Northants & Bucks, Britain

The last Grand Prix race was at Silverstone in England, bordering Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire. My grandparents were from Northants and many of my relatives still live there.  In doing my research for this post, I discovered that the first American President George Washington’s ancestors were also from Northamptonshire. Maybe we were related?

Northamptonshire is called the county of spires and squires because of the number of stately homes and ancient churches. Next time I got to Britain I’m going to spend a little longer exploring this part of my heritage. I looked up the top things to do in the county and the number one result was to go look at llamas. To each their own. Second highlight was of course the Grand Prix at Silverstone. Third thing is going to a couple of movie theaters. At this point I’m beginning to think that visiting relatives may be the only thing I do in Northants. The fourth most popular attraction involves tanks, slightly better. Number nine is a place called Bugtopia; I’d be visiting that one alone. Yeah, so if I’m in Northants then you’ll probably find me in the pub. It’s the heart of England, full of quaint little towns, there’s got to be some nice pubs.

So, with Northamptonshire proving a little light on the non-alcohol induced activities, let’s check out Buckinghamshire and see what’s shaking there.

First to note, Buckingham Palace is not in Buckinghamshire, go figure. However if you’re a fan of the TV show Midsomer Murders (as I am), you’ll recognize several of the villages in Bucks as much of the show’s locations are set here. You can even do a tour of the places featured in your favourite episode. Buckinghamshire is also home to the most National Trust properties of any county so I’m sure many a happy hour can be spent traipsing around old houses. If you like your history a little more modern, there are museums dedicated to Roald Dahl. Evidently, you can “take the Roald Dahl Trail and unearth some fizzpopping discoveries!” and for “hands-on family fun and Roald Dahl magic explore the fabulous Roald Dahl Children’s Gallery.” (Quotes take from the http://www.visitbuckinghamshire.org/ website.)

Prefer your entertainments a little more open-air? Then if the day is fine, walk in the Chilterns AONB (which stands for Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). There’s a hill which seems de rigueur to climb and as a reward there’s an old independent brewery where you can slake your thirst. Finally, I was intrigued by the listing for the county’s latest attraction – The Green Dragon Rare Breeds Farm. I didn’t know there were non-rare breeds of green dragons around but I’m glad someone is doing something about the preservation of what I had always imagined was a mythical creature.

So, there you have it, what to do if you can’t get a ticket to Silverstone Grand Prix. People of Northamptonshire, please comment below on places to visit that I’ve missed. I’d hate for my heritage county to be shown up by Bucks.

Hungarian Grand Prix next, so heat up the goulash and we’ll see you back here on 1st August.

 

Austria

“The hills are alive…” Come on, you knew it was coming sometime, might as well get it over with at the start. The Grand Prix of Austria was held last weekend in Spielberg, home of Red Bull Racing. I’ve never been to Austria, but my husband has. So today’s blog is going to follow a slightly different pattern. I’m going to interview him about his time in the country.

 

Me: How many times have you been to Austria?

 

Hubs: Twice. Both on ski trips from school.

 

Me: You went by coach all the way from London to Austria to go skiing?

 

Hubs: Of course. I flew all the way to Canada to go skiing too, remember?

 

Me: Yes, and married the girl who lived near the ski slopes. I guess if it wasn’t me, some Austrian girl’d have you now.

 

Hubs: No comment.

 

Me: Okay, we’re getting off topic. Aside from skiing, what is your overriding impression of Austria?

 

Hubs: They have mountains.

 

Me: Not helpful. What did you think of the people?

 

Hubs: They were friendly. But they kept wanting to touch my hair. Don’t mess with the ‘fro.

 

Me: They were probably just looking for your off switch. Anyway, what about the food? Was it good?

 

Hubs: Excellent. Loved the schnitzels and had I been old enough, the gluehwein.

 

Me: Anything else you’d like to add?

 

Hubs: I went, I skied, I ate, I came home. What else is there?

 

Me: *mutters under breath* I wonder if some Austrian woman is looking for a slightly used, mildly annoying man?

 

Hubs: What was that?

 

Me: Nothing. Thanks for your help. There you go folks. They have skiing in Austria. And food.

 

Well, that wasn’t very useful. Please come back next time when we resume normal blogging and head to Britain. You know I’ve been there.

 

Hubs: Me too. And I was born there. I’m an expert.

 

Me: Give me strength.

 

Montreal, Canada

We’re still following the Formula 1 races around the world, so this post we’re in Montreal, Canada. And guess what? I used to live here. Okay, it was for less than two years and I was only eight years old so I don’t remember much. Except there was a meadow near where I lived and my friend and I used to collect the caterpillars and watch them turn into Monarch butterflies and then release them. I’m pretty sure that meadow is now a strip mall. My parents and younger brother also lived in Montreal when I was 20 and I visited them there a couple of times so not all my memories are ancient.

 

I like Montreal. At least for a visit. I think the politics would drive me crazy if I lived there as an adult. That and the traffic. Hmm, let’s build a city on a bunch of islands in the St. Laurence seaway, because bridges are great. Unless you have to drive over them. I asked my brother who went there for the Grand Prix to send me a photo of something quintessentially Montreal and he texted back, “What, a pothole?” Having lived through more springs than I’d like to remember in Manitoba, potholes are not exclusive to Montreal.

 

What’s to do in Montreal? Well, if you’re from anywhere else in North America, enjoy the oddness of a bit of Europe dropped into eastern Canada. Although to really get the European flavor, head up to Quebec City. Still, if Montreal is as far as you can get, enjoy the fabulous restaurants and head up to Mont Royal and get an overview of the city. Then wander around Old Montreal and Rue St. Catherine or if the weather isn’t very nice visit the Underground City (a great place to warm up in winter or cool off in the summer).

 

The absolute best time to visit Montreal is the autumn, in late September or early October. The weather is bearable and the maple trees turning colour are spectacular. Take a trip out of the city to the Laurentian mountains, although as a Western Canadian, I object to the term mountain here, they are more like rolling hills. It’s about an hour’s drive out of Montreal, depending of course on how long it takes you to get out of Montreal.

 

As a great city, of course there are museums, art galleries, and if you’re into that sort of thing, churches/basilicas, etc. But the best thing to do in Montreal is find a small café, order a café au lait and a pain chocolat and just enjoy the ambiance of Europe without having to go through customs and immigration. Oh, and don’t forget to try the French onion soup, and the cheese, and the wine… Okay, you get my drift. It’s a great place to eat.

 

So, until July 1st.

 

Nice, France

The last Formula 1 race was held in Monaco (don’t get me started on the results), but as I’d already blogged about Monaco and my attendance at the Grand Prix here, I thought this time I’d talk about the nearby city of Nice. Nice is nice, very nice, you should go.

