Mingling with Musk Ox in Palmer, Alaska

Welcome to the Musk Ox Farm

Welcome to the Musk Ox Farm

I happen to be in Alaska fairly regularly for my job and was lucky enough to visit this year in the summer. For visitors to the Anchorage area, a special experience with wildlife up close is a trip to the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer. The musk ox can be hand fed (I enjoyed feeding some calves fireweed but carrots and dandelions are also popular) and petted. Visitors to the farm will also learn how these animals help locals. In 1964, the Musk Ox Project was founded to help Alaskan natives in remote villages earn a living. These villages often can only be accessed by bush plane or boat and earning a living is very hard. Prices in these villages are high as most things need to be brought in. Even a gallon of milk runs $10 to $11 per gallon! Jobs, unfortunately, are few.

Scenery just outside the farm

Scenery just outside the farm

The Musk Ox Farm is a non-profit organization who help “harvest” qiviut from musk ox, which is the extremely warm under-wool found on musk ox to protect these animals during the winter. This wool is shed naturally in the spring and the farm uses afro-picks to shed this wool. This richly textured product is sent to remote villages where locals knit the qiviut into hats and scarves. In downtown Anchorage, across the street from the Marriott, visitors will see a brown house called Oomingmak, which is the native knitting cooperative that knits products from the herd in Palmer. Oomingmak is a traditional word for musk ox which translates to “the bearded one”. The knitting cooperatives are a vital economic way to survive in some Alaskan villages. While qiviut products are expensive, the work is intricate, artistic and beautiful. We were told that roughly 3,000 to 4,000 scarves are knitted yearly.

Oomingmak in downtown Anchorage

Oomingmak in downtown Anchorage

Herd of musk ox

Herd of musk ox

Wild musk ox live in remote areas of the world including northern Canada, Siberia, Greenland and northern Scandinavia. In Alaska, most of the musk ox had disappeared in the 1800s (unfortunately, these majestic animals made an easy hunting target). In 1934, 34 musk ox were imported from Greenland to reintroduce this animal to Arctic areas of Alaska. Today’s Alaskan herds live across northern and western Alaska and I have even been fortunate to see a wild herd from the air north of the Arctic Circle. The farm in Palmer currently has 84 animals which live on 77 acres. Wolves and bears are the main predators of these animals (I have heard of orphaned calves being rescued from the Alaskan North Slope after bear attacks on the herd). Musk ox form a defensive line to protect weaker herd members.

Just outside the Musk Ox Farm

Just outside the Musk Ox Farm

Admission to the farm is $11.00 which is well worth the price and information includes a small museum. Donations can also be made to the hay fund as well as sponsoring an animal. I was surprised to hear that Alex Trebek of “Jeopardy!” is a big supporter of the musk ox. Be sure to wear boots, rain gear and watch where you step as this is a farm. Tours run roughly 45 minutes and guides are enthusiastic, providing detailed information on the animals. Breeding on the farm is done carefully and musk ox generally have one calf yearly. We were told that musk ox who have twins generally will have one calf that will not survive.

Inside the museum

Inside the museum

The staff at the farm obviously enjoy their herd and the nicknames of some of the animals are creative including “Lunchbox” (who definitely has a big appetite!), “Old Ferdinand” and “Little Man”. In the wild, musk ox generally live thirteen to fifteen years but on the farm, life expectancies are longer. “Old Ferdinand” is fifteen years old and “Little Man” is seventeen.

Hungry musk ox

Hungry musk ox

On the farm

On the farm

Unfortunately, the farm is only open during the summer but for visitors to Anchorage, the drive is less than an hour to Palmer. Wildlife abounds on the road to the farm and signs warn about moose on the road. I even saw one moose well off the road in a field grazing.

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Musk ox are unique animals and difficult to see up close. One of the draws of Alaska is the unusual wildlife found in few places in the world. For visitors to Alaska, the Musk Ox Farm is a memorable experience where guests can spend time seeing these incredible animals found only in the Arctic.

The Musk Ox Farm
12850 E Archie Road
Palmer, Alaska 99645
Phone: (907)745-4151

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Roadside Art in North Dakota

"Grasshoppers in the Field"

“Grasshoppers in the Field”

I wasn’t expecting this. Near Exit 72 on Interstate 94 near Dickinson, North Dakota, drivers will see metal signs asking visitors to “Hop, Hop, Hop to the Enchanted Highway”. Starting with a sculpture, “Geese in Flight” on the interstate, visitors on the Enchanted Highway will see several folk art sculptures on this thirty-two mile stretch of highway, which are some of the largest metal sculptures in the world.

"Geese in Flight" along Interstate 94

“Geese in Flight” along Interstate 94

The Enchanted Highway leads to the small farming community of Regent, a tiny town struggling to survive with the tough cycles of the farming industry. Local resident Gary Greff, a self-taught artist and former teacher and principal, wanted to be sure that Regent endures. His whimsical sculptures are a draw to tourists to the town, who delight in the themes including deer, Teddy Roosevelt, fishing, pheasants, grasshoppers and a family. All sculptures are placed a few miles apart and all have both a place to park and a picnic table to enjoy the folk art and surrounding landscape. I was interested to hear that the artist was self-taught as apparently many schools in North Dakota do not offer art. Art is often only offered at the college level.

