After an abysmally long hiatus, I am going to post a little update and some pictures of our weekend trip to Agrigento.
We had a little bit of a crazy summer. Wade was really busy at work and I started my Master’s in Public Health. We took a little break from traveling and concentrated on our tasks. I got SO close to finishing my first draft of my novel but didn’t finish prior to starting classes. Once I started classes, it turned out I didn’t have a lot of time for much else. Between being a natural overachiever and an actually fairly rigorous curriculum, I didn’t have much free time. On the plus side, I really enjoyed the material and felt like I learned a lot so it was worth it.
We also started a formal Italian class in an attempt to actually attain that seemingly impossible fluency goal has been that proverbial carrot dangling in front of us, just out of reach. It turns out that you don’t just sort of naturally acclimate the way you might if you were a child, and while we have developed a possibly less than kindergarten level Italian that lets us get by, we need to do better, and we are hoping formal training will be the ticket.
I had a short break in between classes which started up again today. I managed to put in the final hours and finish a first draft of the novel. It needs a thorough revision before I’m ready to send it out for some beta reading, but at least I can say that for now, I have a completed first draft. It feels kind of like an accomplishment and kind of like nothing ever happened, but I’m hopeful that someday it will be published and will become something that makes people think.
We took a mini-break this weekend and went to Agrigento, which is about a 2 1/2 hour drive from where we live, but is a must see when you live on Sicily. There are some incredibly well-preserved Greek ruins, actually better and more accessible than even those in Greece that are absolutely worth experiencing. It’s an easy walk, but you can make it a little more interesting by climbing all over the rocks and ruins that are laying around. There are multiple signs that give a great historical perspective, and it’s an incredible experience. To make it even more amazing, we hit the halfway turn-around point just before sunset, so all of the ruins were bathed in an incredibly blue/pink/red/purple light as we made our way back to the car.
Here are some pictures!
And here are some pictures of the Turkish Steps! It’s very interesting from a geological standpoint. The water is an incredible color of blue and it makes the white of the rock formation even more striking.
After we finished our hiking in the Alps/farm visit, we headed back to Geneva because we were catching a crazy early flight the next morning. We drove through the snow globe to the hotel, which was technically in France (Viva La France!)
We drove back in to Switzerland to spend the day in Geneva. I can certainly understand after visiting why it is chosen for so many conferences/meetings/Olympics. It’s a gorgeous city, full of nice people, beautiful architecture, delicious chocolate, and amazing scenery. Lake Geneva is in the heart of the city and all around are those strikingly beautiful mountains that I mentioned in the last post.
Here are some pictures of the experience.
And that pretty much sums up our whirlwind trip to Switzerland. I would go back in a heartbeat.
My apologies for being abysmally late with this post.
Wade decided about two months ago that he wanted to run the Spartan race north of Rome. Shelley is his partner in doing these crazy races that I would inevitably break a limb doing, so he talked her into flying to Rome again to meet us. They posted pictures on Facebook, so I will not post many, but will just put my favorite picture of them after the finish along with two of Wade’s coworkers.
Finding the race was kind of a nightmare, as the address was wrong on the website and there was not even one single sign anywhere. So we were lost for a long time, which led to much crabbiness in the car. We missed the appropriate start time and they had to run a shorter version of the race than they intended, but overall, it was a reason to have Shelley come out and was an experience and I would say we enjoyed it anyway, in the end.
We goofed around in a town called Civita Castellana. We ate really great food and stayed at the coolest hotel, which felt like it belonged in a Jane Austen tale. There were all these hidden nooks to explore and rooms that led to other rooms which led to courtyards and fireplaces and piano rooms. It was old and beautiful. Our room had a loft with the bed upstairs and wooden beams and a winding staircase. It was located in an area of smaller green mountains covered in forest, much smaller than what we were about to see in Switzerland, but it was still very beautiful to walk and drive through.
We took one day to visit a monster sculpture garden, Parco dei Mostri, which turned out to be a really fun place. It was created by a wealthy man as a gift to his wife, and has huge sculptures which vary in nature from fighting giant men to turtles and mermaids. It had fallen into disrepair for hundreds of years until some artists such as Dali took interest in it as an artistic muse. An art lover restored it during the 20th century, and it’s an incredible place to visit. We had a wonderful time taking some pictures of/with the monsters.
This is supposed to be Hercules. It’s enormous and you can walk through it.
The elephant was one of my favorites.
