from our system : ( The next day Mohamed picked us up again at the butt crack of dawn to take us to the airport, where we had a mostly uneventful flight back to Frankfurt, then our trains and buses home to Heidelberg.

My next post will be a final wrap up of our time in Germany. Thanks for reading about our adventures! You’ve come a long way!

Walk like an Egyptian, Part 1

Our final adventure abroad was worthy of its title. After 4 months in cold Germany, we were keen to spend a week somewhere that promised warm waters at the end of April. It turns out, nowhere in Europe can that be found. We had to go further south…to Africa.

Now, it hadn’t occurred to me to look at going to Egypt while we were abroad because it wasn’t on my radar, and it seemed very far away. Naturally, it’s high on my list of places I’ve always wanted to see, I just hadn’t thought of it while we were in Germany. Turns out, it’s a short 4ish hour flight from Frankfurt, and you can fly directly there for a good price. The Red Sea would also be the perfect temperature at the end of April, so after some hemming and hawing at the level 4 Do not Travel due to terrorism, kidnapping and crime warming from the US State Department, we decided to go for it and book the tickets.

We resolved to make our home base Hurghada, a resort beach town on the Red Sea, so that we could walk out directly from our hotel into the warm clear waters awaiting us. We booked an all inclusive hotel for $61/night (with a sea view- whattt??) and spent most of our money booking tour packages to Cairo and Luxor.

Tuesday morning we made the journey to Frankfurt and after a strange boarding process in which no one announced anything and you couldn’t see the plane, we were on board and ready to go.

The flight passed fairly quickly and after deboarding we began the process of getting into Egypt. Fortunately I had read all the travel forums so I was prepared for many of the very foreign and surprising things we would encounter. First up was an Egyptian visa, 25USD or Euro or UKPound only, then through customs with a travel form. We got some Egyptian pounds from the ATM and a local was standing next to us, waiting to offer his help. We declined and he followed us for a bit. I was certain he would try and rob us. Using the toilet at the airport, a person was standing inside, holding all the toilet paper for ransom- no tip, no tp. I had also read about this, so I had kleenex on hand. We went through 2 sets of security and baggage checks to exit the airport. Outside, our driver Mohamed was waiting for us and would take us the 30 minutes to our hotel.

Mohamed was very friendly and let us in on the quirks of Egypt- the cars and roads are notoriously wild- lanes aren’t acknowledged, there are speed bumps every few blocks, and the drivers honk incessantly. We also were warned that locals would be at all the spots we visited, expecting tips- to take a picture of you with your camera, to be led down a road, etc. We should decline and walk on. Even if they were police. I asked Mohamed what “no thank you” was in Arabic and he educated me- “la shukraan”.

Our resort was fairly similar to what you see in places like puerta vallarta- a pool or 2, several restaurants, a private beach. We unloaded, had dinner at the buffet and walked down to the beach to check out the views. The air was impeccable and the smell of the sea greeted our noses pleasantly. This felt right.

Next day we got to know the place. Aside from eating at the buffet, we spent most of the day on the beach, laying in our beach chairs and reading, fending off the constant barrage of salesman for massages, cornrows (not joking- saw many of the Russians bedecked), food and drink, water sports. We seemed to be the only Americans there and got a little bit of attention for it. We got into the water a few times and swam. The temperature was perfect. It was exactly what we were hoping for.

Thursday we were up at 3:40am to catch a flight to Cairo. There was some confusion on arrival to find our tour guide, but after around an hour of guide exchanges- this one was for Germans, this one was for a different group, we ended up with Sayeed, our English speaking guide. 4 Brits were with us in the van- 2 younger ladies and an older couple, and the car horns were in a constant battle as our driver avoided cars, buses, pedestrians and Tuk Tuks. We drove through ‘the city of the dead’- decrepit decorative buildings where many in extreme poverty had made their homes. Stray dogs nosed trash bags for food and lay out in the middle of the street to catch some sun. My eyelids waged war with my desire to see all around me- a donkey pulling a flat cart filled with vegetables and meat. I heard the younger lady from Essex say “I’d pay 25 quid for a coffee”. With our shockingly early morning, I think we were all feeling the same.

All around looked like bomb shelled buildings, reminding me of footage I’ve seen of war torn Afghanistan. We pulled over for an impromptu boat ride up the Nile, whereby a sign stood sentry: “Marina Ali Baba for Torrist”. We edged our way to the dock, which was really just a sidewalk littered with lean-to’s, with a line of boats aimlessly tied to the concrete. Sayeed arranged with one of the boat owners and we boarded a small boat with seats upholstered to look like my grandma’s 1960’s couch, complete with red floral motif. The captain emptied some diesel into the engine and started up. The coastline of Cairo came into view as we felt the river breeze on our faces. We came across families living in their small boats on the river- the tiny legs of their toddler draped over the edge of the boat as he extended a fishing pole. Multi-story boats held permanent positions along the coast as restaurants, the waitstaff visible through the windows, bustling to prepare lunch.