"Teddy Rides Again"

“Teddy Rides Again”

All of the sculptures are made from recycled metals, farm equipment and even piping and tanks. The work is creative and made me excited to drive to each viewing point.

"Deer Crossing"

“Deer Crossing”

My personal favorites were the “Fisherman’s Dream” (I felt like I was in the ocean even though I was on the prairie) comprised of a boat and several fish, as well as “Pheasants on the Prairie”. The rooster of the group is enormous, measuring roughly 40 feet high and 70 feet long.

"Fisherman's Dream"

“Fisherman’s Dream”

"Pheasants on the Prairie"

“Pheasants on the Prairie”

The Enchanted Highway passes through the small towns of Gladstone and Lefor. Drivers will see prairie, buttes (be on the lookout for Black Butte at over 3,100 feet high) and depending on the season, fields of hay and sunflowers. Sunflowers are a big cash crop in North Dakota (40 percent of U.S. sunflower products come from North Dakota) and the fields at sunset during harvest season are spectacular. Be sure to have insecticide on hand, though, as bugs may be plentiful in the fields when stopping at each sculpture.

Fields of sunflowers at sunset

Fields of sunflowers at sunset

The artist’s idea to attract tourists is innovative as the farming industry is hard. My grandparents were farmers and it’s tough to be at the mercy of droughts, blizzards or flooding. Sadly, drivers along the Enchanted Highway will see remnants of farms and houses that didn’t make it. These remains offer a hint at how difficult farming can be—especially with North Dakota’s severe winters.

"Tin Family"

“Tin Family”


The Enchanted Highway ends in Regent which includes gift shops, public restrooms and a lodge, the Enchanted Castle Hotel, designed and owned by Mr. Greff.

On the vast prairie near Dickinson, special surprises await explorers willing to exit the interstate to experience the Enchanted Highway. With a vast range of themes, visitors will smile at the ingenuity and the talent displayed in this magical folk art positioned throughout an enticing landscape.

The town of Regent, ND

The town of Regent, ND

Enchanted Highway
Exit 72 off Interstate 94 in North Dakota
Highway ends in Regent, North Dakota 58650

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A Secret Garden in Chicago

A view from Lurie Garden of some of Chicago's skyline

A view from Lurie Garden of some of Chicago’s skyline

Chicago’s Millennium Park is a huge draw for tourists. With sights like the public sculpture Cloud Gate, (affectionately known as “The Bean”), free classical concerts in the summer at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and a view of Chicago’s magnificent skyline, Millennium Park can be packed with visitors.

Cloud Gate in Millennium Park

Cloud Gate in Millennium Park

I am a fan of hidden gardens and for tourists visiting Millennium Park, a quiet secret garden, the Lurie Garden, surprises visitors with its fields of hedges and flowers.

Discretely hidden behind tall hedges next to the Pavilion’s Great Lawn, visitors almost stumble upon the garden by accident. I actually had to stop at the park welcome center for help with directions.

Tall hedges hiding Lurie Garden

Tall hedges hiding Lurie Garden

The garden almost seems like a field of wildflowers, similar to what might be seen on the prairie. I almost forgot where I was as the plants and flowers are positioned to seem distant from the nearby skyscrapers and the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s a colorful wild field in an urban setting that actually seems far away. Interestingly, this area of Chicago used to be a swamp that had to be filled in, as anything east of Michigan Avenue used to be a swamp.

The garden’s plants were designed by Piet Oudolf who used a mix of native and non-native plants. The layout is set in plates including a light plate and a dark plate with a seam at an angle. I happened to visit in July when the garden was still catching up from Chicago’s especially severe winter this year.

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Colors are spectacular and some of the flowers are designed to attract butterflies. I was told the garden is most vibrant in July and August and that most of the blooming occurs between May and September. During the winter, the Lurie Garden is dormant.

Beautiful colors

Beautiful colors

I loved the fields of coneflowers, small petunias, lilies, wild indigo and ornamental onions. The colors are subtle and I felt like a child running through an open field, completely forgetting I was in the heart of a major city.

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The Lurie Garden offers free informative twenty-minute tours during lunch on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. Tours meet in Millennium Park at a white tent just off Monroe Street.

The tour provides guests with an idea of what is in bloom during their visit as well as an idea of how the garden is laid out. A special surprise is also revealed in the walk as I was shocked to learn that the garden is built over parking garages and a commuter railroad. I had no idea what I was standing over and was told that this garden is the second largest roof garden in the world! For extra added views of the Lurie Garden, climb the Nichols Bridgeway where visitors can view the layout from above.

Like the children’s book “The Secret Garden”, the Lurie Garden feels like a special gift that few people know about. In a park packed with people, the Lurie Garden is a peaceful escape where visitors can imagine vibrant open fields and even chase butterflies.

