Thursday, May 22, 2014

Our Biggest Adventure in Europe: July 2014!

It's a great time to be living in Maastricht. Warm temperatures are finally here on a semi-regular basis, flowers are in bloom, sidewalk cafes are crowded, and there's almost always something happening in the Vrijthof! For the past couple of weeks, it was a carnival. I can't say I was sad to see all of the garish attractions being torn down on Monday. It's nice to live so close to all of the action but I was getting tired of hearing the theme from Indiana Jones on loop and all of the screaming from the upside-down rides.

It's only a couple of months until Andre Rieu will once again regale us with his orchestra and choir. This year marks 10 years of his concerts in the Vrijthof! He'll be here four weekends in July and it's very possible that during the last weekend, in a small apartment overlooking the square, we will be participating in our own exciting performance. To the soundtrack of classical music, I might start having contractions. And then we'll get a move-on to the hospital so I can deliver our baby! If for some reason we don't make it there in time, I guess we'll have to name him Andre.

Since this is my first baby, I don't really know the differences between having one here versus having one back in the states. I've been seeing a German doctor up until this point. So far, care has been extremely thorough. I have ultrasounds every time I visit the doctor. Initially, we didn't want to know the gender of the baby but it was nearly impossible not to find out because we've been able to see him so often. He's definitely a boy!

When I first found out I was pregnant, people back home warned me that strangers would approach me all of the time to touch my belly. Maybe that's true in America, but here no one has groped me. As the belly grows, sometimes people openly gawk. That makes me a little uncomfortable. Oddly, it's especially the case for elderly men and women. Their stares often seem reproachful, as in: "Shame, shame. Do you know how you got yourself into this position?" It's really weird. I feel like I'm a teen mom on "16 and Pregnant" sometimes. I'm probably just being paranoid.

I swim at a pool in The Netherlands and have a rapport with one of the lifeguards because I go there so often. His wife just had their first baby a few weeks ago so of course he's been offering me lots of advice and colorful commentary throughout the pregnancy. Some of my favorite conversations have gone like this:
"Oh, so you're pregnant? How far along are you? Oh, really? Only four months? Well this (as he produces a camera phone photo of his wife) is what you will look like when you are six months pregnant!!!!!!! You will be big!"

"Try not to swim like that. It uses too much energy. Maybe you can try on your back only, moving your legs. Like a penguin."

My favorite was this:
"Do you have any stretch markings?"
"Ummm... no, not yet....."
"Oh. Well, my wife has lots of stretch markings. I told her, 'At least a zebra has more stripes than you for now!' She did not think that was funny."

All in all, I'd say things have gone well. I'm happy to finally be in the final trimester. It's been very easy to stay active and fit throughout the pregnancy because I walk everywhere here and there's no Chick-fil-A. I prefer swimming and yoga but sometimes I exercise with pregnancy workout DVDs. They're pretty corny. Lots of, "Now, pull that belly in, little mama!" and, "Let's do some pelvic tilts now, mom! Don't forget your kegels!" I hope the neighbors can't hear these uber-cheerful trainers screaming at me about my weakened pelvic wall and uterus.

I feel him kicking around all of the time now and I wonder what he'll look like and sound like. We probably won't be here long enough for him to learn Dutch but I'm really happy that he'll be born in The Netherlands.

We've traveled to so many different places and have been lucky enough to experience many different kinds of cultures, drink lots of great wines and beers, and meet interesting people from all over Europe. It feels like every day here has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But I have to say, being able to share all of this with another person who will be half of me and half of my husband tops it all.

So the countdown begins to summer in Maastricht, Andre Rieu, and our baby boy!

Monday, April 21, 2014

An Afternoon in Valletta, Malta

We woke up early in Gharb for our final Maltese adventure in Valletta. We left at 9:30, reversing our original journey. We took a bus from Gharb to Victoria, then from Victoria to Mgarr, then a ferry from Mgarr to Cirkewwa. For some reason I thought Valletta was just another short bus or taxi ride from from Cirkewwa but I was wrong. We were on the bus for almost an hour after our already hours-long trek from Gharb. It wasn't too bad though. The streets were a little less bumpy and we were able to see a lot of nice scenery as we drove through the island on the way to Valletta.

Grand Harbor from
Hotel Phoenicia's Gardens
At almost 2pm we finally reached our destination, the Hotel Phoenicia. It's conveniently located right next to the bus station so at least we didn't have a difficult time finding it once we were there. Hotel Phoenicia was built in 1939, the first luxury hotel in Malta. It's situated just outside the city's walls and sprawled over 7.5 acres of beautiful, fragrant gardens. The hotel hearkens back to the days of old-world charm. It really feels like you're stepping back in time when you enter the grand foyer and pass through to the opulent, chandeliered lounge area. The hotel is currently undergoing renovations to add some 21st-century amenities but you can still have a good look at its original grandeur. Thick-carpeted banquet rooms with heavy, luxurious drapes over the windows still sit untouched, waiting to be introduced to the future.