There was a room inside of here with a table and benches.
Mermaid, clearly prior to the more popular Disney interpretation.
See if you can translate!
We all got immediately dizzy when walking into this purposely crooked house.
Nose picking could not be avoided at times.
The turtle was another favorite.
The next day, we flew to Geneva, Switzerland. We got in a little late, but were still able to appreciate the beauty of Lake Geneva and the surrounding mountains as we drove to Chateau d’Oex, which is known for a large hot air balloon festival and is a tiny skiing town in the Alps.
Switzerland is one of those places that you just cannot fully appreciate until you see it for its rugged and striking mountains, green pastures, and picturesque little houses scattered about the valleys. The day we arrived it was beautiful and clear and the temperature was cool but above freezing. Our first night in Switzerland may have been one of the oddest experiences I have ever had.
We drove up to the hotel we had booked through booking.com. It looked strangely empty. Ok. This was the off season, and it would not be the first time that we were the only guests at a facility. This also isn’t the first time we have had this kind of thing happen when travelling. We have had to learn to be flexible with getting our accomodations set up when we arrive. In the US, we were used to larger hotels where someone was always present when you arrived and easy to locate. Additionally, it is easy to communicate prior to your arrival if you have any concerns. In Europe, it is far more difficult due to language barriers and not having voicemail on phones, not being able to call long distance easily, etc.
Anyhow, we scouted around the building, trying to find a note or something to indicate that they knew we were arriving and had a room for us. There was nothing. It was pretty late and nearing dark at this point. We called several different numbers trying to figure out what might be going on, but no one was answering. To make matters more concerning, I had received several calls from a Swiss number over the past month but hadn’t been able to answer and there were no voicemails. I had Googled the numbers, which weren’t the same as the hotel, so I hadn’t worried too much about it.
We finally had to give up and we decided to maybe try to figure it out while eating dinner at the restaurant we had decided on while researching. We parked near the restaurant, which happened to be across from another hotel. We decided to run in to the hotel and see if they had any available rooms. We walked in and no one was at the desk. We looked around, hoping to find a number or a bell or something to see if we might be able to stay here instead, and were getting concerned after we hadn’t found anything. Shelley looked down at the desk.
“You guys? This paper says “Wade Hanson” and there is a key.” Sure enough, there was a room all ready for us at a completely unrelated hotel. We had selected the hotel completely at random! Granted, it wasn’t a huge town, but still. There were other options. The companies must have changed our lodging since the inn we initially booked was closed and never told us in a way we could find out about. Weird. But we were safe and had a room, so we were happy and celebrated by bopping across the street and eating our body weight in cheese fondue.
The following day was clear and cold again, so we decided to hike up into the mountains and see some of the beautiful surrounding views. We got recommendations from the office of tourism and even booked a farm visit for later in that day. Again, the beauty of the Swiss Alps is not something that I can adequately describe nor is it something that can be truly captured in pictures. You just have to experience it for yourself, which I would highly encourage.
After the hike, we drove off for our farm visit. The people spoke primarily French and also German. It turns out Shelley remembers more of her German than I remember of my French. I also kept getting it confused in my head with Italian, and then when we got back to Italy, I was stuck on “Merci” and couldn’t remember “Grazie.” Sigh. Languages are hard.
We were able to understand the basics of everything, and a baby cow tried to eat our hands. My crowning achievement and a huge bucket list item: I milked a cow in the Swiss Alps!
The next day we had to check out to go to Geneva. As I mentioned before, Switzerland took on a whole new kind of beauty when it was blanketed in snow. I felt like I was living in a snow globe because it was so unbelievably magical. If it isn’t clear so far, I loved Switzerland. I will have to break this up and do a separate Geneva post because this is already ridiculously long. I will end with a few snowy pictures of Chateau d’Oex.
Above you see Peles castle. It is another beautiful Romanian castle tucked into the mountains in Sinaia. It is kind of like Eltz castle was in Germany, in that it feels like a castle you would daydream about when reading fairy tales because of its extremely picturesque location, surrounded by the snow capped Carpathian mountains. This is a little different though, because there are more buildings within the property, including little cafes, gift shops, and even places you can stay. It is still stunning, however, and is absolutely worth a visit if you are in Transylvania.
One of our favorite parts of the castle were all of the sculptures in the yard.