 

I have actually been there twice. The first time I was a single, young woman and I arrived by overnight train from Biaritz. I stayed at the youth hostel and one day I went to Cannes, where the film festival was on. Along with a hundred other people, I stared at a hotel for ten minutes, hoping to catch sight of a star, but I couldn’t be bothered to wait any longer so left. I also made a daytrip to Monaco, two days actually, the first I wandered around the city and the second time was for the race.

 

If you’re going to go to the south of France, then Nice is an ideal location as you can easily get to all these other places on the train. The second time I visited was with my husband and eight month old baby daughter. France, like many European countries is actually great for travelling with babies. People seem to be a lot more accepting of the interruptions tiny people make than they are in North America. 

 

One day, at lunch, we stopped in a little café and ordered some pasta for my daughter. This was back in the day when you started your babies on solid food at three months so by eight months she’d already graduated to spaghetti. Anyway, the pasta arrived without any sauce so we let the baby feed herself. There was spaghetti everywhere. I think the lady sitting next to us even had some on her hat. Realizing the mess my daughter was making, we tried to feed her, but everyone around (including hat lady) just said, “She’s enjoying her food, let her be.”

 

Nice has a fabulous Esplanade to parade down, with loads of expensive sports cars cruising down the road next to the beach. There is also a fabulous old town to wander around, complete with weekend markets with produce from the local area (at least when I was there) and “antiques”. So, with Cannes just down the road, and Monaco a mere 20 minutes away by train, plus all the inland villages to explore, you could very easily spend a happy week in Nice. But here’s a little travel tip: the nearby town of Menton, France (the other side of Monaco), is equally as charming and half the price for accommodation and food, because it doesn’t have the cachet of Nice. I say, stuff the cachet and eat and sleep cheaper, more money for wine and train trips. Plus, Menton has a sandy beach whereas the one right in Nice is pebbles.

 

Whatever you decided to do, slap on a hat, sunglasses and watch the beau monde go by.

 

Next F1 race is in Montreal, Canada so I’ll be blogging about my visits there (I actually lived in Montreal for 2 years when I was very young). See you on the 15th.

 

Barcelona, Spain

Yay, a place I’ve been, although in all honesty, only for a day. When I was working in London the travel agent through whom I booked my boss’s flights took a load of admin assistants there for the day. We flew business class, which within Europe really isn’t that big a deal, then we had a short city tour and then a couple of hours to wander around before we flew back to London.

So, what did I do during my eight hours in Barcelona?

First, I went up a hill to get an overview of the city. Then there was a visit to the Sagrada Familia cathedral. I didn’t go in, just sat outside and marveled at the architecture. Construction started in 1882 and it’s projected that it will be completed in 2026. Talk about taking your time. It is definitely an interesting building, not really my cup of tea but then I tend to prefer classical architecture.

After that, I wandered up (or was it down) La Rambla, Barcelona’s famous street. Between the two roadways is a pedestrian walkway, full of street performers, artists, souvenir hawkers, and a thousand other tourists and locals alike. There are interesting buildings and enough going on to keep you engaged for hours.

Hungry? Head over to the Mercat de la Boqueria, an indoor market packed with fruits, vegetables, seafood, cured meats, etc., many offering samples. When I was there, admittedly, 15 years ago, our guide warned us not to go behind the market, as evidently that’s where you purchase merchandise of an illegal nature. Not sure if that’s still the case, you may want to check with a local.

Need a break? Pop down to the beach. Or, like me, visit the marina and marvel at the amazing boats. But no visit to Barcelona is complete without tapas. To me, tapas are the ideal meal. Lots of little flavors, eat until you’re full and move on.

Unfortunately, I only had a day in Barcelona but it was enough to give me a taste so I want to return. Have you been? Any suggestions of places to visit on my next trip?

The next F1 race is in Monaco, and I’ve already blogged about that destination (here). So maybe I’ll talk about nearby Nice, France.  See you on June 1st.

 

Bahrain

So, Bahrain … been there? Yeah, me neither. Know where it is? Vaguely? That’s about all I know as well. Let’s take a minute and virtually visit this small island country. First, it’s location. It’s in the Persian Gulf, east of Saudi Arabia to which it is connected by a causeway, and 200 km south of Iran. Qatar lies to the southeast, across the Gulf of Bahrain.  It’s slightly larger than the city of Hamburg or the Isle of Man. The capital is Manama - feel free to start a conversation at your next cocktail party with that interesting factoid.

Originally an archipelago of 33 islands, due to land reclamation there are now 84. I guess that’s a preferable way of increasing a country’s territory than war. During the last Formula 1 race, one of the commentators claimed that the sea around the main island of Bahrain was so shallow that a person could walk for 4 miles from shore and only be up to their waist in water.

92% of Bahrain is dessert. So if sand isn’t your thing, then you may want to skip visiting this country. Even if you are a beach lover, I understand that due to land reclamation projects, there are actually few beaches and the ones that remain charge to visit them.

What is there to do, then? Well, of course, there’s the Formula 1 race in April. Aside from that, you could visit the Bahrain National Museum that chronicles 4,000 years of Bahraini history. If you want to get up close and personal with the country’s past, you could also visit the Qalat al-Bahrain site, which is the location of the former capital of Dilmun and is apparently one of the most prolific archaeological digs in the Arabian Gulf. Want something a little less … ruined? You can tour some traditional houses which are now dedicated to various arts. Bahrain is also home to the largest prehistoric burial cemetery in the world. Go figure. I guess all that sand is good for something. According to the Bahrain dot come website, local potters now use some of the burial chambers as kilns.

One of the oddest tourist attractions I saw however, was the so called Tree of Life. You know a country is desertified (yes, I made that word up) if a tree is a tourist attraction. The Bahrain dot com website claims the tree is 400 years old and 32 feet high. Maybe it’s a typo because as far as trees go, that’s not very impressive. But evidently 50,000 people visit it every year, so what do I know.

I’m sure there are other things to do and see, and if you’re in Saudi Arabia, a visit to Bahrain might be the break you need. I understand that it is popular with travelers for its authentic "Arabness" without the strict application of Islamic law on non-Muslims. I’m afraid, however, that at the moment Bahrain is not on my bucket list.

Next Formula 1 race is in Barcelona. I have been there and do recommend it. So pop back on the 15th of May and let’s see what’s to do in this Spanish city. In the meantime, if you’ve been to Bahrain, feel free to comment and let me know what I’m missing.

photo credit: still life bahraini via photopin (license) 

 

China

Who watched the last Formula 1 race in Shanghai? Not the most thrilling of races but it had its moments. I’ve always wanted to go to China, it’s on my bucket list. So If I had limitless funds, and time, this is what I’d do.