The pool is the best part about Hotel Phoenicia. After a leisurely walk through the gardens, pausing to look at breathtaking views of Valletta's harbor, you find yourself at the base of the city walls, a large and welcoming pool beckoning you to jump in for a dip. The water is kept at the perfect temperature-- slightly heated for the cool April breezes wafting through the gardens at sunset. But I'm getting ahead of myself. We definitely did some sightseeing in Valletta before lounging poolside at the end of the day.

We had lunch at the Pegasus restaurant in the hotel since we were tired and starved after our unexpectedly long journey to Valletta. This lunch was one of my husband's favorite meals so far this year. Both of us enjoyed sumptuous soups as starters and fresh, grilled sea bass for the main course. Our waiter was extremely friendly and eager to inquire about our thoughts on Malta so far. He was clearly very proud and passionate about his country and had lots of suggestions (if only we had more time!) for us. We told him we had enjoyed our time in Gharb very much and everyone we met was so kind.
"Ahh, that is characteristic of the Maltese!" he said with unabashed pride. "We are a very friendly people. The only time you can say something bad about us is when we are driving. Then, we get very hotheaded!"

It was late afternoon by the time we finished lunch so we rushed out of the hotel to see what we could of the city before the sun set. Valletta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fortified city is well-preserved, its hilly, cobbled streets ending at the glistening blue waters of the Grand Harbor.

St. John's Co-Cathedral is a must-see. It was commissioned in 1572 as the conventual church for the Knights of St. John and it's dedicated to St. John the Baptist. The Knights' mission was to protect the Catholic faith from attacks from the Ottoman Turks. The cathedral's stunning interior features over 400 colorful inlaid marble tombs commemorating some of the most illustrious Knights of the Order of St. John. They date from the early 17th century to the 19th century.

The walls and ceilings glitter with gold and Caravaggio's largest canvas, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist is the alter piece of the Oratory. Not only is it his largest painting, it's also the only one he's known to have signed (completed in 1608).

From the cathedral, we wandered the streets of Valletta, taking in the views of the sea. We lined up with a large crowd to indulge in scoops of ice cream from Caffe Cordina, "Malta's Finest Coffee Shop." We were a little disappointed that we arrived in Valletta too late to visit all of its important sites, but just walking around the city was a pleasure. The sun was shining and the sea was sparkling so we really enjoyed our time, even though it was short.

We made our way back to the hotel for a refreshing swim at the pool and watched the sun set over the harbor as the walls of the city rose behind us. What more could you ask for?

Since we had to wake up at four the next morning for our insanely early flight, we decided to have dinner at the hotel's Phoenix Restaurant. We actually preferred the lunch at Pegasus over dinner at Phoenix, but the food was still good. We were serenaded by an old-school piano player who regaled us with Elton John classics. We were the youngest diners in the restaurant by about 30 years so it was certainly an appropriate soundtrack for the crowd. But I suppose you're never too young or old for B-B-B-Bennie and the Jets.

Malta is a wonderful place to visit. It's a slice of heaven in the Mediterranean. The water is breathtakingly beautiful and the people are extremely friendly. Everything seems to be suspended in time, especially the village of Gharb. It's a good place to go if you want to feel like you're at the ends of the earth... until you hear those rickety buses crashing down the dusty streets. But riding the buses has its own charms. The drivers are nice (and brave) and being on the bus makes you realize just how small the island is because everyone knows each other and offers a "Good Morning" or "Good Day" whether you're a tourist or their neighbor.

I'll miss you, Malta.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Getaway to Gozo (Malta)

We're lucky there was no snow this winter and temperatures were mild compared to the past two years, but we were thinking well in advance when we planned a trip in April to a warm, sunny place on the sea. We thought that by then, we would be tired of the cold and gloom. Sure enough, it was cloudy and chilly when we left Eindhoven for the Mediterranean shores of Malta.

We decided to make this vacation a relaxing one. No rushing from monument to monument, waiting in line at museums, crossing off countless items on a 'To-See' list. This time we'd laze around a pool and set our clocks by island time, no deadlines and no commitments other than watching the sun rise and set over the sea.

With this goal in mind, we rented a farmhouse on the Maltese island of Gozo in a tiny village called Gharb. We wanted remote and remote was certainly what we got. Our guidebook was a little misleading because we thought it would take us maybe 2 hours to get from the airport to Gharb. We landed in the early afternoon and didn't reach Gharb until almost 6pm! This was after taking a 45-minute bus from the airport to Cirkewwa ferry. Then after we'd managed to haul our luggage off the bus, we realized why everyone had made a mad rush for the terminal. We just missed the ferry by a minute. The next one wasn't for another 45 minutes. 

On the Ferry to Gozo
It was a 25-minute ferry ride to the harbor town of Mgarr on Gozo. We figured out the bus schedule and hopped aboard the next one to Victoria, the capital city of Gozo. 25 minutes later we were in Victoria and we still had one more bus to take, this time to Gharb. As luck would have it, we had just missed it and the next one wasn't scheduled for another hour. We quickly decided to take a taxi because even though we were trying really hard not to worry about time and schedules, our journey to the farmhouse was getting a little ridiculous.