We went to another castle high on a hill in Rasnov, which is near Bran. It not only had amazing views, but on the walk up, we found a dinosaur museum! While we were here, Wade got a chance to play Robin Hood and show off his impressive bow skills. His penance for his hubris and bragging was a giant welt on his forearm. It was totally worth it though.
Those of you who know Wade and I will know that we have no self control when it comes to being goofy. Our niece and nephew Rachel and Hunter will be happy to see how many dinosaur noses we managed to pick.
Believe it or not, I still have one more post of Romania fun, so stay tuned for next week! After that, I will be posting about our Switzerland adventure!
I have decided to break up our Romania trip into several blogs since there is a lot to talk about.
First, I will note a few general things about Romania.
1. It is strikingly, amazingly beautiful in the mountains. While Bucharest was actually a decent airport, it was very flat there, and we elected to drive into Transylvania right away and didn’t spend time in the city. We were very happy with this choice, but admittedly Wade and I aren’t really city people. It is kind of amazing how quickly it goes from completely flat to gorgeously mountainous. I’ve seen a lot of mountains in my life, but these were absolutely some of the most stunning ones. There were beautiful spruce pines stretching up to the sky, areas with pretty deciduous trees, cascading rocky rivers, and limestone peaks full of snowy glory. If I had known these things about Romania, I would have been wanting to go there my whole life.
2. The people were all extremely friendly. We used Airbnb for this trip and it was overall a good experience. As with anything, there were a few quirks (crazy road construction making it difficult to get to and from our place, a little miscommunication about how to get into the room for our late arrival, etc.) but we were happy generally with the set up. We don’t speak any Romanian, though it sounds Latin-based, so we were able to understand some things. Also, most people speak at least a little English. One of our waiters even started a conversation about how he hopes that Trump isn’t elected. Also, we aren’t positive, but we think the sweet old couple at the place we were staying may have offered to adopt us. They were adorable. I will post a picture of the woman in another post.
3. It is CHEAP!!! They use the Lei rather than the Euro and it is about 4 Lei’s per Euro right now. Typically at breakfast, we would get cappuccinos, huge omelettes, bread, and water for around 30 Lei. Therefore, we got huge breakfasts at a sit down restaurant for 2 for around 10 dollars. It was so filling that we were able to just skip lunch every day, so even better. Wade has a friend who did a mission trip to Brasov, which is a city we explored a little in Transylvania. She decided to donate all of her clothes upon leaving and brought home an entire suitcase of gorgeous shoes that were unbelievably cheap. I didn’t really take advantage of the cheap prices on things, but if you are a shopper, this is a good place to do it!
4. If you want to take a hike in the mountains, it may be more difficult than you anticipate, so hiring a guide for that kind of thing may be worthwhile. I will go into more detail about that in another post.
5. The weather in early April was PERFECT. Every day was sunny and between 65-75 degrees F. Nothing was crowded but everything was open. There were signs of beautiful spring everywhere, in the flowers and budding trees and warming sunshine. I would highly recommend this time of year.
6. We knew very little about Romania prior to coming. We mostly picked it because Wade has always wanted to go to an Eastern European country where he wasn’t able to go when he was a child in Germany in the 1980’s. We also knew about the castles and the mountains and were excited to see a new place. To make it even better, arranging travel was simple. We were able to get a cheap, direct flight from Catania and it only took about 2 hours. Lodging was cheap as well, so it was just an easy place to do a 3 day trip from Catania.
The picture at the top is Bran castle. It is thought to be the castle in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, since the description in the story is very similar to this particular castle and not to any other castle in Romania. There is controversy behind the story which I will get into in a little bit, but first I just have to tell you how beautiful it was. It is perched high atop a hill in an area surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The front of the castle faces a large valley, so views in most directions are incredible. The interior is probably less ornate than some of the other castles we have seen but it was still really wonderful. The main reason that this castle stands out is its picturesque setting and it’s interesting history.
Most people think that the idea of Dracula is based off a man who ruled during the 15th century named Vlad Tepes, III, also sometimes called Vlad Dracul. His other nickname was Vlad the Impaler. Briefly, his father Vlad II was in the order of Dracul. “Drac” means both devil and dragon. The order of the Dragon was intended to promote Christianity and to fight against other religious factions that were warring for the area.
Vlad III was sent along with his younger brother during his adolescence to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in order to appease him during a time of political turmoil. He lived there for 4 years and then was sent back to Romania when his father died. The Sultan had thought he would be a good candidate to take his father’s place, partly because his older brother had been killed so he was next in line, and partly because I think they believed that they would continue to have some kind of control over him.