Up next was the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. Approaching the crowded exterior I was immediately hit with wonder at the weightiness of this place. Built in 1902, it was inaugurated at the crux of Egyptology and archaeology, when so many of these relics were discovered. We pushed our way through the entry (well, our guide did- Egyptians cut the line every time without fail) and were immediately hit with the immensity of history and truly astonishing finds.

Sayeed took us through the museum pointing out objects of interest and explaining them, and we were then left with about 45 minutes to explore on our own. Mummies, a chariot, tombs, pyramid apex, statues, coffins, the massive shrine of King Tut, all were spilling from the corners of every room, some documented, others haphazardly displayed with zero physical barrier. It was a messy and chaotic museum, which felt a lot like my impression of Egypt. The museum had all the flavor of 1920’s exploration- vast, not quite labeled or categorized and very accessible. I would’ve liked to have spent a whole day there, but our itinerary was packed and Sayeed beckoned us onward.

After the museum, Sayeed took us to one of those boat restaurants, where a buffet awaited us. I got some coffee- instant Nescafe is all you can get pretty much anywhere, but I was desperate- and we took off. Crossing the Nile into Giza, I saw the pyramids come into view. The line of buildings leading up to them left no sense of fanfare- it looked exactly like the poverty stricken streets of Mexico I’ve visited on many a mission trip. Another horse drawn cart clopped by, carrying big metal jars of propane.

As we exited the van, the enormity of the Great Pyramid washed over me. These pictures won’t tell you just how incomprehensible these structures are. Built in the 26th century BCE, it stands at 454 feet tall. Each block reached to the middle of my back and joined to climb higher than the Statue of Liberty. A chevron of rock marked the original entry to the pyramid. We walked around this colossus, trying to get our brains to process what we were seeing.

I had made it clear that I would not be leaving Egypt without having ridden a camel, and I was given the opportunity next. A short trip up the road took us to hills of sand littered with camels laying about with their shepherds. Sayeed arranged 2 for Matt and I and we were hoisted on top of these ridiculously tall creatures. It was not at all like riding a horse and I found it difficult to get my center of balance on his large hump. Our guide, who looked like a bedouin member of Duck Dynasty, took the reigns and began walking our camels through the desert. The giddy smile did not leave my face as we trudged along the sand dunes, the 3 pyramids of Giza coming into view. It was $27 for both of us to ride the camels. Worth every penny.

Next, we opted to go inside the middle pyramid, Khafre’s tomb. This is the only one that still has some of the limestone casing, which all the pyramids were covered in at one time. Walking through the narrow passageways, the oxygen became sparse and the interior was warm and stuffy. It was hard to imagine explorers doing intense physical work in these cramped, airless conditions. When we finally ascended and descended to the tomb room, a guardian was inside, yelling orders at the 6 odd people standing there- “walk forward! stand here! take a picture! go up and look!” On our way out, he cornered us and said “good luck to you both”, then held out his hand for a tip. Matt pressed some into his palm to get rid of him and we exited the stale shaft.

Our final stop of this exhausting day was the Great Sphinx. She was very crowded, but for landmarks and wonders alone, was not to be missed.

I take that back- we did also stop at a papyrus institute, where we were shown how papyrus paper was made, and then graciously given the opportunity to buy some if we wanted. We all then wearily boarded the bus to make our way back to the airport in Cairo. Once again , the crumbling buildings and slums that surrounded us, combined with the donkey carts, Tuk Tuks and garbage strewn along the streets, made this once rich and advanced superpower civilization feel like a 3rd world country. Sayeed leaves us in a way entirely on brand for the bedlam that is Egyptian driving. The van stops in the middle of the highway, and he gets out on foot to walk home.

Our flight back to Hurghada was mostly uneventful and we had a few bites at the buffet before crashing in our room. The next day we scheduled a semi submarine tour. This is like a glass bottomed boat, but the glass bottom is submerged more below the surface of the water. We were taken to the marina where we boarded the sub with a huge throng of families. After heading out on the Red Sea for about 20 minutes, the captain told us to go down below. We slowly shuffled behind one another until we reached the large cabin with glass windows and took positions at the seats facing them. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t imagine 2 scenarios: 1. the windows break, flooding the chamber and drowning us all, as well as my plan to get past the screaming mob to safety above 2. the captain locking the door and holding us ransom until we paid him lots of money. Fortunately my disaster planning was rendered unnecessary.

After viewing the massive coral reef and sealife for awhile, however, the stuffiness of the chamber and the convex of the glass was a bit too much for me and I escaped to the upper deck to avoid nausea. We soon put on goggles and fins and vests and snorkeled for a bit. The rest of the voyage was fine and we returned to rest and enjoy the remainder of our evening at the resort.

Viennese, please

The weekend after Trier, we decided to stay at the haus since it was the students last weekend. I’m glad we did. We took it easy walking around town and doing the philosopher’s way one last time. We spent some time with the students and generally just soaked up some of our final moments there.

I have been a bit surprised how sentimental I’ve been about leaving. Each walk to the castle is coupled with a sigh and dejected remark that this is the last time I’ll see my favorite tower ruin. All in all I’m more than ready to return to LA, my dogs, my home, my job, my church. But I’m really glad I’ve had this experience and all that came with it.