Another skyline view

Another skyline view

Lurie Garden
Millennium Park
Chicago, Illinois
Phone: (312)228-1004

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A Church in Suomenlinna, Finland

Suomenlinna Church

Suomenlinna Church

Fifteen minutes by ferry from Helsinki’s Market Square and a world away lies the sea fortress of Suomenlinna. The islands comprising this fortress are home to roughly 850 residents who mingle with the daily tourists arriving from Helsinki.

Suomenlinna is comprised of restaurants, a visitors center, a brewery, museums (don’t miss the Vesikko WWII Submarine Museum), a grocery store and walking trails throughout the islands. A visit to Suomenlinna gives tourists a taste of Finland in another age, when Finland was under Russian rule.

Vesikko World War II submarine.  The quarters inside must have been cramped for the crew.

Vesikko World War II submarine. The quarters inside must have been cramped for the crew.

Near the visitors center, tourists will see a group of old houses with some built in the 18th century which were part of the previous Russian trading block. These houses were built by traders to help support the Russian garrison. I instinctively knew these buildings were Russian versus Finnish as the construction reminded me a lot of the houses in the film “Doctor Zhivago”.

Part of the Russian trading block including Café Vanille.

Part of the Russian trading block including Café Vanille.

Across the road from the former Russian trading block is the Suomenlinna Church, which was one of my favorite places on the islands. This church was originally built under the Russian regime of Czar Nikolay I as an Orthodox military church and was completed in 1854. A photo immediately inside the church shows what Suomenlinna Church looked like under Russian rule.

Organ inside the church

Organ inside the church

In 1918, during the Finnish Civil War, the Russian fortress was annexed by Finland and renamed Suomenlinna. The church became a Lutheran church and was altered in 1928 to look more Lutheran. My favorite part of the church is the gaslight lighthouse on top which was installed in the 1960s and is still in use today for air and marine traffic.

Grounds around the church

Grounds around the church

Inside the church is a simple, but elegant, interior and the church congregation is still active. Services are conducted in Finnish and visitors may want to check times to experience a bright interior with minimalist décor. The lighting is well designed and functional, while lit candles throughout the church add to the beauty. Also be on the lookout for several monuments to soldiers including during the Winter War (1939-40) and the Continuation War (1941-44). Outside the church is a bell that was cast in Moscow in 1885, which is the largest church bell in Finland.

The largest church bell in Finland

The largest church bell in Finland


Inside Suomenlinna Church with bright lighting

Inside Suomenlinna Church with bright lighting

On leaving the church, I recommend at stop at Café Vanille in the Russian trading block. I loved the rustic atmosphere of this café as the inside reminds me of what a café would have looked like decades ago. Daily specials might include sausage or sweet potato soups, and for those hardier types who like sitting outside in cold weather, outdoor chairs include warm blankets. I opted for coffee and a blueberry tart for around eight euros. A word of caution to visitors is to look out for hungry seagulls. I was inside the café waiting for my coffee, with my tart sitting outside. Suddenly, I saw another diner run toward my table waving her arms, as a seagull had suddenly dived into my tart!

Inside Café Vanille

Inside Café Vanille


Tables on the porch of Café Vanille.  Notice the blankets for colder weather.

Tables on the porch of Café Vanille. Notice the blankets for colder weather.

For visitors to Suomenlinna, I would recommend waterproof shoes with good support, as the cobblestone trails can be tough. A jacket is also recommended even in the summer as temperatures can change quickly with the winds.

Suomenlinna is an active community set within islands filled with history. I would recommend allocating a lot of time to explore the entire sea fortress, making sure to spend time visiting Suomenlinna Church, one of the islands’ hidden surprises. Suomenlinna is Finland at its best.

A view from Suomenlinna facing Helsinki

A view from Suomenlinna facing Helsinki

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In Prison in Helsinki, Finland

Hotel Katajanokka

Hotel Katajanokka

No, it’s not what you are thinking.

I usually do not write about hotels in this blog but sometimes a hotel, itself, is a special tourist attraction worth a post.

In Helsinki, in the shadows of the Uspenski Cathedral, the Best Western Premier Hotel Katajanokka, is a renovated prison. The oldest part of the jail dates from 1837 with newer parts of the prison dating to 1888. The prison was in use until 2002 and over the years has housed prisoners including political inmates (many of the leaders of Finland following World War II served time here) as well as acting as a temporary jail for prisoners awaiting trial.

In the shadows of Uspenski Cathedral

In the shadows of Uspenski Cathedral

Welcome to Hotel Katajanokka

Welcome to Hotel Katajanokka

The current hotel, which opened in 2007 with 106 rooms, includes the original prison walls as well as narrow halls and black iron stairs. On the ground floor, the Jailbird Restaurant includes an isolation cell (what I would call solitary confinement) as well as a group cell that was in use in the 1800s. Stepping inside either of these cells is both creepy and claustrophobic.