Though it took a little longer that we expected, the farmhouse in Gharb was well worth the journey. The house is over 400 years old and furnished with lots of interesting antiques. It came with a private pool, barbecue area, 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, and a kitchen larger than the one in our apartment in Maastricht. Views of the Gharb countryside out to the Mediterranean sea were also complimentary. All of this cost less than half the price of a hotel! 

Gozo Farmhouse

We were in relaxation mode at last! We walked to a tiny grocery shop and bought items for dinner outside on the deck, overlooking the pool and Gharb's landscape. 


The next morning I was woken up by the brilliant sun streaming through our curtains. I folded them back to find the most perfect sun rising up over the village. We enjoyed a leisurely morning breakfasting on the terrace and breathing in fresh, salty air.


We knew that we needed more supplies for the next couple of days and our host suggested we take the bus back to Victoria where there are more shopping options. The bus schedule for the stop outside our house was once every hour. The bus didn't arrive until about 7 minutes after its posted time but it didn't bother us. Maltese bus drivers are on island time, too.

Now, a word about buses and driving in Malta in general. In Gozo, the roads are far from smooth. Riding the bus was a jarring experience, to say the least. There are potholes everywhere and the roads are so narrow that if two vehicles meet, one has to reverse itself back down the road to allow the other to pass. The bus drivers are fearless. I held my breath as we lurched past tractor-trailers and other buses. Once, our bus almost completely backed down a hill and I thought we were going to end up in the living room of the house behind us. Of course, no calamities occurred. It was easy to distinguish between the few tourists on the island and the native Maltese. Tourists were cringing and clutching the railings while the Maltese were calmly reading newspapers and chatting on their cell phones as we careened around corners and bumped onward to the next stop.

Phone Booth in Gharb

Finally we made it to Victoria and decided on a 25-minute walk to the nearest Lidl. One great thing about Malta (for us) is that most signs are in English and most people speak English extremely well. Malta was part of the British Empire for over 150 years. Driving is on the left, red British telephone booths pop up unexpectedly, and beer is sold in pints. We encountered lots of British people while we were in Malta. It seems like a very popular retirement destination for them. 

So, back to Lidl. It was just like any other Lidl you'd find in Germany except everything was in English. We procured most of what we needed and as we were doing a final check, we heard a voice over the intercom say, "We are now closing until 4. Please do not place any more items in the checkout line." We were still searching for a couple of necessities and I frantically turned to my husband and asked, "Did you hear that? They're closing until 4?!"
"Yeah, I heard," he said. "That's so weird."
"Oh no. I think they must do afternoon siestas here or something and all of the business are going to be closed! Maybe even the bus drivers will take naps! How are we going to get the rest of our stuff and get back to Gharb?!" I replied frantically.
"I don't know but I guess we don't have a choice," he said.

We began throwing all of our merchandise onto the nearest conveyor belt. I looked around, wondering why everyone else in the store was still shopping calmly even though all of the cashiers were getting ready to close their registers and take naps in the break room.

Suddenly, another announcement was made, "We are now closing until 2. Please do not place any more items in the checkout line."

"What?!" I exclaimed. "This is crazy! Now they're only closing until 2? Why did they change it?"
My husband, as confused as I was, said, "I don't know. This is so weird."

Finally, after we'd tossed all of our groceries haphazardly onto the belt, I had a moment of clarity. Again, an announcement came over and said, "We are now closing until 1." I suddenly realized that Lidl wasn't closing until 4, 2, or even 1. They were closing TILLS 4, 2, and 1. Tills as in registers. You can imagine how boneheaded we felt. It reminded me of when we first moved here and everything we encountered called for panic and confusion. I guess it just goes to show that foreign travel, no matter how often you do it, can still leave you flummoxed-- even if everyone around you is speaking your native language.

We made our way back to the bus stop and, conveniently, had just missed the next one. Bus fare in Malta is extremely inexpensive. Two all-day tickets are just 3 Euros. But since we had several full bags, and it was hot and we were tired, we decided on taking a taxi again. It's difficult to cough up 10 Euros after spending only 3 for the bus but we were ready for our siestas, even if the rest of the island was still carrying on with business as usual.

Street in Gharb

We spent the rest of the day reading and relaxing by the pool. It's amazing how quickly the hours pass when there's nothing to do except admire the view and lounge. 

The next morning was dedicated to Comino Island and The Blue Lagoon. Comino is a tiny island between Malta and Gozo (closer to Gozo). We took the bus from Gharb to Victoria, then to Mgarr to catch a boat to Comino. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were approached by a man who shoved brochures at us and told us that his boat to The Blue Lagoon was leaving in 5 minutes and we'd better be on it because the next one wouldn't leave for another hour. We were a little put-off by his aggressive approach but we took a brochure and said we'd think about it after we'd used the toilet. Once we came out, we were again accosted by someone, this time a woman. She told us we needed to get on the boat right away, making it sound as if we'd be stranded on Mgarr forever if we didn't act now. We agreed to go and when we stepped aboard the boat we realized the man who first approached us was the captain. Evidently, they were a very effective husband-and-wife team. We soon realized that the captain was very kind. I suppose you have to be sort of aggressive in order to make an on-the-spot sell in their line of work.