The students left early Tuesday morning and we spent the rest of the day puttering around, going to dinner and doing a puzzle all alone in the very empty 4 story house. It was eery.

Wednesday at 2 am we left for Vienna, which was pretty high on my list of places to see. We figured an overnight train would help ease the endless 8 hour journey. Turns out it was absolutely awful. 0/10 do not recommend. Unless you have a sleeper car. But those were sold out.

We arrived in this city of music and culture and began exploring. A Rick Steves walking tour was first on the agenda and we hit many main sights: the State Opera, Stephen’s cathedral, the ww2 memorial, fountains, Hapsburg palace complex, etc. After a big and tasty lunch and a friendly waiter, we went to our hotel to check in and crash for a bit.

That evening we had tickets for the State Opera to see Der Rosencavalier Opera by Strauss. Unfortunately our 15 euro tickets provided only a sliver of visibility of the stage, so the experience was fairly reduced. We enjoyed getting to see the beauty of the house and it was not hard to imagine Mozart and Mahler premiering their latest triumph.

The next day we rented bikes and toured around town and the canal, taking in the sights. After lunch, we headed out to Schönbrun Palace, the Austrian Palace about 40 minutes away. The Palace was much more thoughtfully laid out than Versailles and all in all more enjoyable. The grounds were extensive, with fountains nearly the size of a football field. It definitely gave the sense of the wealth and centralized power of the hapsburg empire.

We returned to Vienna and popped in to Cafe Central, a landmark Cafe from the turn of the century. It was bustling and a pianist was playing a grand piano in the center of the richly adorned room. Beautiful desserts filled the glass cases at the front and I settled on a caramel praline peanut chocolate piece of decadent cake. Paired with a viennese iced coffee, I was set for glucose overload and had no regrets. It was the single best dessert I’ve ever had. And I don’t even care that much for dessert. The atmosphere was charming and I envisioned Fitzgerald and Hemingway arguing over prose and sipping cappuccino.

We headed over to st Stephen’s again and made it in time for maundy Thursday mass. Though the mass was in German, we were so glad to experience a beautiful service with the archbishop and a choir that sang sacred music so perfectly I was spellbound. The foot washing, the incense, all of it was a balm to my soul.

Our final day we went to the natural history museum and it was fantastic. A huge dinosaur exhibit complete with a very lifelike animatronic dino encouraged all my childlike love for our prehistoric friends. There were excellent exhibits on early humans and one of the greatest collections of gems and minerals I’ve seen. The building was very early 20th century so it truly gave the feel of society in the 1900s discovering and exploring old worlds.

We decided to treat ourselves to first class train tickets for the return journey since our outbound was filled with so much suffering. It was still a long journey, but exponentially superior in every way.

We returned in time to get ourselves ready for Easter in Heidelberg, as we had friends from LA coming in and staying a few days. This was filled with laughter, excellent conversation, and a delightful taste of home. We packed all of our apartment up and said goodbye because we were leaving for our final adventure abroad Tuesday and upon return would stay 2 nights then finally make our return journey to home sweet home in Los Angeles. Stay tuned, this one is epic.

The oldest city in Germany

Last weekend we decided to take it easy again and headed out for a 2 day trip to Trier, the oldest city in Germany. It was around 3 hours from Heidelberg, and we ended up there because all of the other travel plans were falling through. One thing I’ve learned in my time out here is that travel is never smooth and you will spend more time planning the trip than anything else. While it’s been a blast to see all that we have, I am exhausted and ready to be back home with no plans to make and no places to go : )

When we arrived in Trier, the first thing we noticed was the Porta Nigra, a Roman gate that served as an entry to the city when Constantine set the western Roman empire in Trier for a time (mid 300’s). It looms large and black and imposing. Our first stop, however, was lunch. We landed on some yufka’s in the old square and chowed down before we entered the cathedral, the oldest church in Germany, with 4th century beginnings.

There wasn’t anything particularly breathtaking about it, though it did seem large and interesting. The draw of the cathedral, however, lies behind the altar and in the treasury. Both the supposed robe of Christ and the nail that went through his foot at the crucifixion were kept there, respectively. The robe room was accessible to view from behind the altar, however you could not see the robe as it is enclosed for care. The treasury room was happy to take a few euros and show us the reliquaries and fineries accumulated by the cathedral over the centuries.

We went up inside the Porta Nigra and got to see all the floors. A hermit had taken residence in the tower around 1028 and was eventually canonized, the only reason that they saved this collossal Roman ruin. It has been reconstructed for many different usages over the centuries, even a cathedral at one point, but now it has been stripped back to most of its original Roman structure.

The weather was turning chilly, so we walked down near to the river and explored the Roman baths. These were pretty cool, because you could actually go down below the baths and see all the tunnels where the servants would walk through and prepare bathing necessities. The complex was massive and we spent a good amount of time wandering all the different paths. Now that we’ve been to Baden Baden, it was quite interesting to see what an original Roman bath would’ve looked like beneath all the finery of stone and tile and pools. I am always astounded at what the Romans were capable of building 2000 years ago.

