Summertime Rolls

Chief

It has been a languid, lazy spring. The weather has been nice so I’ve been hanging at the dog park, reading some dense books* that I have always meant to get through and riding my bike a lot. But we have found a home in Seattle for July 1st – two weeks from now – and suddenly things are happening fast. Luckily we have handlers who are dealing with almost every detail for us so instead of freaking out, I am calmly just taking pictures down off the walls and unplugging appliances we’re not using. The movers are coming today to do an inventory and then they will come and pack everything up in 2 weeks and then we will have a few days of camping out with our animals and without our stuff and then we will be living in AMERICA!

There are many other details that need to happen in between all of that and of course a looooooong list of stuff to do after we have arrived but that doesn’t matter. At the point when we are sitting in our home in Seattle, we will have literally crossed the line and all of the waiting and dragging this process out will be at least mostly over – sort of. The career piece, which I will write about later, is still going to be dragged out until the end of summer because once I get my visa I STILL will not be able to work for 3 months – a detail that was not mentioned when we started this process. I’m not sure what kind of bureaucratic red tape that is about but it seems that there are still many more days ahead of riding my bike and reading and hanging out at the dog park. Or alternately, I may run away to Japan for a couple of weeks. We’ll see.

*Moby Dick really isn’t worth the trouble. 

Chief

In the meantime, there are people to see in Vancouver, things to do and especially places to eat. I decided this week that I am not going to do the Ride to Conquer Cancer for a handful of reasons, the primary being that it is just too busy right now but also it is going to rain and I don’t want to go out and buy a bunch more gear just so I can ride by myself for 2 days. It would have been different if I had had more of a team or if I had trained harder but I’m not going to get anything out of it other than stress at this point.

Instead, I have finally climbed the Stawamus Chief, something that has been on my “must do” list every summer since I moved back to Vancouver in 1999. How embarrassing, but also what a great hike. I’m sorry I waited so long to do it.

Heirloom

In a similar vein, I have also been eating at a ton of “new” restaurants this past month in a desperate attempt to get through them before we move. Almost none of these are actually new restaurants, but rather places that I’ve been meaning to check out over the years. A couple of these I have been roller coasters of emotions – delight and astonishment (something that hasn’t happened in while with me and food) at how good they are and then utter despair that I didn’t go earlier. For example, Via Tevere, Hog Shack Cook House, Laksa King and Octopus’ Garden. But others have been just ok and every time that happens, I just want to get up in the middle of the meal and go for laksa.

As of today’s count, I have 33 places left and 19 days to do it in so I’d better get going. Gulp!

Kilby

Between my food blog and my constant quest to check out new and interesting things, I think I am a pretty good ambassador for Vancouver. I go to art galleries fairly regularly and am at the Museum of Anthropology and the Vancouver Aquarium pretty frequently but as part of my volunteer work at the Museum of Vancouver, I got to take part in the Vancouver Tourism Challenge last month.

Aquarium

I went so many places! Of course I I went back to all of my favourites but Matt and Riley and I also took a trip up to Hell’s Gate Air Tram (so underwhelming) and I went to all of the gardens (Van Dusan and Nitobe are gorgeous) and up to the Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre.  I made a point of going to everything I hadn’t already been to (except for the BC Sports Hall of Fame which I just cannot get excited about) and I also tried to ride my bike to as many places as possible, so that kept me busy.

Aquarium

It’s a great program and I learned a lot. As well, it has primed me for checking out all of the Seattle galleries, museums and such. I already have been to many of them and actually have already applied to volunteer at SAM but I’m looking forward to exploring.  Starting with –  Ride the Ducks!

Victoria

Somehow we managed to sneak in a trip to Victoria too.

Victoria

Although I’ve been on the island a lot in the last couple of years, I haven’t been able to make it into town. I have found memories of Victoria from going to university there and I really wanted to go and check some things out, see some people and do some diving on the Breakwater. Rushed and moved around as it was (originally we had planned to go on Easter) we didn’t end up doing much other than eating and drinking and walking around but that suited us just fine.

Riley

Riley had a great time too. 🙂

Riley

What I’m reading and listening to:

April does what it wants

April 5

Around this time of year people around here say April showers bring May flowers. In Germany they say April does what it wants.  But in my house there is scarcely time to notice the weather because April is busy. It’s my sister’s birthday and then my birthday and then my dad’s birthday and then my grandmothers – and somewhere in there is usually Easter – and then when we’re through all that it’s our wedding anniversary. This year we upped the busyness by throwing in a trip to Salmon Arm to see Matt’s parents too. Today I had a nap.

English Bay

In keeping with the showers part of the proverb, it has been pretty spectacularly grey and wet in Vancouver. I took a break from riding my bike while it was wet because while there are many activities that I don’t mind doing in the rain, riding my bike is not one of them. Yuckity yuck. Except then I remembered that if it rains on the ride to Seattle, I will be riding in the rain for the first time and that sorted me out pretty fast. So I went for a long-ass ride in the rain and got soaking wet and cranky but it was still so much better than it was at the beginning because earlier in the month I got some new SPD pedals and toe clips, padded cycling shorts and a jersey that makes me look so fast – at least when I’m stopped at Starbucks. I also got my bike fitted by the fine experts at MEC and it turns out that it is way too small for me. So that would explain the pain in my sacrum and the way my hip clicks on long rides. I’m glad to have it sorted now.

Cherry blossoms

I’m also glad to have had some days of non-rain too. In between all the grey, it is suddenly summer. The flowers are out (tulips and cherry blossoms everywhere!) and all the patios are open and then that too comes to pass and we go back to the grey. Ah, springtime in Vancouver. April always does what it wants.