The boat ride took about 30 minutes. We were taken through beautiful caves and came across some kayakers. The water was the most deep and beautiful blue I've ever seen. It was almost unreal how clear it was. When we finally reached the shores of The Blue Lagoon, it took my breath away. This water was cyan blue, literally halfway between blue and green. I've never seen such sparkling water, not even in a swimming pool. 

Admittedly, we took our trip to Malta when the water is still cold. Most people (other than my husband) weren't brave enough to venture into the water. There were also lots of jellyfish to avoid. Though I'm sad I wasn't able to swim in The Blue Lagoon, a part of me is very glad we went when we did. I've seen photos of what it looks like during the summer months. There are literally hundreds of people camped out on top of each other on the craggy rocks. Party boats blasting loud music are docked in the water and some people complain about the amount of garbage left behind at the end of the day. It was still crowded when we were there, but comfortably so. We weren't disturbed by cacophonous music and we had a suitable space to lounge right at the water's edge. We stayed on Comino for a couple of hours and then boarded the boat back to Mgarr. 

The Blue Lagoon

We needed dinner for the night but this time we decided to forego Lidl and instead we shopped at a gourmet grocery store inside a mall. We grabbed lunch at a trendy little wine bar. Other patrons were all British retirees. Two ladies lunching beside us were having an animated conversation about one of their granddaughters and her terrible boyfriend.
"He's just dreadful! Dreadful!" she said.
"What does she expect to do for work, once she gets there?" asked her friend.
"I don't have any clue. He's been no help to her while she's looked for a job," she replied.
"A bloody arsehole is what he sounds like."
The protective grandmother took a dainty sip of her wine and replied, "Yes. You ought to see his Facebook."

I don't know why, but even conversations about Facebook sound so gentile coming from British ladies.

We returned to the farmhouse for one last relaxing evening. The sun rose every morning around the back of the house but we had yet to see it set. We found the perfect spot over a farmer's field and watched as the brilliant yellow faded to burnt orange. 

Sun Setting in Gharb

Our relaxing days in Gozo had come to an end but we weren't finished with Malta yet. We were spending one afternoon and night in Valletta before making our return trip to The Netherlands.

Goodbye, Gharb. You're certainly worth all of the ferry, boat, and bus rides. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Edinburgh Castle and Haggis

We bought tickets in advance for Edinburgh Castle. It saved us a few pounds and some time since we avoided the long line of people waiting to purchase their tickets, and instead went straight to a self-service kiosk (no line) to retrieve ours.

Edinburgh Castle

The oldest part of the castle, St. Margaret's Chapel, dates back to the 12th century. It was used as a private place of worship for the royal family. I was surprised to learn that it's still used today for christenings and weddings!

Scottish National
War Memorial
We visited the Great Hall of King James IV and the Royal Palace. Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to James VI in the palace. The dungeons below the Great Hall housed prisoners of war from the late 18th to early 19th centuries. We also gazed upon Scotland's crown jewels, the oldest in the British Isles. The Stone of Destiny, also known as the Stone of Scone, is the main attraction in the Crown Room. For centuries it was used as a traditional coronation seat for Scotland's kings and queens. It was stolen in 1296 by English King Edward I and taken to Westminster Abbey. In 1950 some Scottish Nationalists brought the stone back to Scotland but it was soon returned to Westminster. Finally, in 1996, the Stone of Destiny was given back to Scotland and installed in the Crown Room.

The Scottish National War Memorial is very moving. It commemorates those who died during World Wars I and II, and of military campaigns since 1945. Inside the Hall of Honour is a steel casket containing a complete Roll of Honour of the Scottish dead. The shrine is illuminated by beautiful stained glass windows.

Regimental Museums Entrance
We also strolled through the Regimental Museums, comprised of the Royal Scots Museum and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Museum. These regiments are two of Scotland's oldest and their histories are told in chronological order using everything from medals and old maps to personal accounts and artwork. Both museums are comprehensive and one could easily spend several hours wandering through and absorbing all of the history.

One of the world's most famous guns is also located at Edinburgh Castle. Mons Meg was given to King James II by Duke Philip of Burgundy in 1457. The 6-ton canon is capable of firing gunstones weighing 330lbs to a distance of nearly 2 miles. Mons Meg was last fired in 1681. A plaque beside it reads: "Defend Mons Meg! Please do not climb on Mons Meg. She leveled castle walls and terrified the enemies of Scotland's kings. But that was more than 500 years ago. Please treat this grand old lady with some respect."

Mons Meg

And speaking of canons, we stayed around to watch the One o'clock Gun Firing. It happens every day except Sunday and draws quite a crowd in anticipation. The origin of the tradition comes from the days when timepieces weren't available to sailing ships. They were able to check and reset their chronometers based upon the firing of the gun.

One o'clock Gun Firing

After our morning spent at the castle, it was time for lunch. We decided to browse colorful Victoria Street until we found a place that piqued our interest. We ended up having a very nice lunch at Howie's, The menu was an interesting blend of Mediterranean dishes and Scottish favorites.