This was not the case. He only had reign for a short period of time because someone else took over and then he regained the reign many years later. He seemed to prefer fighting with the Ottoman Empire rather than promoting their ideas. He allegedly used his power as a leader to kill as many as 100,000 people, not caring if they were women or children or leaders or peasants. He killed many of the people in his own community because they had committed violations to his strict moral code. He was especially harsh about “unchaste women.” His favorite method of torture and intimidation was impaling, which you can look up if you are really interested but trust me when I say it is a slow and brutal way to die. It had the added benefit of leaving corpses on display, which was a very effective intimidation strategy.
There is no account to imply that he actually drank blood. Some stories say he washed his hands in victims blood prior to eating. Some say he dipped his bread in blood. Others say he would eat surrounded by corpses on stakes. Nice guy…
Vlad the Impaler didn’t actually live at Bran Castle. He had some dealings with Bran for political reasons, but it isn’t a huge part of his story. The reason that Bran is known as the Dracula castle is primarily because it is in the general area, and because of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
I have decided to break this experience into 3 separate parts because there is just so much to be said! We are home now, and the experience was overall so wonderful. I am not sure I have ever seen Wade wearing quite such a sad face as the one he had on as we were leaving Germany. I don’t think he would ever have truly felt that he had eaten enough wienerschnitzel to satisfy him. Germany will always strike me as a place of unbelievable charm that felt immediately like home to us.
The country is so beautiful! It is so green and open with mountains and forests and they take a lot of pride in taking care of the land, so it feels wonderfully clean. There is so much history there, and the buildings are not only strikingly beautiful and old, but they are somehow humble and unassuming at the same time. It’s hard to describe, but you know the little light up Christmas villages that people put up that are adorable and have snowy covered pine trees and perfect looking children ice skating and you just want to go there and live in a perpetual state of a charming world full of Christmas and caroling and hot chocolate? It feels like that.
A big part of the reason we planned this trip for when we did is because it fell on Wade’s birthday. He wanted to go back to the place he had lived for 4 years as a child. It also just so happened that there is an army base with a skeet range that would allow him to shoot. Anyone who knows Wade knows that this is exactly the type of thing that makes his birthday perfect, so that is what we did.
The shooting was a great time. I was nervous because it was snowing kind of hard the day we planned to go. The range was literally a 5 minute drive from our hotel, which by the way was perfect and cozy and amazingly wonderful, even if the clowns in the restaurant were a little weird…
I can’t say enough about the delicious food we ate in that restaurant, so I suppose clowns are just something that you put up with in Germany in order to stuff your face full of bratwurst and brotchen.
Back to shooting. So the place was perfect and full of older guys- the kind that Wade always feels a compulsion to be best friends with. Additionally, we met the funniest dog I have ever known. She looked kind of like a smaller version of a German shepherd, and the rec center manager had adopted her and brought her back from Croatia, where he rescued her. She was generally wonderful, loving on Wade and I, but amidst our discussion with the manager about SCUBA opportunities in the area, she brought something over and laid it at my feet. It was a tiny piece of wood, about the size of half a toothpick. Please note that she had at least 6 normal dog toys around the room. I looked at her and she looked back at me. I said, “Oh, honey, I don’t think you will be able to find that if I throw it for you…” but she looked so earnest that I had to try. I threw the world’s tiniest stick and she raced after it, found it, and brought it back. Even though it was possibly even smaller now, we kept playing the game until it was not really possible anymore. The owner smiled and said, “Oh, she only ever wants to play with the micro stuff. She has toys all over but she prefers the tiny things.” She later brought the smallest piece of sheet rock from the back room renovation area to Wade, who obligingly threw it for her and I just don’t know if I have ever seen a happier dog about playing fetch with anything as this dog was about the world’s smallest objects.
So then Wade got to shoot. And while the conditions may not have been perfect, his happiness was near the level of the happy dog with the tiny stick. I guess you just figure out what makes you happy and pursue it no matter what, and maybe that is the secret to a full life.
See? I told you. In his element.
This is the guy that ran the shooting range. He was very nice and taught us a lot about the area.
Is anything ever complete without at least trying a silly hat?
Which hat do we like better?
Here are a few pictures of Wade by his old house in Germany, where we visited so he could see it as an adult.