Isolation cell

Isolation cell

Prison walls around the hotel

Prison walls around the hotel

From the moment visitors arrive, staff members are dressed in black and white prison stripes, greeting visitors with the question “First time in?” Jail-themed gifts are available including prison uniforms, hats, handcuffs and chess pieces.

The neighborhood is residential, located just off the number four tramline and close to the city center. Rooms are comfortable and with the thick prison walls, extremely quiet. I slept very well during my stay and enjoyed hearing the sea gulls and boats on the nearby water.

Bedroom

Bedroom

Bathroom

Bathroom

The hotel’s open hallways and corridors give guests an idea of what life was like when the prison was operational including photos scattered throughout the floors of previous prison life. Some of the black and white photos are sad.

Open hallways

Open hallways

Photos of prison life

Photos of prison life

Downstairs in the Jailbird Restaurant is both a pub and restaurant. The restaurant carries on the jail theme with lit candles, tin cups and tin plates. A breakfast buffet is included in the hotel rate, while dinners are tasty, including soups, pasta, fish, lamb, and chicken. Also located on the ground floor is a gym, a sauna for rent (don’t miss out on this!), as well as a colorful playroom for children.

The hotel even includes a separate chapel as weddings are held here.

Being a residential neighborhood, for guests looking for sandwiches or snacks during the day, five minutes away following the tramline toward the Uspenski Cathedral, is a local supermarket, the K Market, which is open daily with lots of food options. Helsinki’s Market Square is also no more than a ten minute walk from the hotel with lots of treats. Be sure to go early and look for the stalls of berries for sale. I have never tasted juicy strawberries or blueberries like the kind I tried in Finland. On one day, I didn’t even realize I was walking about Helsinki with a face covered in blueberry juice!

Amazing fruit in Market Square

Amazing fruit in Market Square

Hotel Katajanokka is a find in a quiet part of Helsinki. Finnish design is world-renowned and the work done changing the previous prison into a hotel is fascinating. Rooms are relaxing (I felt like a part of the neighborhood) and staff go out of their way to make guests’ stays enjoyable.

A prison-themed hotel is historical, creative and unusual. I wasn’t sure what to expect initially but am glad I visited. Hotel Katajanokka is a must for anyone staying in Helsinki.

Best Western Premier Hotel Katajanokka
Merikasarminkatu 1a
Helsinki 00160, Finland
Phone: 358 9 686450

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Hidden Cakes Near London’s British Museum

Looking at the Cake Shop

Looking at the Cake Shop

It’s no secret that I love sweets and I am always looking for bakeries and dessert shops when I travel. In London, just around the corner from the British Museum, is a small cake shop filled with delicacies. Located through the entrance of an independent book store, the London Review Cake Shop has been enticing locals and tourists alike for over five years.

The shop is small—no more than eight tables—with a few stools against the wall. There are some lunch options like salads, baguettes, soup and quiche, but the big draws are pastries. With yummy desserts like triple frosted carrot cake, chocolate Guinness cake, apple and Earl Grey cake, lemon cake with rosemary, triple chocolate swirl cookies or an apple and almond tart, it will be hard for any visitor to resist. Pastry options change daily which makes for a special surprise.

Goodies at the counter

Goodies at the counter

Most options run roughly three or four pounds each and the shop offers various accompanying tea options sorted into categories such as white, green, black, oolong or herbal teas. Teas in tins are available as gifts. Coffee types are also listed on large blackboards such as espresso, macchiato, Americano, latte or even hot chocolate.

The shop is decorated with local theatre posters and the friendly service is organized. With little spare room (this shop is cramped), the counter has a sign advising visitors that the wait staff will come to them. Without the organization, there would be little space to move. I would recommend timing visits during off-times when customers are fewer.

Reading at the counter

Reading at the counter

This shop looks out into a quiet Bloomsbury courtyard. With the added perk of being attached to the London Review Bookshop, the tempting pastries and atmosphere make this “dessert oasis” a find.

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I especially like the apple and almond tart, as well as the apple and Earl Grey cake. On my last visit to London, I sadly missed out on the chocolate Guinness cake which I really want to try. I even took the tube across town for a sample and was disappointed to find out that the last slice of this cake had just been sold!

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British tea shops are an art form and the London Review Cake Shop is a masterpiece. For visitors looking for a break from the crowds at the British Museum, less than five minutes around a corner is a pastry shop calling your name. I know the chocolate Guinness cake is calling mine.

London Review Cake Shop
14 Bury Place
London, WC1A 2JL
Phone: (0207)269-9045
Tube: Tottenham Court Road

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A Day in Nicaragua

Postcard perfect scenery in route to Rivas

Postcard perfect scenery in route to Rivas

Nicaragua is an undiscovered tourist location which placed third in The New York Times’ suggested places to visit in 2013. I happened to be in Liberia, Costa Rica during March, 2014 and decided to book a one day tour to Nicaragua on a whim, not knowing what adventures were in store.