Having accomplished almost everything on our Edinburgh To-Do List, we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Edinburgh, investigating Closes and window-shopping to the soundtrack of bagpipes. The weather was perfect and it was a nice way to cap off our final day.

We really wanted to try a traditional Scottish dining experience for dinner so we made reservations at Dubh Prais (pronounced Doo Prash). Reservations are a little difficult to come by so we ended up with a very early dinner time of 5:30. Though early, we weren't alone in the popular restaurant. Other diners quickly filled the small room that seats just 24 people. Our waitresses were very friendly and we even caught glimpses of the chef and owner as he prepared and finessed the dishes. I chose soup for my starter while my brave husband went in for the kill with haggis. Every restaurant prepares haggis a little differently. At Dubh Prais it's rolled in oatmeal, pan-fried, and served with a creamy leek and whiskey sauce. My husband had a bit of a difficult time getting it down but for some reason he had resolved to eat the entire portion and he achieved his goal. It wasn't until when we were at the airport waiting to board our flight back home that he looked up the official ingredients of haggis and turned a lovely shade of pea green.

For the main course I chose salmon and he went with a saddle of venison. Dessert was a light, delectable lemon shortcake. The food was excellent and I think if you are on a mission to eat haggis while you're in Edinburgh, Dubh Prais is probably one of the best options. Make sure to reserve well in advance for a more traditional dinner time, but if those slots are filled just take the earlier time-- you won't be sorry.

Our time in Edinburgh had sadly come to its end. We spent a lovely two days in the capital city and I would be happy to return again any time. People were very friendly, the city wasn't too overcrowded with tourists, and it was nice to be able to read and hear things in English. Sometimes you just miss small talk.

Until next time, Edinburgh. Keep the haggis in stock for my husband!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Escape to Edinburgh

Carnival season is over in Maastricht! The Vrijthof square beside our apartment was festooned with yellow, red, and green as Carnival music competed with the cacophony of revelers singing, screaming, and breaking empty bottles of beer on every surface imaginable. The revelry lasted well into the night from Friday until Tuesday. Mornings were eerily quiet, the remnants of the celebration of the night before left scattered throughout the cobblestones. At around noon, costumed merrymakers began to emerge from their hangover cocoons to begin the party once more. I'm impressed. I don't know how they did it but the Dutch certainly can't be accused of being party poopers.

We decided to trade the red, yellow, and green for blue and white. We exchanged the Carnival costumes for kilts. We swapped the Prince of Carnival for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And we communicated in English rather than Dutch for two glorious days. 

Edinburgh, Scotland is just a short flight from here. We were lucky to arrive early on our Ryanair flight. Oh, I have a quick but wonderful side note about Ryanair. If you haven't heard already, they are attempting to transition to a normal airline! This means you can bring one piece of carry-on luggage AND *gasp* another small bag. Ladies, no more stuffing your purses and handbags into your suitcase at the last minute. Gents, no more stuffing your man purses into your suitcase at the last minute! Also, they are assigning seats. That means you don't have to jump up and rush to stand in line as soon as you see a surly Ryanair employee walk behind the desk only to avoid eye contact with you for 45 minutes while he or she periodically announces, "Your Ryanair flight will begin boarding... soon." These improvements began in February so you will be able to enjoy them on your next "on-time" Ryanair flight. I could really go on and on about how wonderful this is and how amazing it felt to be treated like people instead of cattle but I'll save the poetry for Auld Reekie.

We arrived at around 9 Friday morning and quickly found an Airlink bus for an easy half-hour ride right into the city center. We went with Airbnb this time and our studio apartment was on Blair Street, a very short walk away from just about everything. It was so nice to have the full day ahead of us. We immediately dropped our luggage and began our tourist route.

First stop was The Real Mary King's Close. Closes are all over Edinburgh. A close is generally an alleyway or lane sloping off High Street. 17th-century Edinburgh was not a particularly pleasant place to live. Sanitation was non-existent; waste was thrown directly into the streets. Buildings grew upwards and society was also organized this way, with the most wealthy living close to the top and the poor residing down in the filth and waste. A close was often descriptively named for its business. For example, you could find a lawyer in Advocate's Close and buy bread in Bakehouse Close. Other closes, including Mary King's, were named after prominent residents.

Not much is known about Mary Close. She was a merchant and a widow with four children. After her husband's death she moved her family to the close. She rented a house near the top and also had a shop on High Street. 

Entrance to Another Close
The Real Mary King's Close is one of those tours designed to frighten you with ghost stories. Our tour guide was dedicated but faltering. Much of her storytelling fell flat and I don't think she achieved the "spooky" atmosphere with our group. With that said, it was still incredibly interesting to be able to walk through the old, intact close. It's easy to envision the meager living conditions, especially for those at the bottom of the close. We learned that many of the people in Mary King's Close were victims of the plague. It wasn't difficult to imagine the scuttling of infested rats as we passed through low, dark rooms with shadowed corners. We made our way through several homes. Many of the original features still exist, including walls, doorways, fireplaces, and remnants of foliage decoration in place of wallpaper. 