We walked a bit further to see another Roman bath, the Barbara Therm, which was smaller, but also interesting. After this, we walked by a college theatre, and when you’re near a college, that means decent cheap food. We had a delightful and well priced meal at a college hangout restaurant. We finally made our way to our hotel and settled in for the night.

The next morning we woke up to snow! In April! It felt like an April fools joke. Heidelberg has been so nice the past week or so, we would’ve sworn winter was over with. Jokes on us. It proceeded to snow and rain all week when we returned! We were not to be deterred, however, and our first stop was a Roman colosseum. This was spellbinding. I’ve been to the Colosseum in Rome. But this one felt so complete to me, and the coolest part was that you could actually go under the sand arena floor and see where trap lifts with set pieces would be raised from, as well as where animals and gladiators would wait for their fight. It brought The Gladiator to life for me and Russel Crowe vibes were permeating the snowy air. This was the highlight of the trip for me, for sure. We spent a very long time, even going down below a second time, then headed out.

For the rest of the day we devoured the Archaeological Museum. The amount of Roman and Celtic artifacts in this museum was astounding. A huge hallway had nothing but 20 foot Roman funerary monuments. It was one of the top museums we’ve visited. After many hours there, we headed to our train home.

France, we just can’t quit you

When we returned from our glorious adventure in Iceland, we had zero opportunity to recover as the president of the university came for a visit for the first part of the week, then we had an all day excursion to Colmar and Strasbourg with the students. It was a lovely day trip and when it came time for our weekend travel plans, Matt and I decided to return to the Alsace region for a laid back 2 days in France.

We rented a car on Friday morning and sweat bullets as we attempted to avoid speeding tickets through the surveillance zones in France. Our director recently received a $75 ticket for 1km over the speed limit, so we were thoroughly on alert.

Matt fell in love with this SEAT Leon, the Spanish VW brand

The rolling green hills came into view and we took in the beautiful countryside. Our first stop was Schillersdorf, a small farming town. Matt’s grandpa, who recently passed away, spent a good few months in the area during WWII on patrol. It had been a pivotal moment in the war for him and there are recordings of him recounting his experience there, refusing to surrender. We walked through the fields and drove through the town, trying to pinpoint the different geographical memories of his wartime experience. It felt like we were honoring him in doing so.

We then headed to Saverne and checked into our hotel. The receptionist was agog that any American tourists were stumbling into that village and that hotel. She was thrilled and asked us many questions about how we came to choose Saverne, and what we wanted to do. She then pulled out maps and a whole binder of hiking trails after we told her we’d like to get outdoors. Our first hike was Castle Haut-Barre, an old castle ruin built into grotesquely large boulders. At the top of the rock, we looked out over the village and enjoyed the view.

2 more castle hikes awaited us in the same forest, so we headed off to climb the hills and take in the old grandeur. That night we went into the village and walked around the old town, eventually deciding on an adorable Alsatian restaurant with all female waitresses that seemed genuinely eager to see that we enjoyed ourselves and their delicious food. Matt tried foie gras! That’s a brave man. I tried a bite. Best I can describe, it tasted like sweet meat paste. Very rich. I got a salmon salad. All of it was beautiful and delicious. Bien sûr, it’s France : )

The next morning we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the hotel before checking out and heading to the town of Ribeauvillé, a delightful medieval town between vineyards and mountains, about an hour or so drive from Saverne. 3 castles are situated at the top of the mountains, and after a somewhat punishing 2ish mile hike, we were greeted at the top with the amazing Castle St. Ulrich. There was quite a lot of the castle ruins remaining and we had fun climbing through the it.

We hiked over to its smaller companion castle before making our way back down into the town, and stopping at a bakery to get huge cheese sandwiches and fresh bread and dessert. We sat on a park bench and people watched while we chowed down on our delicious French food. The sun was shining, the weather was perfect, the hikes were beautiful and the people were fantastic. France rocks. This marks the 3rd time we’ve been there in 3.5 months. It is definitely one of my favorite places!

Land of Fire and Ice, Part 2

Day 3 of our Iceland adventure started off with another delicious breakfast at the dining hall. Overnight the wind had gusted and snow piled up halfway to the bottom of our windowsills. After the grandeur of yesterdays glacier hike I wasn’t sure much could top our experience thus far, but I happily plodded through the snow and boarded our bus.

Olie began regaling us with tales of “the mist hardships”; a series of eruptions through the 18th century that covered the land and air with so much ash that 80% of sheep and 1/3 of horses and cows perished. It was pitch black mid day. As the white snow gleamed through the windows, it was hard to picture this lovely island so devastated.

We made a stop at a gorgeous canyon carved out by water and of course, covered in snow. It reminded me of the Grand Canyon, but smaller of course.

Our next stop was the Skaftáreldahraun lava field, bounteous lava rocks formed during one of the greatest lava flows from a single eruption in the history of the world. It reached mile after mile, covered in snow, looking like a bowl of yogurt with blueberries littering the surface. Admittedly, I would’ve like to have seen it in the summer, when the snow melts and you’re presented with black rocks covered in vibrant green moss.