On Wade’s actual birthday, we drove to Luxembourg city and stayed there overnight. It was kind of one of those things where you do it more to check a box than anything else, but it was actually a really great city. There were a lot of old historic sites and the shopping there would be great. Doing a girls weekend there might be fun. We got a free room upgrade in both Baumholder and in Luxembourg city, so no complaints there. It is also pretty quiet everywhere in February, it turns out. You are definitely not having to fight with excessive numbers of people and crazy lines. The downside is that a lot of things are closed or being renovated during the winter. Also there are not usually festivals or other seasonal things happening, so it’s a little quiet but you get a lot of personalized attention, so there are pluses and minuses.
Unfortunately it rained all day in Luxembourg, but it didn’t stop us from exploring. Here are some pictures from Luxembourg city.
Wade and I have a thing for lions and dragons in religious art for some reason.
There were lions guarding this tomb.
Wade’s mandatory animal nose picking picture. Kind of wrong, but tradition, so whatever.
These are the palace in Luxembourg city. The detail work is pretty amazing.
There was gold everywhere on this building. Luxembourg is a wealthy little country.
These are the casemates, which are kind of like catacombs. We sought them out but unfortunately they are closed for renovations.
My next post will be about the castles, which were incredible!
Wade and I have travelled to Germany, and we have fallen in love. (With Germany. We were already in love with each other.) If I had to try to relate the part we are visiting to somewhere in the US, I would have to say it is a cross between Vermont and Maine except with architecture that is similar to Pennsylvania Dutch. The landscape is full of gorgeous rolling foothills covered with pine trees and some deciduous trees. Driving along on the highway you can see wonderful little villages tucked into valleys. They all have impressive cathedrals and adorable homes that are uber charming. (I am trying pull off a little German here, but I don’t know how to find the umlaut on this program.)
There are several things that I really love about what I have seen so far. I will bullet point them out for funsies and follow on with some pictures.
Environmentally friendly. Seemingly the opposite of Sicily. There is almost no litter anywhere. Dotted along all the villages are giant windmills and solar panels, showing a dedication to clean energy that is nice to see. Perhaps it is not only in the US where we worry about this sort of thing.
The people. Everyone has been so extraordinarily kind. Most people speak at least a little English so it has been easier for us to communicate compared to home. Wade and I also fit in better here as far as physical features go. For the first time in 6 months, Wade is not always the tallest person in the room. It’s weirdly refreshing to not stand out as unusual. They also have a sort of “salt of the Earth” nature to them, and they are quick to smile, which is less common in Italy just because it isn’t in the Italian culture to smile as much. It’s nice to be around what feels more friendly to us.
The food. Dear God, the food. We have eaten the most amazing cream of mushroom soup 2 days in a row because it is too amazing not to eat. We have also had Weinerschnitzel and Bratwurst and Currywurst and local venison stew with spaetzle. It has all been delicious and I am crossing my fingers that we walked enough to make up for the heavy but extraordinarily delicious food here.
The language. I basically know no German at all. I find it humorous to listen to because they have words like “Krankenwagon” for ambulance and “Ausfahrt” for exit. You can imagine how frequently “ausfahrt” occurs on the highway, and thus far I have laughed every single time. Every. Single. Time.
The buildings. These are so quaint and beautiful! The cathedrals can actually compete with Rome, which is saying a lot because I loved Rome. When you are walking down just any old cute street, it feels like you are in a Disney movie or something. There is a lot of history. We were in Trier today, which is Germany’s oldest city. We saw a castle from the 13th century that was pretty well preserved. We also saw some incredible stained glass windows. I actually haven’t really seen a lot of stained glass windows in Europe prior to today, and these were magical works of art.
Cute little shop we stopped in for Espresso
Wade is the best.
Wade in his element.
Action shot of Wade with coffee at breakfast.
It’s hard to appreciate but this was kind of an incredible dedication to working people.
This is from the 13th century.
Charming buildings everywhere!
Interesting brick work.
The amazing cathedral.
More of the really old castle.
The Holy Door (I think.)
Doesn’t it kind of feel like you are in Beauty and the Beast or something?
Wade, feeling impressed by the intricate floor grate.
It’s hard to appreciate that there is a fist carved into the door handle. Naturally, Wade performed the fist bump.
I wish photos could truly capture the amazing stained glass.
I am enamoured with this door handle.
The statues were amazing.
The carvings in this ceiling are incredible.
As in Italy, it appears the Germans know how to make door handles interesting.
There is so much attention to detail. Floors and ceilings are amazing.