Heading to the Border

Departing early, our bus left Liberia with a tour group composed of fourteen Canadians, one Australian and myself as the only American. Liberia is about an hour and a half drive from the border access point of Penas Blancas on the Inter-Americana Highway. From the Costa Rican side, as vehicles near the border, visitors may see unscheduled police check points and will notice a heavier police presence. Costa Rica has had an influx of immigrants from Nicaragua seeking a better standard of living as average wages in Costa Rica are four times higher than its neighbor. In a country that has faced bad, corrupt governments, international debt and civil war, life in Nicaragua is hard, with jobs difficult to come by. People, however, are friendly and trying to do the best they can where opportunities are limited.

At the border on the Nicaragua side

At the border on the Nicaragua side

The border post of Penas Blancas is remote and like any frontier outpost, full of local color. Visitors will need to clear both Costa Rican and Nicaraguan immigration and on the Nicaraguan side, there is a tax. While we were waiting for our bus to clear immigration in Nicaragua, we stood in the parking lot where street vendors approach visitors selling goods like belts, sandals, purses, hammocks and snacks. A pig ran through the parking lot adding to the atmosphere. Our group was surprised when a man with what looked like a giant leaf blower approached our bus, wearing a blue jumpsuit and a gas mask. Suddenly, the inside of the bus was sprayed with pesticide for fumigation for a charge of US$5.

Nicaraguan Border

Nicaraguan Border

US dollars are accepted in Nicaragua but I would recommend having very small bills as any change will be given in Nicaraguan cordobas.

I’ve read several different travel sites about how long it takes to cross between Costa Rica and Nicaragua by road, with some estimates running five hours. My experience was a good one, as the combined crossing between both countries took a total of an hour. It was helpful that our guide had all the paperwork in hand as visitors will need to be sure to have the correct forms, including an itinerary showing a return ticket. Visitors should head to the border early as trucks on the Inter-Americana Highway will be backed up on both sides of the border. We were at the border by 8:00 a.m.

Welcome to Nicaragua

Clearing the border, we headed north on the Inter-Americana Highway toward the town of Rivas. Roads in this area are good and if the weather is clear, visitors will be lucky to see a spectacular view of two volcanoes (Concepcion and Maderas) located on the Island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. These volcanoes are awe-inspiring, rising majestically from Nicaragua’s landscape. The only word that comes to mind is “wow”.

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Numerous ranches are in the area and ox carts are often used for transportation. Visitors will also see three-wheeled taxis (what I would call a “tuk-tuk”) filled with locals sharing a ride, as well as very packed busses.

Entering Rivas, visitors may notice red and black stripes painted on telephone poles as well as red and black flags. These colors are the identifying marks of the FSLN or the Sandinistas, one of the major political parties in Nicaragua. Former Sandinista head, Daniel Ortega, is the country’s current elected president and visitors will notice signs in towns (sort of a “cult of personality”) with paintings of Ortega.

We were also told that while education is now free in Nicaragua, roughly 65% of children attend school. Children may be kept at home to work to help support their family or some families cannot afford shoes for their children to walk to school.

Catarina

Heading north toward Catarina, visitors will come across a town known for its plant nurseries and handicrafts. The big draw in Catarina, though, is a lookout point at Mirador across the Laguna de Apoyo, a volcanic crater lake. With benches looking down at the water, views are breathtaking. Tourists will enter through a parking lot surrounded with colorful craft shops (selling anything from belts, clothing, paintings, pottery and wooden handicrafts for just a few dollars) and a few restaurants. On the day we visited Catarina, there were a few visitors around, but we almost had the crater to ourselves.

Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo

If the weather is clear, visitors will be able to see across to Granada and Lake Nicaragua. The overall effect at Laguna de Apoyo is peaceful and a street musician playing a classic guitar added to the atmosphere.

Sitting on a bench, looking out over the crater, one vendor was explaining that her family designs pottery and it was hard to envision how her family manages with prices of one dollar per vase. The handiwork was intricate and reflected a lot of family pride. This vendor wanted to know where I was from and was surprised to hear it was the United States.

Masaya Volcano National Park

This park includes craters, trails and the very active Masaya Volcano which last erupted in 2012. Visitors will notice rocks and volcanic ashes on entering the park. To me, it was incredible that visitors can look right into the crater which is filled with smoke and sulfur gases. Signs in the area warn that the volcano is active (erupting without notice), and include information on how visitors should protect themselves.

Looking in the crater of Masaya Volcano

Looking in the crater of Masaya Volcano

Park information

Park information

Rangers in green shirts in the area keep a close watch on things. Bilingual signs in Spanish and English warn of parking too close to the main crater, as well as pointing to an evacuation route.

On a cliff above the crater is the Bobadilla Cross, which can be accessed by climbing 177 steps. The day I visited, the stairs were closed as it was considered too unstable (which was a little worrying!). If the weather is clear, the views across Nicaragua are fantastic as the countryside is dramatic. I could see across the Nicaraguan landscape for many miles.