Despite the soap opera-ish tone of the tour, I would still recommend taking it only for the unique experience of traveling back in time. I'm glad we did this first because it shed an entirely different light upon the Old Town. Every time I passed a close, I imagined the centuries just under our feet.

We emerged from the depths of Edinburgh in front of St. Giles' Cathedral. It's the City Church of Edinburgh and the Mother Church of Presbyterianism. Its 15th-century spire hovers grandly over the Royal Mile. One of the church's biggest moments happened in 1637 when a local woman, Jenny Geddes, threw her stool at the Dean giving the service. She was opposing the imposition by the King of London of a new prayer book. Her actions began a riot that eventually led to the signing of the National Covenant the next year. Sometimes all it takes to get things moving is the fury of a woman. And something to throw.

St. Giles' Cathedral

I recently read 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith for my book club. I thought it would be fun to go to Scotland Street and take a photo in front of number 44 to share at our next meeting. My ever-humoring husband found Scotland Street on the map and warned that it would be a long walk. "It doesn't matter," I replied. "This is in the name of literature." 25 minutes later we found ourselves at the beginning of Scotland Street, a long, beautiful boulevard sloping down toward a park. I began to get more excited as we neared the 20s. I could just see all of McCall's characters walking up and down this street, strolling to the park. Finally we made it to the end and Scotland street curved slightly... into another street.

Scotland Street

"This is impossible," I said. 
"Maybe it's on the other side of the street," suggested my husband.

I practically ran to the other side and saw the number 43 poking out at the end. 
"43!" I exclaimed.
As close as you'll get to
44 Scotland Street
Both of us circled around in front of 43, the last house on the row. "But why!" I whined.
"Well, maybe the author chose that address precisely because it doesn't exist. I mean, can you imagine how many tourists would be tramping through here all the time?" he logically replied.
"It's just us! There aren't any other tourists here! It's just where people live and all I wanted to do was stand in front of the door and take a photo for book club." I complained.
"Sorry, babe," he said sympathetically.

We still took a gander at the park and it's good we stretched our legs a little because that pleasant downhill walk was now an uphill climb.

Since I'd dragged us all the way through Edinburgh for no specific reason, it was time for lunch when we reached the Old Town again. We decided against haggis and black pudding and chose instead some light Mediterranean fare at Laila's Bistro. We feasted on falafel and dolmades. The food was excellent, service was great, and the price was fair. 

Arthur's Seat from Calton Hill
Fortified, we began our next uphill battle: Calton Hill. There are different schools of thought regarding the best view in Edinburgh. Some prefer Arthur's Seat, a 251m hike up an old volcano. We chose the less strenuous option of Calton Hill. It also offers one of the best panoramas of Edinburgh-- you can even look up at Arthur's Seat from here and feel a.) Guilty for climbing the easier hill, or b.) Secure with your choice because you're on vacation and you have nothing to prove. 

Calton Hill is interesting for more than just the views. Like Arthur's Seat, it was also formed by volcanic activity about 340 million years ago. It may have been used 4,000 years ago by Scotland's earliest people from the Bronze Age, and it's one of Britain's first public parks.

Several monuments are also perched at the top. The Nelson Monument commemorates the naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson. He died leading his fleet to victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The 30 meters-high monument is topped with a mechanized time ball synchronized with the 1pm gun fired from Edinburgh Castle. 

Calton Hill Monuments

The National Monument was built between 1822-29. It commemorates the Scottish soldiers who died during the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815. The National Monument is based on the Parthenon in Athens. Interestingly, it remains unfinished due to a lack of funding. Finished or not, the buildings on Calton Hill were instrumental in gaining the city the title 'The Athens of the North.'


Old Calton Burial Ground
We descended Calton Hill and came upon the Old Calton Burial Ground. It originally opened in 1718 for the burial of tradesmen and merchants. The main attraction is the tall black obelisk of the Political Martyrs' Monument commemorating those who suffered in the fight for electoral reform in the 1790s. It's also the final resting place of Scotland's most famous philosopher, David Hume. The cemetery was both peaceful and spooky and we enjoyed exploring the old tombstones so much that we decided to visit another cemetery before the sun faded.

Greyfriars Kirk
Back in the Old Town, we walked to Greyfriars Kirk and Kirkyard. Greyfriars is where the National Covenant was signed in 1638. It was closed by the time we reached it so we weren't able to go inside but we did spend a lot of time in the graveyard. The Greyfriars Kirkyard is said to be one of Edinburgh's creepiest spots. We were certainly there at the right time for the imagination to run wild. The sun was going down and night was creeping upon us as a light rain fell, chilling us to the bones. Or was that the poltergeist? 

Covenanter's Prison
The MacKenzie Poltergeist is the best-documented case of poltergeist activity ever studied. Sir George MacKenzie, also known as Bloody Mackenzie, was an attorney who persecuted the Covenanters. They opposed the king to maintain the Presbyterian doctrine as the sole form of religion of Scotland. Because of their beliefs, they were imprisoned inside the graveyard in what is now called the Covenanter's Prison. Many died due to exposure to the elements and harsh treatment. Ironically, their prison is right around the corner from Bloody Mackenzie's mausoleum.