First, I’d walk the Great Wall of China. I know the sections of the wall comprise over 20,000 kms. But I’d like to get away from the crowds, find a section of the wall away from tourists and walk for a few days just enjoying the countryside, the views and to imagine all the history those stones have been part of. I think if I did go to China and only saw the parts that every other tourist saw, I’d be horribly disappointed. But then my record with finding ancient walls is dismal. My husband and I once spent three days trying to find Hadrian’s Wall in England with no success. But there were mitigating reasons for that, one of which is my terrible map reading skills (pre GPS) and the other an outbreak of hoof and mouth which shut down all the countryside.

But back to China. The second thing I’d like to see is the Terracotta Army. Yes, select pieces of the Army have travelled to museums around the world. But there’s nothing like seeing it in situ. I imagine all the painstaking labor that went into creating this multitude of figures, and all for a dead guy. It is estimated that up to 700,000 workers may have been involved in making the Army. At least their work is being recognized now but I wonder how they felt going home at the end of each day knowing their hard work was just going to be buried with the Emperor.

Next on my must-do itinerary would be a river cruise on the Li River. I had heard that the Yangtze, the largest river in Asia was the one to visit but I understand that pollution and recent hydroelectric projects have spoiled much of the scenery. I would be more than happy to be wrong on this point. Either way, I’d like to spend a couple of days on the water, watching China drift by my deck lounger. Is that too much to ask?

Other people would have different things on their China list – seeing Giant Pandas, the Forbidden City or some of the buildings in Shanghai or Beijing. I’ve heard of the markets and rice paddies and the Yellow Mountains. And yes, I’d fancy these things, too. But I could be happy with just my three wishes. How about you? Have you been to China? Any desire to go? Please let me know before our next stop – Bahrain.

photo credit: Grande Muralha - Great Wall via photopin (license)

 

Malaysia

So, following the Formula 1 races, this time we’ll stop in Malaysia. Technically, I could say I was in Malaysia twice. I flew into Kuala Lumpur from Australia, travelled down to Malacca by share-taxi and then went to Singapore. After Singapore, I returned to Malaysia, visiting a small island in the South China Sea. I’m afraid it was so long ago that I can’t remember the name of the island. I do remember taking a rickety old bus from Singapore, then getting on an equally rickety fishing boat (like the ones in the picture) along with several other backpackers and after an hour or so we arrived at the island.

 

As it was a small island, cheap accommodation was in limited supply, so a guy I met on the bus ended up in the beachfront cabin next to me. As we both spoke English, in fact I think he was from England, we chummed up and went to dinner together. If you’ve ever travelled in countries where English is not the local language, you’ll find that after a few weeks you’ll talk to just about anyone who speaks your language. Anyway, this guy and I used to eat at a restaurant right on the beach. The waiter obviously thought we were a couple and wouldn’t speak with me, he would always ask the guy I was with what I wanted to eat. To me, I thought it was funny, because I was only subject to it for a few days. It did open my eyes to the plight of women who are ignored or sidelined because of their gender.

 

Malaysia was the first predominantly Muslim country that I visited. Before I arrived, I research local customs and cultural observances. So when I first arrived in KL, I was very careful to sit with my feet planted firmly on the floor as I’d read that to show the soles of your foot is considered very rude. However when I arrived at the taxi-share depot, all the men were sitting with their feet crossed over their knees. So much for research.

 

I spent the last few days of my stay in Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. This was before the Petronas Towers, swanky malls and roof-top bars. It was the old, colonial KL that I saw. With bird sellers and people sweeping streets with brooms. Friendly people who didn’t look down on a lone woman travelling through their country. Even when I got on the local bus with my massive backpack they didn’t complain – at least not in English. And before you think I was super brave to travel alone. When I was in KL I met an Australian woman who had spent 18 months travelling around South America with her 2 year old son. He was only a baby of 6 months when she started her journey. Now that takes courage.

 

I’d love to go back to Malaysia—spend more time in Malacca, visit the new KL, maybe go to one of those fabulous beach resorts rather than the backpacker dives. Until then I can only dream.

 

As the next F1 race is in China that will be our next destination. I haven’t been there, or set a book in that area, although in Singapore Fling Jeremy and Lalita visited two offices there outside of the story. However, China is on my bucket list so I’ll talk a bit about the places I’d love to go if I ever had the opportunity.

 

Until April 15th, then. And if you’ve been to Malaysia, tell me what your favourite place was, or suggestions of where I should go if I get the opportunity to return. Cheers!

 

Melbourne, Australia

The new Formula 1 Grand Prix season has started. Anyone else as excited as I am? So, in honour of the Australian Grand Prix, I’m going to blog today about Melbourne. I only spent five days in Melbourne, three of them so sick I thought I might die. But the other two were great.

 

The problem with Melbourne – the weather. One day it was 30°C, then next 5°C. Evidently this is not an anomaly and often happens. I’m all for spontaneity but that is just insane, and quite probably the cause of my sudden onset near-death.

 

The best thing about Melbourne - the bakeries. I swear I put on five kilos just looking through the windows. What else is there to do, other than stand outside a bakery and drool all over yourself? Well, you could take a ride on the Puffing Billy, a restored steam train that runs from Belgrave to Emerald Lake Park. Learn from my mistake, don’t stick your head out the window and then look at the front of the train, you’ll spend the rest of the trip trying to get the soot out of your eyes. An even better day trip would be to the Yarra Valley wineries. You may be blurry-eyed at the end of the day, and not from soot, so take a designated driver or an organized tour.

 

The must-do thing, however, is to drive (or take a tour) along the Great Ocean Road. You can actually drive all the way to Adelaide but if you don’t have the time, make sure you hit (not literally) the highlights – the 12 Apostles. These are 12 (at least originally) rock formations off the coast. When I was there, more than a husband and 4 children ago, a couple were in danger of disintegrating. I understand there are only 8 left but as the ocean continually erodes the mainland, a few more “apostles” may appear in the near future.

 

Also not to be missed is the Grampians National Park, if you’re a little bit fit you can climb up and then hang from the end of the world. Unless you’re scared of heights, then you may want to stay in the vineyards.

 

If you’re in Australia, Melbourne is definitely worth a visit. And if you’re an F1 fan then this would be an awesome time to go. Next post will follow the Malaysian Grand Prix. In the meantime, have you been to Melbourne? Where would you suggest visiting?