Cross of Bobadilla

Cross of Bobadilla

The view from Masaya Volcano National Park

The view from Masaya Volcano National Park

It’s not every day a visitor gets to look into a crater, and I was surprised our bus could go almost to the rim.

Apparently, this park also offers a night tour where visitors can see bats fly from their caves. I didn’t see any wildlife on the day we visited, but the park is inhabited by many species of animals.

Granada

As it was now early afternoon, our bus headed to the City of Granada, founded in 1524 by Cordoba. The historic Spanish architecture, painted in vibrant colors, is one of the oldest cities in the western hemisphere. Buildings are painted in two colors and we were advised that each family is assigned a color scheme. For instance, one family might be assigned the color scheme of red with a white trim and any buildings the family owns will be painted accordingly. I was surprised at the vast array of colors from yellows to oranges to purples.

Horse carriage tours are available around the city, stopping at the many colonial churches. Carriage tours run around US$20 and transport visitors back in time.

Carriages in Granada

Carriages in Granada

Granada has suffered pirate attacks during its history as well as civil war but the buildings maintain their colonial character.

In Granada

In Granada

We had limited time in Granada and I spent most of my visit at the Iglesia de la Merced. A large plaza outside the church had a few vendors and inside, visitors can climb the tower for US$1. I initially planned to climb the tower, but changed my mind on seeing the steepness of the interior steps. The steps are open and quite a hike. For visitors willing to go to the top, however, views will be rewarded across Granada.

Iglesia de la Merced

Iglesia de la Merced

The various chapels within the church are colorfully painted and peaceful. Visitors should be sure to be respectful as locals will be stopping to pray. On a late Saturday afternoon, the church was fairly quiet.

Inside the church

Inside the church

Before leaving Granada, we stopped at the central park to admire the surrounding architecture. A stop by Lake Nicaragua was also impressive and I was surprised to see a white horse walking on the beach.

Return

As it was now late in the day, our bus began heading back to Liberia, Costa Rica. Crossing both borders took very little time and we cleared both countries in thirty minutes. Visitors should be aware that on the Nicaraguan side, there is a departure tax. At this point, the sun was starting to set and our excited group was exchanging stories about what we had seen.

Buildings in Granada

Buildings in Granada

Nicaragua is a country filled with lakes, beaches, volcanic scenery and colonial architecture. While the infrastructure is developing, for those tourists who are willing to overlook this, Nicaragua has much to offer. My visit to Nicaragua is something that I will remember for a long time to come.

Along Lake Nicaragua with a friend

Along Lake Nicaragua with a friend

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Healing Hearts in Zagreb, Croatia

Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb

Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb

In the shadow of the Lotrscak Tower in Zagreb’s Upper Town lies a museum dedicated to failed relationships. Beginning as a traveling exhibition, Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships, is a tribute to the notion that not all relationships work.

In the shadow of the Lotrscak Tower

In the shadow of the Lotrscak Tower

Located in a traditional building, the Kulmer Palace, this non-traditional museum exhibits objects that people have held onto following the end of a relationship. The museum accepts donations of personal artifacts, which have been received from around the world. The bilingual stories in Croatian and English are powerful and in some cases, I almost found myself gasping for air, as the stories communicated a great sense of grief. This museum is a catharsis for the trauma of ending a relationship.

Several rooms of displays include:

1. A stuffed rabbit that was going to travel around the world, but the relationship only made it as far as Iran.

2. A red reindeer from Peru from an excited newlywed celebrating a first Christmas together who sadly discovers her marriage would not last a second Christmas.

3. Two ceramic figures from Ireland donated from a woman who bought one each for her two children after fleeing an abusive husband in the United Kingdom.

4. A love letter from a 13-year-old boy on meeting a young girl fleeing the siege of Sarajevo.

5. A car mirror that had been removed from a vandalized car after a girlfriend discovers her boyfriend had cheated. His car faced her anger.

The rabbit that didn't make it around the world

The rabbit that didn’t make it around the world

A Christmas reindeer with a sad tale

A Christmas reindeer with a sad tale

This museum explores tough topics including betrayal, false love, death, politics and war, disease, addictions, violence and revenge. The stories themselves can be disturbing, emotional or moving and I found myself reading the story of each and every donated object.

Museum Entry--The figurine in the poster has a moving story

Museum Entry–The figurine in the poster has a moving story

The cold walls in some of the rooms also reflect the chill in a relationship and the starkness of the end of something that wasn’t meant to be. The white-tiled rooms almost seemed like a mortuary, signifying the death of a relationship.

Included in the various rooms is a map of the traveling exhibition which has been around the world. To me, this map shows that broken relationships translate into any language and culture.

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For 25 kunas, this museum is fascinating and well worth the admission price. Facilities also include a small gift shop and a coffee shop.

Alfred Lord Tennyson said “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. The Museum of Broken Relationships is a critical reminder of the frailty of the human heart when love ends and loss begins.