Next we stopped at the small town of Vik, where you could see out over the thrashing ocean and brave the whipping wind looking at the quaint red roofed church.

Then it was onto Reynisfjara Beach, where once again black sand covered the ground. An interesting feature here were basalt rock formations jutting out like spiky gothic spires along the coast. It reminded me of some of the locations of Tom Riddle’s horcruxes. We ate a tasty lunch here at the cafe on the beach.

Next was Seljalandsfoss waterfall, tumbling from the top of the mountain and crashing into an icy pool beneath. A series of 5 waterfalls followed and Matt and I crunched through the snow, narrowly avoiding some major slips on the ice.

On the way back to Reykjavic, we stopped at some thermal hot springs and took a picture with the group. It had been a fun adventure and I was a little sad about leaving them all behind, as they were on the 3 day tour, and we had one more day to go.

We stayed at a nice hotel that night and rested after having some happy hour drinks and appetizers down at the bar. Our dinner consisted of grocery store sandwiches and pringles and we enjoyed taking it easy in our hotel room.

We were picked up the next day by Bierga, our new tour guide, very friendly and her words to the group were “only rule in this van is seatbelts on. I am a fabulous driver, but cars can mess up.” This group was much bigger and as it was a one day tour, we didn’t have a chance to converse with anybody. Our first stop was the blue lagoon for a bathroom break, where the water was ice blue, punctuated by white formations, formed by silica. Bierga had told us that Icelanders are terrible planners, because the weather changes in an instant. It forces them to be super adaptable and they avoid planning in advance. As if to prove her point, we got back on the bus and were informed that our 8 hour volcano hike had been canceled due to weather. We had seen a weather report that 80-100km winds were expected as we poked around the Blue Lagoon, so we assumed that hiking a volcano would be problematic. Bierga quickly made some calls and we went to a lava tunnel instead.

I’ve been interested in seeing a lava tunnel, so it wasn’t too terrible of a change, but Matt was disappointed. Honestly, we probably would’ve preferred the hike. The lava tunnel was interesting, though. It reminded me a lot of Carlsbad Caverns, except with snow and ice and formed by lava rather than water. It was fascinating to imagine a thundering pool of lava rushing through, forming massive rooms that went on for 4500 feet. That concluded our tour for the day, because as we got back on the bus, we were informed that the Northern Lights tour for that evening had been canceled.

I was bitterly disappointed as the Northern Lights were the thing I was most excited to see. But, these lights are elusive and unpredictable. The snow and clouds and rain we encountered on our trip made visibility very poor and we found that all the tours in the area were canceled, so there was no alternative. We checked into our cute hotel and made our way to lunch at a restaurant called “American Style”. I kid you not, I had the Kevin Bacon :) Black and white photos of celebrities covered the walls and an American flag coated the back. We enjoyed our burgers and fries and went back to the hotel to relax and regroup. Since finding another tour to see the lights was proving moot, I suggested we go see a movie.

We walked a little over a mile in the rain to the local mall and watched Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile”. I got popcorn because I needed to know what it was like there, and we had a great time watching it all with Icelandic subtitles. We crashed that night, knowing our flight was early the next day.

We were up at 4am and the hotel desk guy was very chatty as he handed over a hand packed breakfast bag with a sandwich and juice and fruit since we were far too early for the breakfast buffet. So sweet. We talked with him until our shuttle arrived, then hung out at the surprisingly crowded airport until it was time to board our flight.

I can tell you this was an adventure of a lifetime and I am so glad we got to experience it. I am also glad we got to go at this point in time. With tourism quickly becoming so huge there, I anticipate that in 10 years, Iceland won’t be the same. The glacier probably will have to be protected. The sites may get eroded by too much usage. The crowds will make it far less wild and imaginative and thrilling. If you have a chance to go, GO. You will love it.

The Land of Fire and Ice, Part 1

I believe there are some places on Earth that we are meant to sit in awe of, and merely bask in their presence. No sense of ownership. Just respect. Iceland provided that rare glimpse into a place where nature cannot be tamed and the people accommodate and pay homage to the land that will have the final say.

Iceland is a place Matt and I have always wanted to visit, and knowing that we could get there in less than 4 hours and for a price that wouldn’t break us proved too tempting. We knew it was going to be a grand adventure, which felt an appropriate way to celebrate Matt’s 40th birthday. We splurged for a 4 day tour with nonstop adventures so we could make the most out of our visit, and we have no regrets.

Our grand adventure, however, began with a catastrophic email from Lufthansa informing us that security was expected to go on strike the day we were leaving and that we would not be allowed into Frankfurt airport. We were also told that none of the other airports within reasonable distance would be open to us. As we received this information less than 24 hours before our flight was set to leave, I nearly lost it, scrambling to figure out an alternative. With a very expensive tour on the line that began Wednesday morning, Tuesday was the only day in which we could travel. Lufthansa seemed to not have any communication with their “customer service” (which is a misnomer in Germany) as in all the 3 times I called, I was told that they could neither move me to another flight, nor was my flight canceled, and some didn’t even know the airport wouldn’t allow us in. With Germany off the table and not taking any responsibility for their royal fuck up, in desperation we chalked our flight and train to Frankfurt airport as a loss and quickly booked last minute plane tickets out of France instead. This meant we had to also book a train to Paris. And then a taxi to Charles de Gaulle. All just to get where we were originally all booked and ready to go to. You can imagine how much all these last minute bookings cost us, out of pocket. To date, Lufthansa is not responding to any of my emails to customer service. $1200 dollars later, we were set to leave Tuesday morning as (un)planned.