 

 

Tintagel, Cornwall, UK

I love castles and I love history. Throw in some mystery and an ancient legend and I’m there. In this case, Tintagel castle in Cornwall. I spent a long weekend with some friends in Cornwall and we stopped there on our way back to London. I have never laughed as much as I did during those three days. Unfortunately, those stories are best told over several glasses of wine so they’ll have to wait until we meet in person. Today, you’ll have to settle for a recounting of my visit to Tintagel Castle, near the Devon/Cornwall border.

Tintagel would probably be just another castle ruin if it weren’t for its association with the legend of King Arthur. Very clever marketing, if you ask me. Where did it all begin? I’m glad you asked, because I’ve done some research.

Sometime between 1135 and 1138 C.E., Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the History of the Kings of Britain. (He probably wrote it in 1135 but took 3 years to edit the damn thing.) In this book, he wrote about the legend of King Arthur being conceived at Tintagel. However, he doesn’t mention Arthur being born, having lived or even ruled over the castle during his lifetime (fictional or not). In subsequent years, however, the legend took on a life of its own and more Arthurian texts were produced that firmly place King Arthur at Tintagel. Most archaeologists, however, say that there is no connection between the legends or stories and evidence. But it’s way more fun to believe there is.

It is thought that the castle was actually built in 1233 by Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall, but in an earlier style so as to appear more ancient and lend credence to the legend. There is some evidence (loads of ancient Roman pottery) to believe there was some sort of settlement on the site much earlier than this, but not enough to prove it definitively.

Whatever its true history, Tintagel Castle is well worth a stop. The scenery is stunning and if the weather cooperates, you could take some incredible photographs. The site is operated by English Heritage so be prepared to pay and for crowds during the summertime. In fact, in checking the website, it’s currently closed for maintenance and won’t open until the summer. We frolicked about the grounds, making up stories and staring out to sea, pretending we were Guinivere waiting for Arthur to finish mucking about and come visit.

The castle's not the only historic site in the area. Don’t forget to visit the village which now bears the name of the castle. The Old Post Office is over 600 years old and was originally a yeoman’s farmhouse. It’s run by the National Trust. Check their website for opening times and prices. Or, you could do what I did and stand outside and take a photo for free. 

 

 

Clovelly, Devon, UK

I spent a lovely afternoon in Clovelly on the Devon coast. Of course that was many, many years ago. But I sincerely doubt the village has changed much in the intervening years. If you’re a tourist in England looking for a bit of quintessential British past, the kind you see in period pieces produced by the BBC, then Clovelly would be a good place to head to.

 

Cars are severely restricted in Clovelly. If you arrive by car and aren’t staying at the hotel, you have to park and then walk down into the village. The walk down’s not bad as long as it’s dry, the cobbles can get slippery when wet. The walk back up is strenuous no matter the weather. If it’s a problem, you can get a ride back up in a Land Rover for a fee. There is now a charge to visit the village, check the website listed below. I don’t remember paying when I went, but again that was years ago.

 

For history lovers such as myself, you may be interested to know that Clovelly is a privately owned village that for the past 800 years has only been in three different families. There is a website (http://www.clovelly.co.uk/) that gives an overview of the families who have owned the village dating back to the 13th century. Clovelly was also listed in the Doomsday book which is a land survey of England commissioned after the Norman Conquest in 1066. So, yeah, it’s old. And the money raised from visitors goes to preserve the heritage.

 

So, what to do in Clovelly? We just wandered around, had a cream tea, and then resumed our journey back to London. However, if you have more time, you could: make your own silk scarf, or clay pot, learn about rag rugs or owls and birds of prey or … get married. With its old world charm and stunning views, Clovelly would be a wonderfully romantic place to wed.

 

So, there you have it, a great place to spend a few hours along the North Devon coast.  Next post, I’ll revisit Tintagel castle, which has been associated with the legends of King Arthur. So pop back on March 1st. In the meantime, have you been to Clovelly? What did you think?

 

 

Baku, Azerbaijan

 

Yes, it’s another one of my dream destinations. No, I haven’t been. If you’ve never even heard of it or aren’t sure exactly where Azerbaijan is, then here’s a map. . See, it’s sandwiched between Russia (was in fact a former Soviet state until 1991), Armenia (with whom it has a fragile territorial relationship), Georgia and Iran. So, you’d probably think it was classified as Asia or maybe the Middle East. So how on earth did it win the Eurovision Song Contest in 2011? Perhaps the only qualification to enter the contest is that you can spell Europe. I must say, however, they put on a fantastic show in 2012. And if you haven’t heard of the Eurovision Song Contest then you are missing one of the world’s greatest cultural extravaganzas. It’s also a great test of one’s knowledge of geography and political alliances when the voting segment of the contest takes place. You can stream it online if it doesn’t get shown on TV in your country.

 

So, why is Azerbaijan on my dream destination list? Ever have an odd fascination with something that you can’t explain? For me, that’s the caucus region. Maybe because every time I check Caucasian on the ethnic box on forms I wonder where exactly I think I’m from. Personally, I think that category should be renamed “pigmentally challenged” but that’s me again, pasty white girl. I wanted to go to this area when I visited Russia, but it wasn’t safe at that time. It’s an area where political tension boils over on a regular basis.

 

But back to Azerbaijan. Why my fascination? Well, if you’ve been a reader of my blog for a while, you know I love unique cultures. Azerbaijan, with its mix of east and west and its history of being conquered by the superpower-du-jour has that. You also know that I love history. Azerbaijan has that in spades, too. The Maiden Tower, which is evidently Baku’s foremost architectural icon, dates from around the 12

 

Azerbaijan is not some backwater country. It’s considered one of the most important places in the world for oil exploration, with two-thirds of the country rich in oil and natural gas. But it also has one of the largest agricultural basins in the region with over 50% of the country devoted to agriculture.

 

So, let’s pack our bags and go, right? Well, watch the news and your local government advisories on foreign travel hot spots. Azerbaijan is still clashing violently with Armenia over disputed lands. If you do go, you may want to stay away from the south-western part of the country.

 

There you have it—Azerbaijan. Where’s your unique dream destination?

 

 

 

New Orleans, Louisiana

If you’ve been to New Orleans in any year starting with a 20—, or even a 199-, then you might as well stop reading now as anything I have to say will be out of date. Of course you can always read on to find out about my adventure…

 

I went to NO when I was 13. So at least two decades ago. Ha, ha, okay 3 … and a bit. But I still remember it, so it had some impact. Of course I went to New Orleans well before Hurricane Katrina so I have no idea if any of the places I visited are still even there. Although most of my memories are of the old French quarter which I believe escaped the worst of the destruction. I desperately wanted to attend the Romantic Times conference held there last year but budget and schedule defeated me.