Museum of Broken Relationships
Sv. Cirila i Metoda 2
Upper Town
10000 Zagreb, Croatia
Phone: 385-1-4851-021

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In Search of Cream Cake in Samobor, Croatia

Amazing slice of kremsnita

Amazing slice of kremsnita

Croatia is a country known for its delicious desserts. Between the strudels, ice creams, pastries, gingerbread and cream cakes, I quickly learned the Croatian word for bakery, “pekarnica”.

From some Croatian friends of my brother and sister-in-law’s, I was referred to the town of Samobor, which is known for its crafts, hiking (including 13th century ruins) and its cream cakes. The cakes have a big reputation and visitors will even notice before entering the town billboards advertising bakery after bakery.

My favorite souvenir shop in Samobor, Srceko

My favorite souvenir shop in Samobor, Srceko

Roughly an easy 30 minute bus ride (depending on the number of stops) from Zagreb, I decided I had to investigate a local, legendary bakery called U Prolazu (which translates to “in the passage”). Located in a passage on the historic town square, U Prolazu is a simple two room café filled with delicacies. Menu options include chestnut cakes, donuts, strudel, cheese triangles and ice creams. The big draw, however, is the “kremsnita” or cream cake, which attracts visitors from Zagreb and throughout Croatia.

U Prolazu

U Prolazu

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Service at U Prolazu is at the table with some English spoken and bilingual menus. Visitors will be asked by staff in yellow and white uniforms whether they desire one or two slices of cream cake. The cake will be served with water (as it is rich) and I decided to have kava (or coffee) with my slice as well. The texture of this pastry is moist and creamy, while the crispy top with powdered sugar is mouth-watering. Basically, this is a dessert of custard filling served between two crispy pastries. Some of the locals enjoying their cake had to laugh while I was photographing my slice as the kremsnita in Samobor is a form of art.

Prices for this treat run roughly 14 kuna (or roughly $2.50) for a slice with coffee. I happened to visit Samobor on a day where it was raining heavily and bitterly cold, so the cake and coffee were a special treat.

The Parish Church of St. Anastasia (1671-75) just off Samobor's main square

The Parish Church of St. Anastasia (1671-75) just off Samobor’s main square

For visitors to Zagreb, an easy day trip to Samobor should be on any agenda. Between hiking, local shops and historic churches, there is plenty to see. Topped off with a slice of kremsnita, this pastry will make any visit to Samobor memorable. When I returned to my hotel in Zagreb and mentioned to the front desk that I had been to Samobor, the front desk in unison smiled and said “kremsnita”.

The main square (trg) in Samobor

The main square (trg) in Samobor

Kremsnita for sale in the main food market, Dolac Market, in Zagreb

Kremsnita for sale in the main food market, Dolac Market, in Zagreb

U Prolazu
Trg Kralja Tomislava 5
Samobor, Croatia

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A Few Favorites from Savannah, Georgia

Owens-Thomas House

Owens-Thomas House

For visitors to the U.S. Deep South, Savannah, Georgia remains a hidden gem. With more than twenty discretely manicured squares and a city founded in 1733, the Historic District is a find. The city’s architecture has stayed intact as during the Civil War, General William T. Sherman wanted to present President Lincoln with a Christmas present in December, 1864. The city was spared the fate of Atlanta.

Today’s Historic District is a blend of Southern genteelness with an urban edge, as the hipness from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) blends with a rich Southern history.

I have listed a few of my favorite spots in a city overflowing with things to see and do.

Colonial Park Cemetery

Entering Colonial Park Cemetery

Entering Colonial Park Cemetery

From 1750 to 1853, this cemetery served as Savannah’s burial ground. Located on approximately six acres with roughly 9,000 graves, this cemetery is both historical and a sad reminder of some of Savannah’s past tragedies. I went early on a Saturday morning and was surprised to see so many tombstones from 1820, as Savannah was hit by a yellow fever epidemic. More than ten percent of the city died, killing roughly 700 people including two doctors trying to save their patients.

A Victim of the 1820 Epidemic

A Victim of the 1820 Epidemic

Famous Savannahians are also buried here including James Johnson, who was Georgia’s first newspaper publisher, as well as William Scarbrough, who promoted the first trans-Atlantic steamship. Walking through the cemetery, visitors will also see the graves of Archibald Bulloch, Georgia’s first governor, and Joseph Habersham, who served as Postmaster General under three U.S. Presidents. Notable local burial sites are designated by detailed historical markers.

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The cemetery also includes other history from the early 1800s with a well-marked Duelist’s Grave. Local resident, James Wilde, died in a duel in 1815 and it’s hard to imagine today that centuries ago disputes were settled by dueling.

While many of the tombstones are worn and harder to read, this cemetery is a step back into history during the U.S. Revolutionary War. The grounds were designated a city park in 1896 and on an early weekend morning, I had the area almost to myself.

Colonial Park Cemetery
201 Abercorn Street
Savannah, Georgia 31401
Phone: (912)651-6843

Owens-Thomas House

There are so many beautiful, historical houses in Savannah that it could take days to see them all. I would especially recommend the Owens-Thomas House which is administered by the Telfair Museum. For an admission price of $15.00, the inside of this house is nothing short of fantastic.