The gates to the Covenanter's Prison are locked but you can gain access by taking a ghost tour. Countless incidents have been reported regarding paranormal activity during those tours. Some people come out with bruises and scratches, complaints of being pushed by unseen hands, and experiencing cold spots in certain places. My husband looked into the grimy window of MacKenzie's tomb and told me he saw a well beside the casket. We thought that was strange and later learned that it's actually an old pit containing the remains of plague victims! 

Greyfriars Kirkyard and Edinburgh Castle

An added bonus of exploring the kirkyard is seeing the Flodden Wall. It's the remains of the town wall that was built around medieval Edinburgh as protection against a feared English invasion. 

Flodden Wall

I don't know if I would be up for the Covenanter's Prison tour. Just walking around the graveyard was disturbing enough for me. I suppose I generally believe that when a gate is locked, there's a good reason. Whether you take the tour or not, don't miss a stroll through the Greyfriars Kirkyard. It's one of the most interesting cemeteries I've ever been in, regardless of the poltergeist stories and plague pit.

After a long day of sightseeing, it was time to kick up our heels for dinner. We had reservations for Saturday night and definitely should have had the foresight to reserve for Friday as well. Most places were booked but we managed to find a nice one just below Edinburgh Castle called Maxie's Bistro. The menu was diverse, and the ambience cozy and warm. 

Day 1 in Edinburgh was complete. From closes to crypts, and from Scotland Street to Calton's Hill, we'd seen a lot.

After a good night's sleep, Edinburgh Castle is the next stop!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

I Left My Heart in Biarritz

I think it's been a pretty mild winter here, considering the past two. The sun has shone more, the temperatures haven't been unbearable, and it hasn't snowed. Even still, I'm longing for summer days when the sun begins shining bright before 5am and doesn't go down until after 10pm. When I get a little gloomy, it helps to remember our vacation to Biarritz, France back in October.

La Grande Plage
We chose Biarritz on a real whim. We wanted to go somewhere warm just before it began getting cold here, and it had to be a destination offered by Ryanair because we didn't want to break the bank. All of the usual options were there: Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands, but for some reason Biarritz kept catching my eye. I did some quick research and discovered that it's the surfing capital of Europe! Back in 1957, American screenwriter Peter Viertel arrived in Biarritz to film "The Sun Also Rises." He quickly became distracted by the large waves crashing onto the beach and sent for his surfboard back in California. These days Biarritz still retains a bohemian vibe, with lean, long-haired surfers walking around town and retro cars and vans parked alongside the beach waiting for the waves. Surfing schools are advertised everywhere and Biarritz also hosts televised surf competitions throughout the season.

Surfers Waiting

All of this information was enough of an endorsement for us to book our tickets and apply sunscreen.

We arrived around lunchtime, checked into our hotel, and found a cozy French restaurant off-the-beaten-path. Tourist season was at its end since summer was over and we were the only Americans in the restaurant. It's one of those places where everyone is seated extremely close so conversations from neighboring tables eventually blend together easily and new friends are made fast.

Our new friend was a character. She was in her 80's, a perfectly-coiffed, heavily made-up French lady fashionably dressed and dripping in jewels. She was dining alone and happened to be sitting beside me. She smiled as soon as we were seated beside her and I could tell she was amused by us from the beginning. After we'd chosen our wine she leaned toward me and said, "That's a good choice. A nice, light red for lunch." I replied, "Oh, good! I'm glad we made the right decision!" She smiled knowingly and then leaned back into her seat.

A few moments passed and she couldn't contain herself any longer. She touched my shoulder and asked, "Where are you from?"
"The United States," we replied.
"Oui, oui, but where in America?" she asked.
"I'm from Chicago and my wife is from Florida," my husband said.
"Ahhhhh, Florida! Are you from Miami? I love Miami! Miami Beach is so fantastic. I go there all of the time and stay at the same hotel. Last time I was there it was my birthday and they gave me a big cake with lots of champagne. They know me there. It's fabulous!" she exclaimed.
"That sounds nice," I said. "I've actually never been to Miami. I'm from north Florida."
She squinted at me in disbelief, as if Florida only exists for the purpose of Miami and said, "But you must go there. It's fabulous."

She then produced a key chain with her name on one side and Miami and palm trees on the other. She pressed a little button and the name plate lit up as she giggled delightedly. We told her that even though she liked Miami, we were very excited to come to Biarritz.

Sunset in Biarritz
"Ugh, Biarritz," she replied disdainfully. "It's not as nice. Do you know how much I pay in healthcare? It's astronomical. And the beaches here.... ehhhhhh, not so good. Oh, sure, you get a sunset. Big deal. And some people broke into my house once! Did you know that?! Terrible, it is. I want to move to Miami."

Right after this, our food came. She looked over our plates with approval and then proclaimed to the waitress, "Gabrielle, the young American couple would now prefer to have the "Vin du Jacqueline." The waitress looked at us questioningly and I quickly said, "Yes, sure, that would be great." She soon produced the same bottle of wine that Jacqueline was nursing. We took a sip of our first glasses and agreed that it was very good. "It's the best wine you can get here, in this place," she remarked. "Perfect for a nice lunch of omelette."