 

Of course at 13 I wasn’t able to sample the most well-known delights of NO—the bars and jazz bands. Every night after dinner, my parents would tuck me and my siblings into bed and leave us in the care of our spinster aunt. Then they would go out to explore. The next morning we’d wake up and discover a couple new glasses in the sink from whatever bar they had holed up in. We had the Pat O’Briens’ Hurricane glasses for years. They were great for ice cream sundaes.

 

Here’s the funny thing about our trip to New Orleans. We were in a motorhome and stayed in the Superdome car park and my father used the facilities at the Hyatt Regency. I’m pretty sure you can’t camp there these days. Also, along the way, my parents had bought a stationary exercise bike. There were 6 of us sleeping in the motorhome so the only place for the bike was on my parents’ bed. Each night they’d put the bike between the driver and passenger seats and then each morning return it to the bed. They had that bike for over 20 years and lifting it up and down during that trip was the most exercise they ever got from it.

 

My other lasting memory of our trip was when my parents purchased a painting from a street artist along the Mississippi river. It was of a huge tree at the edge of a bayou. My dad asked the artist to include a small cabin in the painting and when we returned half an hour later, it was done. My mom still has it. And yes, it probably went up and down off the bed each night as well.

 

I think it might have been that trip to New Orleans that sparked my interest in jazz. Or it could have been that my dad would wake us up on Sunday morning by blaring Dizzy Gillespie from the stereo. I’m not a huge jazz lover, but I do particularly like Ella Fitzgerald and have several of her albums. In the latest book I wrote, the couple dance to Someone to Watch Over Me as sung by Ella.

 

 

Rajasthan, India

I had a request to revisit Rajasthan, a state in Northern India. Of course I haven’t visited a lot of India, only scratching the surface of this amazing country, but if I had one recommendation (apart from visiting the Taj Mahal) it would be to spend time in Rajasthan. I was there for about a week, mostly in the countryside. If you need a break from India’s crowded, dirty cities, then head north and spend a few days in one of this area’s magnificent rural palaces now turned hotels.

 

The capital of Rajasthan is Jaipur, the pink city and the Palace of the Winds is the iconic symbol of the city. It was built to allow the ladies of the royal household to watch the everyday city life pass by. You can also tour the City Palace. Near Jaipur is the Amber Palace which is a corruption of the real name, Amer Palace. The photo is taken of the gardens in the lake. You can also ride an elephant (which of course I did) to get to the fort which is a great example of Rajput architecture. I could spend hours just staring at the intricate designs and carvings on the buildings. One day, when I have loads of time (stop laughing) I’m going to research the lives of the royal women in the 16th century and write a book set in one of these palaces.

 

If you’re into birds, then a stop at the Bharatpur bird sanctuary should tickle your feathers. According to my guidebook, if you do visit, bring insect repellant as the shallow pools are also home to millions of mosquitoes. If birds aren’t your thing, there’s also a Tiger Reserve. I visited one, though I’m not sure if it was this one, but didn’t see any tigers. Tigers and birds aren’t the only animals you can experience in Rajasthan, I also rode a camel as a part of the state is desert.

 

But for me, the most incredible experience in Rajasthan was the people. As we were driving down the road, we saw a group of Indian women in gorgeous saris balancing bundles of wood on their heads. I also had tea with a farming family, cycled along a country road and don’t get me started on the beautiful children. While there I purchased a hand-painted silk bedspread that I’ve been too afraid to use because I don’t think it will clean well. But now that I’ve painted my front room a new colour, I could put it on the back of my sofa as a reminder of my incredible visit to this part of the world.

 

Finally, for this post anyway, don’t forget to visit the city of Udaipur, considered the most romantic city in India. If you can afford it, stay at the Lake Palace Hotel, where James Bond romanced a circus troupe of women and fended off the bad guys in Octopussy.

 

 

Lisbon, Portugal

I’ve only spent a day in Lisbon so I’m no expert, but it seemed like a very interesting city. When I went, I was on a day-trip from a week’s vacation in the Algarve, a popular tourist area in Portugal. We (my husband and I) first crossed the Vasco de Gama bridge, a truly impressive engineering feat. However, as we entered the capital of Portugal, we were greeted with the sight of a huge shanty town. Now, I’ve seen plenty of shanty towns in my travels—in Central America, Asia and in the Philippines. But this one, in a European capital, was a surprise. And, I hate to say it, rather tinged my perception of Lisbon with disappointment.

 

Lisbon is evidently one of the oldest cities in the world and the oldest in Western Europe, predating London, Paris and Rome by centuries. A catastrophic earthquake and even more devastating tsunami leveled much of the city in 1755. There are, however, still many monuments and buildings that predate the earthquake. One of which is the Belem Tower (see photo) which was built circa 1519. It was part of the ancient city’s defense system and as a ceremonial gateway to the city. With a great seafaring history, there are plenty of monuments in Lisbon to its glorious past, including a Monument to the Discoveries which features a statue of Henry the Navigator. I’m not sure why, but the name “Henry the Navigator” (and I know he has a proper Portuguese name) has always made me smile. When we used to travel around Europe by car, our friend Danny was in charge of the maps so we dubbed him “Danny the Navigator.” However, I doubt there will be any statues erected in his honour.

 

After visiting the main monuments, we wandered around an old quarter of the city. I’m not quite sure what area it was but it was full of quaint little shops and cafés and provided a delightful afternoon. We had a delicious lunch in a popular spot, full of Lisbonites. I understand there is a very good museum in Lisbon, similar to the British Museum, that also has a great garden. That would be on my bucket list for a second visit to the city.

 

And once you’re tired out from the museums and monuments, you can head to a nearby beach for a little rest and relaxation. Lisbon has a very moderate climate with a summer season lasting six months (May to October). That’s more my style. And being on the Atlantic coast, the summer temperatures are not too extreme either. When we move to Spain, Lisbon will be a handy weekend getaway. I can’t wait.

 

 

Miss Guided Party

(Originally posted December 1, 2014) I’m going to do something slightly different on the blog today. We’re going to party in St. Lucia!!!! Well, not really (insert sad face). Although seeing the snow outside my window makes me really, really wish I was there. Why now when Miss Guided, my St. Lucia set novel, released months ago? Well, I’m trying to do a special sale, except Amazon is not cooperating. It will be on sale from December 1-7 for 99cents in the USA, from December 7-11 for 99pence in the UK and as soon as I’m allowed, I’ll drop the price to $1.25 in Canada and Australia, although this may have to be after December 11. If you follow me on social media you won’t be able to miss the details. (For those of you who may have ended up here, looking for the fashion line Missguided, please feel free to hang around, we’re a friendly lot of travel and/or romance lovers.)