House Garden

House Garden

The home was designed by William Jay who studied at the Royal Academy in London. This house was well beyond its time as the home includes four cisterns including a 5,000 gallon cistern in the basement. This home even had indoor toilets before the White House.

This property was built for Richard Richardson between 1816 and 1819, who was a wealthy Savannah merchant and banker. Unfortunately, Mr. Richardson’s timing was bad as the U.S. suffered an economic panic in 1819. In January, 1820, there was a large fire in Savannah with a yellow fever epidemic that summer, which killed some of Mr. Richardson’s family.

Through various owners, the Owens-Thomas house also served as a boarding house and remained in the Owens family from 1830 to 1951. General Lafayette stayed for two nights in 1825, making this home an historic landmark.

I was frankly surprised by how well kept this home was. Designed way ahead in the future, the house has an original skylight in the dining room as well significant brass in the entry way. The brass served a purpose as candles would reflect off the brass at night.

The upstairs portion of the house has an internal bridge which I thought was fascinating. Ceilings throughout the house are ornate, and the home is filled with many original furnishings. I liked hearing about playing cards from the early 1800s which did not have numbers. For heavy drinkers, playing cards could be dangerous and confusing, as players would have to count the numbers of diamonds, clubs, spades or hearts on their cards.

Interestingly, Savannah has no natural stone and any stone had to be imported at great expense to the owners. This house was constructed of tabby and coquina. Coquina is a lightweight stone while tabby is a combination of lime, oyster shells, sand and water.

What is Tabby?

What is Tabby?

All visits to the home are by guided tour and begin in the former slave quarters. Unfortunately, only photos outside are allowed but visitors should expect to be pleasantly surprised by all the features in the interior of the house. This home is amazing.

Owens-Thomas House
124 Abercorn Street
Savannah, Georgia 31401
Phone: (912)790-8889

First African Baptist Church

First African Baptist Church

First African Baptist Church

Located not far from the Savannah River, the First African Baptist Church is filled with history as this is the oldest continuous black congregation in North America. Originally constituted in 1777, the current church was built during the time period 1855 to 1859 by mainly slaves working at night. I was surprised to hear slaves were allowed to leave plantations in the evenings and the work to build the church must have been grueling. The nearest plantations were several miles away.

On the outside of the church is a picture of the founding minister, George Leile. Behind the current altar are pictures of the next six ministers who followed. The interior of the church also includes original light fixtures, a baptismal pool (which sounded much safer than wading into the Savannah River) and a pipe organ from 1832, which has not been played in many years.

During the fight to end segregation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. practiced his “I Have a Dream” speech within the sanctuary.

Be sure to take the excellent tours offered Tuesday to Saturday at either 11:00 or 2:00 for $7.00, as visitors will especially want to see the ground floor. On this floor, visitors will see several crosses surrounded by diamonds, which are also called Congolese Cosmograms. When slaves were trying to escape to freedom via the “Underground Railroad” to the North, they hid under this floor in a four foot high crawl space. The holes in the floor decorations served as air holes. The plantation owners never figured out that the floor decorations served another purpose.

Floor Air Holes

Floor Air Holes

Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside the church unless someone or something is in the photo.

I found the visit to this church moving and learning about the amount of history that occurred in this one church was impressive.

First African Baptist Church
402 Treat Avenue
Savannah, Georgia 31404
Phone: (912) 232-8981

Papillote

Papillote

Papillote

On Savannah’s main shopping street, visitors will feel like they are in Paris when eating at Papillote. “En Papillote” is French which means to cook in parchment paper. The word can also refer to a traditional French candy wrapped in colorful foils for Christmas.

Papillote is a casual café specializing in food to go to picnic in Savannah’s squares or along the river. A few tables are also inside with Eiffel Tower decorations, French gourmet gifts and a casual atmosphere contributing to a simple French feel. I stopped here for lunch and loved the shrimp, pancetta and arugula salad, served with fresh lemonade. Quiche specials are popular for lunch.

The biggest draw for me, though, was the cookies. Absolutely, positively, do not miss these cookies. The chocolate chip oatmeal cookies are fresh from the oven (and oh so good). I came back several times in one weekend and bought as many of these cookies as I could find. The restaurant was even kind enough to introduce me to their pastry chef and offer to make more cookies if I wanted to return in twenty minutes.

The macarons are also delicious. With tasty flavors like chocolate hazel, raspberry white chocolate or key lime, these cookies won’t last long. I had to laugh that when buying the macarons, visitors are presented with an option. The staff at Papillote will ask whether the cookies should be boxed or whether a napkin is fine for those macarons that won’t make it down the block. My macarons barely made it outside the store.

The staff at Papillote is super friendly and this café is definitely worth a stop. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, it’s a shame that Savannah locals are without these wonderful cookies two days a week. For visitors looking for good place to eat in the Historic District, Papillote is a must.

Papillote
218 W. Broughton Street
Savannah, Georgia 31401
Phone: (912)232-1881

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