Landing in Reykjavik, we were immediately greeted with snow and cold and a very cute airport. And very expensive food and drink. After we checked into our hotel, we were further calibrated to Iceland prices when we got 2 burgers and fries and 1 beer for $45. Regardless, we were finally there and ready to hit the ground running. Olie, our delightful tour guide and expert driver (winter roads are impossible there!) picked us up in the morning and we got to meet the other 8 people on our tour. It was a mix- 2 guys who just graduated from college in Mexico, a couple from Lithuania, a Kiwi who just moved to London, and 5 of us Americans. All were friendly and easy to spend time with.

We headed off and Olie began telling us about Iceland’s history. Our first stop was Thingvellir National Park. This is where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, forming a canyon that spreads more and more each year. A blizzard started in as we walked around the park, taking in the views. This was already starting to feel wild.

Next, we headed to a geyser. I should say, several geysers. The one actively erupting was Strokkur and it went off every 5-8 minutes. Steam rose from the snow encrusted ground as we tentatively waited for each explosion. After this, we ate a big cafeteria for lunch and enjoyed about 6 different meats and some rice and vegetables. All was delicious!

Next, we headed off to Gulfoss waterfall, but made a pit stop to pet some Icelandic horses, which Olie proudly told us were extremely tame and sweet and that no other breed of horse is allowed on the island. Gulfoss spouted from the top of a canyon into rushing water below and we braved another blizzard with snow and ice pelting our face in order to climb the ridge and get the best views. It did not disappoint.

As we continued along the road exploring the south coast, waterfall after waterfall splashed from the snow encrusted bluffs to our left. Olie explained that tourism has only become their #1 industry since 2015, replacing fishing. With these astonishing views, I can’t imagine how that’s possible. Our final stop of the day was the Skogafoss waterfall. This had a very tall steep set of stairs up to the top, and though our legs were tired from the days excursions, we could not be stopped. My many months of the killer stairs in Heidelberg had prepared me for just such a feat. At the top, the sky was starting to clear and the sun came out, giving me some hope to catch the Northern Lights that night.

That night, we stayed in the countryside at a hotel that had a dining room on the property. The tour company owned the hotel, which really felt more like camp rooms, but very nice camp rooms. We all ate together in the dining room, where many got lamb shank, the local specialty. We got big bowls of hot soup and once again, it was delightful. I went out several times through the evening, tromping through the silent snow in the hopes of seeing the Lights. However, cloud cover came in as well as snow and I was unable to see any. I wasn’t giving up yet, though!

The next day, we had a big breakfast in the dining hall and left for the Glacier Lagoon, a big body of water dotted with small icebergs. Next, we saw Diamond Beach, where the black sand (pulverized lava stones) is punctuated by chunks of ice that wash up from the sea, like glinting jewels.

After this, we headed to the Skaftafell Glacier for our glacier hike, which ended up being the absolute highlight of the trip. It’s taken me some time to process this experience, and I’m still not sure I have fully yet. It was just too big of an experience. We didn’t know what to expect with a glacier hike. As we approached the cabin and began being fitted with crampons, an ice axe, helmets and a harness, it occurred to me that this was going to be more strenuous and risky than I imagined. Perfect. I had been reading Into Thin Air, about the disastrous climb of Mt Everest in 1996, and my thirst for an icy adventure was calling out to the wilds of Iceland. We boarded a bus with monster tires and lifts and were driven out to the base of the glacier.

A frozen lake spread out before us and we began our ascent of the glacier. Blue ice peaked from beneath the snow and the glacial fall spilled over the top of the mountain. Crevasses popped up on our right and left as we passed bright blue serac’s rising from the surface, forming corridors on the ice. The sun appeared and glinted off the perfectly clean and untouched snow, blinding us and raising our temperatures. Interstellar filmed some here, and with its otherworldly appearance, I can see why.

We dug our spikes into the ice as our bodies worked overtime until we approached an ice cave, formed by a river over the glacier. Impossibly blue ice shined in the sun and we crouched through the entrance to see the inside. There were 2 rooms within and I marveled at the perfectly smooth surface of the ice walls surrounding us. More than once my pulse quickened, imagining the ice collapsing on top of us, killing instantly. Matt and I shuffled through a narrow entry to room 2, where the roof formed a perfect wave curl, frozen in time above our heads.

We left the ice cave and continued up the glacier, taking in the views, before heading back to the frozen lake.

A pervading sense that we were among the few people that have gotten to trek these everchanging paths began to sink in. Something so huge and rare and dangerously beautiful. I reflected in the bus on our way back to the cabins that if this is the adventure of a lifetime, it can and should feel big. Bigger than what my normal can hold.