We began eating as she smiled contentedly. Suddenly, as my fork was mid-air, she asked, "What do you think of Obamacare?"

We were a little startled by the question. I stuffed my food into my mouth and waited for my husband to give a diplomatic answer. It's always tricky talking politics with people from other countries. You never know what they're thinking. Sometimes they love America and sometimes they really hate it. We had just ordered the new bottle of wine and began eating so we knew it would be an uncomfortable afternoon if we got into a debate with Jacqueline. Much to our relief, she really only wanted to give her opinion on healthcare so we chewed and sipped as she glugged and lectured about her thoughts on healthcare in France, America, and Switzerland, where her daughter lives.

Eventually she quieted down and that was a good thing because by now Gabrielle, the waitress, looked ready to swoop in at any moment to pardon us from the spirited Jacqueline. There was no harm done, though. Jacqueline finished the last of her wine and said (not for the first time), "Okay, children, I must go now to my hair appointment. You can see my hair is a mess and I must make it look nice."

As she was standing, she patted me on the knee and said, "You are so American!" Then she winked and said, "Goodbye, children" over her shoulder as she strutted out of the restaurant and onto the streets of Biarritz, leaving behind a faint whiff of Chanel and Vin du Jacqueline.

It was an exciting start to our vacation!

Crashing Waves and the
Hotel du Palais
Though Biarritz is mainly known today for its surfing, the luxurious seaside town has a unique history that began long before the arrival of California culture. The Hotel du Palais was built by Napoleon III in 1854 for his wife, Empress Eugenie. Eugenie had fallen in love with Biarritz and their residence soon became host to all manner of European royalty and even Russian nobility. Today, the former palace is a luxury hotel with a prime location right on the beach. Needless to say, we could not afford to stay at the Hotel du Palais during our vacation but we did take photos and ogle people going in and out of the secured grounds. As far as I could tell, there were no royals.

We visited a history museum one afternoon. It mostly featured the story of Napoleon III and Eugenie. There was also an interesting portion dedicated to Biarritz at the end of World War II. In the summer of 1945, the Americans opened a university aimed toward providing a transition between army life and academic life. Many of the students had been in the front line during the war and all were ordered to remove their caps, un-ranking them and making them equals.

Walking Out to a Summit

We also walked along the coast to the lighthouse. It was built in 1834 and unfortunately wasn't open while we were there. Otherwise, we would have climbed the 248 steps for a panorama of the Basque coast. We weren't too disappointed though; the grounds around the lighthouse were well-manicured and lovely and the views were still breathtaking. We walked back to the town through hidden gardens and alcoves built right into the cliffs.

The sea was generally a little too rough for swimming (great for surfing) but luckily there was a nice, calm cove perfect for a dip. The water was a bit too cold for me but my husband braved the chilly waters of the Port-Vieux beach and swam for a while. Sometimes there's a strong undercurrent that swimmers claim pulls you out to sea. My husband said he felt it while he was swimming. Though the water was cold, we saw several dedicated swimmers during our few days there. They most likely belonged to the Polar Bear Club, one of the oldest clubs in Biarritz, established in 1929. Its members swim every single day of the year, even Christmas!


The Perfect Lunch
While I watched my husband swim and made sure he didn't get sucked out into the Atlantic, a group of school children walked to the beach and sat down to eat their lunches. They were all so well-behaved and I was delighted to see that they were eating baguettes! How very perfect and French! I thought about how nice it must be for them to have the Basque coast for their lunchroom. But then again, maybe they are too accustomed to it now and share Jacqueline's underwhelmed opinion. I hope not. Maybe that doesn't happen until you're 80, and those children have a long way to go and many happy lunches ahead of them.

Coastline at Night
Biarritz is very small and conducive to ultimate relaxation. All we really did was eat, drink, relax, and watch the sunset every evening. All of the restaurants were great and well-priced. We went to a unique tapas bar in the heart of Biarritz a few times. Its called Le Comptoir Du Foie Gras. The foie gras was prepared in every way imaginable. I thought my husband was going to turn into a duck because he ate so much. The other tapas were creative and delicious as well. There was a nice mixture of cheese, bruschetta, cured meats, and vegetarian options. We stood at tall round tables on the outside of the bar and ate our fill as we sipped champagne. It was extremely decadent and lots of fun. The crowd was an eclectic mixture of people just getting off work and enjoying happy hour, and salty surfers taking a break from the waves.

Biarritz is a beauty. We had an affordable, restful vacation and I would love to return someday with my children so they can eat baguettes on the beach. With its old-world charm and rich history, it feels almost like a place time has forgotten. The sprawling Hotel du Palais looks much the same as it did when Napoleon III and Eugenie were entertaining royal guests. The beaches are clean and untainted and there are lots of different summits to stand upon as you watch the sun fade into the ocean. But just when you think you're going to turn around and see elegant sunbathers from the 1800s, an athletic girl with drenched, sun-streaked blonde hair jogs past you holding her surfboard high, eyeing the next big wave.

I'll be back, Biarritz. Keep the Vin du Jacqueline in stock.