 

So as not to disappoint my travel blog followers, let’s do a quick recap of the delights of St. Lucia. It is one of the Windward Islands in the Eastern Caribbean Sea. Britain and France battled over the island 14 times and bits of both cultures are clearly evidenced on the island. 95% of the population speak St. Lucian Creole French, which they refer to as patois. My father-in-law speaks it and I can’t understand a word. But when I was researching for Miss Guided, I came across this amazing online dictionary: http://www.saintluciancreole.dbfrank.net/dictionary/KweyolDictionary.pdf so now I know what doudou means and that betje probably refers to me at a gathering of my in-laws.

Now that you can say “mesi” (thank you) in patois, let’s move on to some of the island’s tourist sights. There are, of course, the iconic pitons, the two mountains that look like well, they were cast in a giant conical bra. Don’t miss the drive-in volcano and the botanical gardens, the markets and people. But most importantly chill on the amazing beaches and eat a banana, St. Lucia’s prime export. And if you don’t mind salt, try the national dishes – green banana and salt fish. I never could eat salt fish but I love, love, love curry goat and rice ‘n peas.

 

If you can’t afford to visit St. Lucia, then pick up a copy of Miss Guided and fall in love with Marcus and Crescy. And now for the party! Please enter my giveaway for a copy of Played by the Billionaire, the story of Marcus’s brother, Liam. And if you’re reading this on December 1 (2014) head over to the Cyber Monday Facebook Party, where I’ll be dancing on the tables at 3pm Pacific Time. Stay tuned to my social media profiles for other fun events throughout December.

 

Seville, Spain

I’ve never been to Seville. It hasn’t even been a featured setting for one of my books—yet. But I’ve decided to move there. Actually, anywhere in Andalusia would suit me. Draw a line between Seville and Grenada and then two lines straight down to the coast. You have my new home search area. So, why Spain?

First, it’s warm, and generally sunny. I like sunny. Second, I speak quite a bit of Spanish and there’s a huge British ex-pat society so my husband won’t feel isolated. Although at the moment he claims that is a detriment rather than a bonus. I also love Europe, the multitudinous cultures in close proximity, the quirkiness, the history, etc. Living in Spain will bring me back to that. And the added bonus is that with the unfortunate economic downturn in Spain, housing is relatively cheap, especially compared to Vancouver.

Another bonus, Moorish architecture. I love Moorish architecture. The gorgeous palaces, the water features, the intricate tile work. When/if we buy a house, I really want one with an internal courtyard where I can have my fountain, set up my lounger and enjoy the sunshine while reading/writing a good book.

As Seville is estimated to be 2,200 years old, you know there’s going to be history. In fact, there are three UNESCO world heritage sites in the Old Town – the Alcazar palace complex, the Cathedral and the General Archive of the Indies. This area of Spain is also the birth place of Flamenco. And something I don’t normally mention – food. Tapas to be specific. I love the thought of small portions and variety. That’s my way to eat, lots of little samples. It’s like wandering a market and tasting all the products without all that unnecessary walking.

But the real seller: siesta. A culture where a nap in the middle of the day is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged. Yes, I’m off to Spain. Now I just have to convince the rest of the family.

photo credit: pkasco via photopin cc

 

Festivals - Let's Party

Festivals, you gotta love ‘em. No, really, who doesn’t love a festival? A select subset of the population indulging their passion or reveling in their ethnicity or history. Sometimes they’re educational, sometimes they’re wacky, they’re nearly always fun.

 

This summer, my family and I went to the Canadian Cheese Rolling Festival in Whistler, British Columbia. Watching people race down a steep hill after a wheel of cheese was hilarious. Some participants came in costume, some were serious contenders (the winner’s prize was amazing), and some were just there for a laugh. Of course the rugby players they had at the bottom of the hill to catch anyone who couldn’t stop were a bonus. We also visited a local Caribbean festival where I got to indulge my love of curry goat and rice ‘n peas and listen to some great music.

 

I spent most of my teenage years in a small town with a large Icelandic population. Every year at the beginning of August was Islendingadagurinn, or Icelandic Days for those not fluent with the language. Included, of course, were the requisite fair rides and parade where everyone who had a nice car or costume could participate. But the festival also had readings in Icelandic, and yes, although I’m not of Icelandic heritage, I did learn some of the language and participated one year. You can eat pönnukökur, which are Icelandic pancakes similar to crepes; vinarterta, a layer cake with prunes; and other delicacies, most of which I never developed a taste for. And once you’ve stuffed yourself, you can wander around and enjoy the crafts and artworks and the obligatory fair rides.

 

When I was looking for a first date venue for Jonathan and Olivia, the couple in my newly released romance, An Inconvenient Desire, I thought a festival might be an interesting option. The book starts in Italy and I had a plethora of options, seems Italians love their festivals. Finally, I settled on the medieval festival in Brisighella, a small town between San Marino and Bologna. I read a blog post written by a couple who were living in Italy for a year. The way they described the event was truly hilarious. With locals in costume, battle reenactments and pyrotechnic shows, and allegedly some of the best food in Italy, it was the ideal place for my couple to spend the day and start falling in love.

 

There are a couple of interesting attractions in Brisighella, even if you don’t make it there for the festival. They have a covered street, which was built to protect the donkey’s carrying chalk from the nearby quarry. There is also a fortress atop the hill, and across the gorge from the fortress is a clock tower with only six hours marked on the face. It’s also an ancient spa town in an area famous for its food. I can’t wait to visit it for myself. Until then, I’ll have to enjoy it vicariously through the adventures of Jonathan and Olivia. To read an excerpt of An Inconvenient Desire, click on the title.

 

Tallinn, Estonia

The England national football team recently played a Euro qualifier game in Tallinn, Estonia. Okay, I’ll give you a minute to look it up on the map if you’re not familiar with this tiny Baltic country. By the way, if I hear one more comment about Raheem Sterling being too tired to play I think I’ll go ballistic. Anyway, before I go completely off on a tangent, at least the game reminded me of my time in Tallinn.

 

I visited Estonia, well Tallinn really because I didn’t leave the city, in 199something. It was when I was in St. Petersburg doing a summer course in Russian language. Some of the students decided to go to Estonia for a weekend trip and I joined them. We took the night train from St. Petersburg and to be honest I don’t remember a lot about the trip, except the Russian guards taking my passport when we crossed the border and then returning everyone else’s in the group except mine. Eventually I got my passport back, minutes before the train left the checkpoint. I’m not sure if there is some super-spy running around with my identity or if they were just curious about the number of places I’d already been.