That night we ate at the dining room again (more soup for me!) and I once again braved the snow several times through the night, but alas, no Northern Lights.

A little Roman, a little German

We had a bit of a laid back weekend last weekend, which we preferred as spring break was approaching and our big trip was around the corner. It seemed prudent to have some rest and a little more low key travel. There were a few places that would be difficult to access by train, so we saved them up for a day we’d rent a car, and do it all together.

On Friday we got up and took the bus over to Enterprise and went through the same upgrade spiel they lay on thick in America. Guess that never goes away. In the end, we left with a purple Mitsubishi Space Star. The cars out here look and sound like they’re being powered by small hamsters, and this one was no different. We managed the autobahn, however, and our manual driving skills seemed to come back quickly.

Our first town was Baden-Baden, a town about an hour away. This was originally a Roman town, and is famous for its mineral hot springs. The Romans used the hot springs as baths, and it is still today used in that way. Also like the Romans, it is a nude bath house. I have previously experienced this with Korean bath houses in Seoul, and in Los Angeles, so this wasn’t too much of a stretch for me, but a little convincing was needed for the husband : )

There were 17 stations, each with different temperature pools or steam rooms, and were arranged in a way that is supposed to give maximum health benefits- starting with steam that got progressively hotter, then baths that did the same, and ending with an ice cold plunge pool. I thought it was a fun experience, and being able to look around at Roman building replicas made it all the more interesting.

After the thermal pools, there was a nap room with beds that had perfect temperature blankets on top. You could be swaddled by the attendant and settle in for a snooze. Admittedly, I was fairly excited about this and definitely got some good relaxation there.

Once we were fully clothed again, we wandered around town until we saw a cute restaurant and settled in for rosti and kasespaetzl. Both were tasty (alongside their beer counterparts), and we enjoyed it fully. Up next was Otisheim. Otisheim is a tiny town northwest of Stuttgart. I was particularly interested in visiting here because the Breyels (Broyles) family, my ancestors, were from there.

Johannes Broyles was born in 1679 and his family were farmers in the area, until he moved to Otisheim to become a weaver. There he met the daughter of the local gravedigger, Ursula, and they married at the Michaelskirche, the Evangelical Lutheran church in 1703. We went to the church, but as it was a Friday afternoon, there was no one there to unlock the doors, so we had to satisfy ourselves just looking at the outside and through the windows. It seemed to me to be a currently very active church. I like seeing that.

All of the Broyles children were baptized at this church, and in 1717, a large group of Germans, including my family, hired a ship and captain to take them to Pennsylvania to start a new life. There were some shady underhand dealings on the captains part, and instead he took them (eventually) to Virginia. It was there they started what is known as the Second Germanna Colony, aka 1717 colony, or New German Town. Once they arrived, they were indentured servants for 8 years to the Governor.

The town of Otisheim itself was rather sleepy- we saw very few people there, and all the shops and stores were closed. Many of the buildings seemed incredibly old- just crumbly aged homes that have been added onto bit by bit through the centuries.

After reflecting a bit on where I came from, we hopped back in the hamster car and headed back to Heidelberg. As no road trip is complete without a roadside stop, we found a rest area with a coffee shop and treats and got a few before finishing our journey.

Not too much more to say for the weekend, but I’m glad I got to see the church and the Roman spa, and we got to experience driving the countryside in Germany!

C’est la vie, Paris

This past weekend we got to traverse the ancient streets of Paris, home to artists and elite, countless historical moments and paintings and novels that defied the zeitgeist and badgered their way to cultural phenomenon.

Paris is only 3.5 hours away by train, and although a bit of a pricey ticket, totally worth it. The moment we stepped out at Gare de l’Est, the sun hit our faces, the temperature was perfect, and the ornate buildings greeted us with charm and mystery. We walked the 30 minutes to our hotel so we could see some of the town and find a spot to have lunch. Our hotel was sandwiched between a row of buildings on the blvd des Italiennes, by the Grand Opera house. If we had been there for longer, I would’ve liked to have seen a show there. Our hotel was sweet and comfortable, and far cleaner and nicer than I expected. The front desk was super friendly and unlike the Germans, who don’t allow you to speak German to them (insist on speaking to you in English), the friendly frenchman was happy to converse with me in my broken French that I haven’t spoken in decades.

We quickly found a boulangerie around the corner and got a carmelized onion and chicken sandwich with a hollandaise sauce on it? as well as a quiche lorraine. Every bite was SCRUMPTIOUS. I couldn’t hold in my appreciation for the meal and effusively praised it to the waitstaff (there was a double chefs kiss in there). Once again, super friendly and laid back staff who enjoyed my enjoyment of the meal.

Next up was the train to Versailles. This was about an hour southwest of Paris. We sat on the top level of the double decker train so we could view more of the city en route. A man with an accordion came up and played for tips (this happened more than once on public transport this weekend). We arrived at Versailles only to find that our ticket was only for the central city of Paris, not for the outskirts like Versailles. The ticket attendant seemed quite miffed with us and gave us a little chewing out, but then let us through. The palace was interesting. It seemed like a massive number of rooms that looked exactly the same, but had different paintings hung on the walls of each. Not quite what I was expecting in a palace. The hall of mirrors was a bit different and more gilded, but really, outside of Napoleon’s apartments, there wasn’t a huge amount to see inside. The gardens were quite nice and we enjoyed walking around the many ponds and fountains and wooded areas.

I would’ve liked to have gone inside the Petite Trianon, but tours had ended by the time we were there. We clocked about 10 miles walking around, so were feeling pretty beat by closing time as we made our way to the train station. When we arrived, we dropped our stuff in our room, then walked to a restaurant nearby that offered a fixed menu for 19 euros. It looked like it would be good local flavor and was quite charming from the outside, so we gave it a go.

Turned out, this restaurant claimed to have been the place the Lumiere brothers screened their first moving picture!! Way cool! It was all velvet and chandeliers and very turn of the century and had such atmosphere. Matt got a beer and I got a chardonnay, and my meal consisted of pepper beef and homemade fries, Matt’s was a salmon on spinach with a cream sauce, and dessert was the best creme brulee we’ve ever had. It was all such excellent food and such great ambience that we felt like we really scored.

We tumbled out with happy bellies and sleepy heads and fell asleep in our comfortable room quite quickly. Next morning we had tickets to the Louvre at opening, 9am, so we stopped at a cafe for coffee and chocolate croissant (excellent) and made our way to the pyramid. We knew it was going to be a massive museum, so we planned on being there until closing. We got our maps, circled our top must sees, and headed to the most stunning art in the world. It really is astounding that they display 35,000 pieces of art. We started with Mona Lisa and tried not to lose all faith in humanity waiting behind all the dipshits who walk up to her just to take their picture with the painting and move on. We were dumbstruck with the winged victory of Samothrace, and intrigued by the Venus de Milo. We viewed so so many gorgeous works of art that captivated us. The ancient Egyptian section was pretty cool as well. We left at closing and walked along the river, ending at the Eiffel tower at sunset.

We took in the beautiful views, then climbed up to the second floor and looked out over town. It all felt pretty magical. After that, we took a boat tour along the Seine to see all the landmarks along the way. It was a fun audio guided tour that got us on the water. After that we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel (reasonable, only about 10 euro) and I enjoyed chatting (en francais!) with the driver. We then got a pizza to go and devoured it in our room before crashing.

Our final day, Sunday, we had a lovely breakfast at the hotel buffet (homemade butter/pineapple cake!) before heading over to Musee D’Orsay. We were both pretty excited to see this one, because 1. it was free that day and 2. I love the Impressionist! The museum was chock full of Van Gogh, Renoir, Degas, Monet, and countless other stupefying paintings. We loved it! Favorite for me was the series of Rouen Cathedrals by Monet.

After some playful jibes by the coat check gentleman retrieving our bags (#thingsthatwillneverhappeninGermany) we took the bus to Gare de l’Est and grabbed a lunch before boarding our train back to chilly Heidelberg.

It was a tremendous trip. Just full of loveliness and charm and delight and sensory pleasure. I came to Paris at 18 and it was not a great visit for me. I was fairly disappointed, but this trip redeemed Paris for me and I’m so glad I got another chance. Vive Le France!

Ein deutche geburtstag

That’s right, folks, this past week was the dual birthday of Matt and I and we got to celebrate it here in Heidelberg! We felt completely showered with love by flowers, cakes, champagne and gift cards. A student even made us a carrot cake! So sweet.

We had a mostly uneventful week outside of celebrating like crazy. We stayed here in town as our friends the Macalusos came for a visit. We had a great time showing them around the old bridge, the funicular up to the Königstuhl, some hiking, lots of the Hauptstraße and the castle.

The morning of our birthday, I made some fresh pastries. This ended up being easier than I expected. I got flaky pastry sheets (that I incorrectly thought were premade frozen pastries) and thawed them. Then I just threw pieces of chocolate candy bar or raspberry jam in them, and folded them over. 20 minutes in the oven and this tasty treat came out. I’ll definitely do that again!

We got to see a local philharmonic concert here in town with the students. The first was a very dissonant modern piece by a young composer who was there in the audience. I can’t say it was a pleasant performance. The rest of the night was Prokofiev and Shubert, which was much preferred. We learned that almost every village that’s of any decent size in Germany has a local theatre and symphony. They are paid by the city (through the residents taxes) and the tickets are subsidized as well. Many American musicians will come over here and be a part of the performing arts since there’s so many more paying jobs available. I thought this was fascinating. To think of theatre actors being paid by the city, or a harpist receiving a steady paycheck from the village. Wild.

I guess the biggest news around here is that I finally secured the boots of my dreams. I have been looking all over for these and I finally spotted them on a woman at the train station in Sevilla. I asked her where she got them and she told me a certain website, so when we returned, my birthday present to myself was getting these beauties. Feast your eyes, world. These are never coming off.

That’s all I’ve got for this somewhat quiet birthday week in Heidelberg. Onward and upward!