 

Anyway, finally allowed into the country, or out of Russia is probably more accurate, we arrived in Tallinn in the dark. I can’t remember if it was midnight or very early in the morning. The next day we set out to explore the city. And we weren’t disappointed. I loved Tallinn, it was so clean and interesting, ancient buildings and modern infrastructure. Well, modern for an ex-Soviet country in the late 90s. Like many old European cities, it had a huge central square, teeming with people and interesting things to look at. One of the things I do remember about Tallinn was the number of knitted goods shops and markets. Seems knitting is a big pastime, or business I guess. I bought the most gorgeous knit dress there. Unfortunately, my skin doesn’t like real wool and it was too itchy to wear so I gave it away. I kind of wish I hadn’t now because it would have made a beautiful long sweater. I guess I’ll just have to go back and get another.

 

So, some interesting facts about Estonia. It is located just due south of Finland, across the Baltic Sea. In fact Estonian is linguistically related to Finnish. Aside from borrowed words, they have no common linguistic ancestry with other Indo-European languages. Although I understand there are a large number of German words in the vocabulary due to past rule by that nationality. Trip Advisor lists 258 things to do in Tallinn, so I don’t think you’ll be bored. It is also the birthplace of Skype and is considered one of the most “wired” countries in Europe. So you probably won’t have a problem keeping in touch with anyone back home either.

 

I only spent a weekend in Estonia, but I’d love to go back. Maybe see more of the capital. From the photos I’ve seen when researching this post, it looks beautiful. I should set a book there. Then I could expense the trip as research. Have you read any books set in Estonia, or with Estonian characters? I’d love to hear from you if you have.

 

Next post, I’m going to talk about weird and wacky festivals, inspired by the medieval festival in Brisighella, Italy where I sent my couple in An Inconvenient Desire for their first date. So, put on your party hats and I’ll see you back here on November 1st.

 

 

Harrison Hot Springs, BC, Canada

I’m tired. And I’ve got a cold. I blame the children going back to school and bringing the nasty bugs home. Plus the weather has turned damp and I’m thinking about beaches. Except I’m too tired to pack. So I’m sticking close to home for this blog post, but still visiting a beach.

 

I live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. With thousands of lakes and mountains, I could spend decades exploring my home province, and still never get bored. So here’s a shocking confession. I haven’t travelled as much around British Columbia as I have some distant lands. And that’s a real shame. Every summer I say I am going to plan a road trip for the family so we can see some of this great land. Every summer something comes up and we can’t go. Every fall I rue another missed opportunity.

 

One of my favourite places in British Columbia (or what I’ve seen so far) is Harrison Hot Springs. It’s about an hour from my house. A large lake surrounded by mountains with warm mineral springs and an active artsy community, you think I’d go there at least once or twice a year. Here’s the confession – I haven’t been there in years. In fact, I think I only had 3 children the last time I went.

 

Whenever we have a visitor come from the UK I think, “I’ll take them to Harrison.” And we never go. You see, even though it’s one of my favourite places, there are two problems with Harrison, the first being parking. Although they’ve made an effort to expand the parking lot by the beach, if it’s at all a sunny, warm day you end up cruising the parking lot for hours, waiting for someone to pull out. And there is very little other parking available throughout the town. The second, and this may have been rectified as I haven’t been there in a while, is the lack of decent, affordable accommodation. If I’m going to go, I’d like to spend the weekend (even though it’s only an hour away). And the main hotel is hideously expensive for what you get. I have stayed there. In fact I spent my wedding night there (another confession). I wasn’t impressed by the hotel. And there doesn’t seem to be anything better, especially for a large family.

 

However, if you do decide to make the journey to visit Harrison Hot Springs, and I hope I haven’t put you off, there is a lot to do. The beach is wonderful with soft white sand, which I’m sure they must truck in from somewhere. A while ago they even made a separate swimming lagoon. As the lake is fed mostly by snow melt and mountain streams, plus it’s very deep, it is incredibly cold. With the sectioned off swimming area, the water is a little warmer and you won’t risk hypothermia for a quick dip.

 

They used to have a sandcastle competition at Harrison, but I don’t think they do any more, at least it’s not advertised. Plus you had to pay to see the best sandcastles which I think is a cheat on a public beach. However there is lots of hiking, golf (if you are so inclined), and the shops to peruse. And I can testify that Harrison Lake is great for small boat sailing, although my brother and I did destroy my aunt’s boat there.

 

So, if you’re a local Vancouverite, or you have a day to spare when visiting the Lower Mainland, may I suggest a jaunt up Highway 1 (or 7 for a more scenic route) and visit Harrison. Then take a deep breath of fresh, mountain air.

 

 

St Lucia

My new story, Miss Guided, takes place in St. Lucia. And in celebration of its release, I’m going to revisit the Caribbean island where my husband’s parents were born. We went there in 1999 and I have been trying to get back ever since.

 

We stayed at the most amazing resort, called Le Sport. Despite its name, it is actually more of a spa resort, although all water sports are included in the price so I guess that’s why they called it what they did. However, as one or two spa treatments are also included in the all-inclusive price it seems to have everything a couple could want. I sat on the beach between spa treatments and raised my flag to order another cocktail—my choice determined entirely by the colour of drink I fancied at the time. My husband did ever sport they offered. Since our visit, Le Sport have changed the rules and now children are only permitted during certain periods. So an even better couples retreat.

 

In St. Lucia, we did a tour similar to the one Crescy guides in Miss Guided. We visited Morne Fortune, Soufriere, the botanical gardens and the drive-through volcano. As there was some minor construction going on at the resort during our visit, they gave all guests a courtesy catamaran cruise where we also visited Marigo Bay and viewed the Pitons from the water.

 

But the most interesting experience was went we went to visit my husband’s grandmother. When we asked for her address we were simply told, go to Hess and ask for Helen. So, when we got in a taxi, that’s what we did. The taxi driver didn’t even bat an eyelash. We drove an hour from our resort to get to the small town of Hess. There was a big market full of people just off the highway. So the taxi driver rolled down his window and asked where Helen lived. He was directed up the hill and after asking three more people as we got closer, we eventually arrived at granny’s place. And although we told the taxi driver that he didn’t need to wait, his friend lived right across the street so he stayed there until we were done.

 

The trip to visit granny gave me the opportunity to see how real St. Lucian’s live. Chickens and dogs roamed the neighbourhood. The windows were, in fact, plastic louvres with metal grates on the outside. And of course, there were bananas, mangoes, and papayas growing beside the house. My kind of place.

 

Unfortunately, our week in St. Lucia was over all too quick. But I did bring home one amazing souvenir. Nine months after our visit, my first child was born.

 

 

Reykjavik, Iceland

Inspired by Celia’s comment in the Taj Mahal post, I’m going to revisit Iceland today. I was kind of saving my Icelandic memories, as I’ve written a story with Icelandic characters and was going to highlight the country then. But with the craziness that is my current writing life, who knows when I’ll get back to that story. Anyway, for this post I will concentrate on Reykjavik and area and leave Akureyri for another time.

 

I had been fascinated with Iceland for a long time before I went. I spent eight years in a small town in Canada where half the population were of Icelandic descent. I even studied Icelandic at “night school”, because as you may know, I’m a linguistic geek. I put “night school” in quotes because really the class was set up as a gossip session between some of the older Icelandic ladies who wanted an excuse to get together and practice their native language and have a good chin-wag. Then a teenage girl shows up in their “class” and suddenly they have to actually teach something. But they were more than happy to share their love of the Icelandic language and culture with me. I had a great time and even went to the University of Manitoba and wrote an exam to get credit for the course from my high-school. Not that the professor ever got around to marking it or reporting back to my school. But as I had more than enough credits to graduate with distinction (yes, I was a super-geek), I didn’t mind. I also “performed” at the Icelandic Festival (Islendingadagurinn) by reading a story in Icelandic.

 

So, having established my credentials as an Icelandophile (word creation being another of my amazing talents), I was so excited to finally see the country for myself. Unfortunately, I picked the wrong time of year to visit. I went in late March, beginning of April and the weather was unpredictable at best. Although, as Iceland is situated in the northern Atlantic, I imagine the weather is unpredictable most of the year. But despite the cold temperatures, the people were warm and friendly and I had an amazing time.

 

Reykjavik, the capital, is one of the greenest cities in the world, due to its reliance on geothermal heating. It does takes a little while to get used to the rotten egg smell when you take a hot shower. Thankfully, the odor doesn’t linger on the skin. Or everyone smells the same so you don’t notice it as much.

 

An essential activity when in Iceland is a visit to the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa. I went at night, after a snow storm. The dash from the changing room to the hot pools was, to say the least, cold. But once in the steaming water, with the stars twinkling in a pitch-black sky above, any discomfort was quickly forgotten. It was a memorable evening. Another must-see attraction is the waterfalls at Gullfoss (see picture accompanying this blog post) and the nearby Strokkur geyser where boiling water erupts from the ground on a regular schedule.

 

I would love to return to Iceland and visit more of the country. Preferably in the summer, when it’s light until late, prolonging the day. And now that Icelandair flies from Vancouver it is a slight possibility. Maybe Celia will take me as her interpreter, although my Icelandic repertoire is now limited to knowing the days of the week, counting to 10, and thanking someone for a meal.  Still, it’s better than nothing and I can read the road signs. Just don’t tell Celia that many Icelanders speak perfectly fluent English.

 

Have you been to Iceland or have any desire to visit the Land of fire & Ice?

 

 

Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

The Taj Mahal is one of the most iconic buildings of the world, representing undying love. I’m sure everyone knows the story. It was commissioned by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, a Persian Princess. She died giving birth to their 14th child. Obviously, he was quite keen on her.

 

The Taj Mahal is exactly my type of tourist site, history, amazing architecture and a romantic story to go with it. However, I also dislike crowds. So I, and a few other tourists with my group, arranged to go very early in the morning, before the hordes descended. We got in tuk-tuks outside our hotel at 4.30 in the morning and made our noisy way to the impressive site. As soon as the doors opened at 6.00 we were the first inside.

 

It was fabulous to take photos with no one else in the shots. Of course we all lined up for the required “Princess Diana shot” where she sat on the bench in front of the reflecting pools, the Taj majestically in the background. It was fabulous to wander around the gardens and through the mausoleum without feeling pressured to keep moving. It was a truly wonderful morning, and one I was glad I got out of bed early for.

 

Of course, I also returned later in the day, with the rest of our tour. The crowds were considerably larger but I was still able to enjoy the majesty of the place. Throughout the day, as the light changes, the colour of the dome shifts from a pinkish hue in the early morning, to white during the day, and golden in the moonlight. I highly recommend that if possible, you visit at different times throughout the day. I also understand it’s open at night during the full moon, although some restrictions apply.

 

There were rumors that emperor Shah Jahan had planned a black version across the river only to have his plans kyboshed by his son who was concerned about his father spending all his inheritance. These rumors have since been disproven and in fact, both Mumtaz and Shah Jahan are entombed within the white Taj.

 

The Taj Mahal was on my bucket list and I’m so glad I was able to see this world wonder. I have yet to see the Great Wall of China or the ruins at Machu Picchu which are also on my list.

 

 

Florence, Italy

I realize now that I skipped Florence and went straight to Venice. So, we’ll backtrack a little and spend the day in Florence. In fact, you’ll probably want to spend more than a day in Florence, there is so much to see and do. The problem with Florence is that nearly every other tourist in the universe is also visiting Florence at the exact same time. When I was there, we wanted to see the Renaissance paintings at the Uffizi Gallery. Problem was, the wait to just get in was two to three hours. So we hopped the train to Pisa instead.

 

We did eventually get to the Uffizi Gallery, by heading straight there first thing in the morning. Unfortunately, many of the works I wanted to see were touring at the time and not resident in the gallery, so I was slightly disappointed. We also went to the Galleria dell’Accademia which houses Michelangelo’s famous David statue. I don’t remember queueing up for this gallery but from other reports I’ve read, it’s a common occurrence. Also note, I believe both galleries are closed on Mondays. If you are planning a trip and visiting these galleries is important to you, check before you go.

 

Of course, if you’re not into art, then there is still plenty to do in Florence. We climbed the 463 stone steps in the Duomo and were rewarded with a 360° view of Florence. If you’re in fairly decent shape, and not claustrophobic or intensely worried about your personal space, then I highly recommend it. Along the way you can admire the stain-glassed windows and 16

 

If you’re not into stair-climbing or art gazing, then there’s always shopping. I recall several markets that sold everything from garlic to Gucci. Look around first and know your prices before you buy. And, as always, be very careful with your personal belongings. Italy has always been a hot-bed for pickpockets and I understand it has gotten worse since I visited.

 

Another little tip when visiting Florence, or probably any city in Italy, be unfashionable. Go for dinner early (6ish). My brother and I found a great restaurant in Florence and had a wonderful meal. We were one of the first to arrive. By the time we were finished, the restaurant was packed. The waiter placed a bottle of limoncello on the table, as a complimentary end to our meal. But then he got so busy seeing to the other tables that he forgot it there for an hour. Let’s just say we rolled out of that restaurant and I have very fond memories of limoncello.

 

Next time I go to Florence, however, I am going to make the time to visit Siena and San Gimignano, perhaps even staying in one of these smaller places. I found Florence very crowded and noisy, which was why Venice was such a welcome reprieve.