April 3

I’m still doing trash clean-up dives pretty regularly with my group (Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans) and along with about 3000 lbs of garbage to date, we’re also raising awareness. Earlier this year the Coquitlam paper came to check us out and this month we were interviewed by a news crew and then for GreenPeace’s Mobilisation Lab blog. That feels pretty good, although it doesn’t quite compare to diving in Socorro.

Tulips

Another bit of awesomeness that happened in April is that I had a career coaching session with Penelope Trunk. I’ve been following her blog for ages and then took a couple of her classes including “How to Get Your Dream Job”, but my problem is not getting the job. I am pretty confident that I can sort out the resume / networking / interviewing pieces even in a new country and industry, as long as I know what direction I’m going in. It’s a blessing and a curse, being interested in everything and capable enough to consider it for a career so I got stuck several times with my last coach. With Penelope we  distilled down the things that were important to me and determined that corporate education / HR development training is a good direction. It is big and challenging enough to last me until retirement, provides the possibility of working for myself again (after I learn the ins and outs), and scratches my two itches of being creative and wanting to help people. So I’m excited about that. I have been doing lots of research on Seattle and training and education and re-writing my resume on a near weekly basis.

Spring

It’s pretty perfect timing because now that we’ve done all the travelling we had planned for this year, it’s time for the next adventure – our move to Seattle, slated July 1st. We’ve dusted off our visa application from last year and re-engaged the immigration people so now I’m looking for a place to live and a place to work and people to connect with and diving / hiking / climbing / motorcycling groups to join…and of course planning our going away party. Stay tuned.

Flowers

What I’m reading and listening to:

Socorro

fish

A long time ago I saw an IMAX movie about diving in Mexico where the diver came face to face with a giant manta. It glided around him effortlessly – even though it was more than 20 feet across – and fearlessly. That experience lodged itself deeply in my subconscious and my life list plan and after a scouting trip to Cabo San Lucas, much planning and saving and waiting, we were off to the Revillagigedo Islands (better known as Socorro after the largest island) with Big Fish Expeditions this past March.

wave

We had packed and re-packed our bags, trying to find the balance between bringing everything we might need and keeping the bags under the weight limit, and we had practiced saying Revillagigedo over and over again but nothing could have prepared us for flying into Cabo on Spring break *and* St. Patrick’s day. “Plane’s late, we’re doing shots!” and “Has anyone seen my passport?” were both things we heard even before boarding (a guy vomiting off of a second floor balcony at our hotel was something we heard much later).

I despised Cabo the last time we were there but we were only in town for one day before setting off on the next leg of our journey – almost 400 km out to an island chain that we wouldn’t even be able to set foot on. Adventure time!

Sharks

As we approached the island, boobies and other sea birds started to appear and then humpback whales with their calves – teaching them how to breach and tail slap – and then a manta ray and then a silky shark. This is from the BOAT, mind you. Amazing animal sightings and we hadn’t even gotten wet yet.

We came for the giant mantas but after a couple of checkout dives at the Canyon (on San Benedicto) we headed over to Roca Partida – “Split Rock” aka Disneyland for Divers, aka Heaven Under Water – and over the next 2 days found whitetip reef sharks (with some obviously pregnant females) crammed onto the ledges carved out of the rock , Galapagos sharks, silvertip sharks, hundreds of scalloped hammerhead sharks, some tuna and THEN a whale shark (a couple of months earlier than expected for the area) and then finally, yes, there was a manta. There were also lots and lots of fish. Through it all we could the humpback whales singing their hearts out. Like I said, The Happiest Place on Earth (or at least Underwater).

Whale shark

The first manta we saw was flat black, like a Stealth Bomber, with silvery remoras stuck to the top side. Then a larger black and white one came in and checked us out but it was a bit like being in a three ring circus with the sharks and the whale shark and the mantas so it wasn’t until the next day at Cabo Pearce (on Socorro Island) that we had our first proper encounter with them.

Dolphins

But first there were dolphins. I thought the crew was joking when he said the dolphins showed up at 8 AM sharp, like greeters at Walmart but when we arrived at the shark cleaning station, hanging onto rocks in the strong current, they suddenly appeared behind us, clicking and chirping. There were probably about 20 of them and unlike when we dove with them in Cabo Pulmo a few years ago, these guys came close and stuck around. Over the next few days we dove with dolphins 4 or 5 times and each time they were curious and unafraid, playing with each other and cruising around to see what we were all about. What an unexpected treat!

Giant manta

Like the dolphins, the mantas were also curious about us and came in close to check us out at Cabo Pearce (on Socorro Island) and The Boiler on San Benedicto. The Boiler is a beautiful site even without any pelagic creatures in it but when the mantas started showing up they were between 12 – 20 feet across, gliding majestically and hovering near the divers in order to look at us. Several times I had my camera in front of me to take a photo and the manta would hang out until I had lowered it, recognizing that it wasn’t my eye. Incredible! And then they would swim through the bubbles, coming close enough that I was eye to eye with the remora fish stuck to their bellies more than once. The mantas come to the area for cleaning stations where Clarion Angel fish clean them of the parasites that they pick up (and the fish do such a good job of this that they nibbled at my hair a couple of times too!) but they largely ignored the fish in favour of bubbles and a sometimes the individuals would even follow us up to our safety stop and then to the surface. At one point, it seemed like a large female was trying to follow us out of the water – she had a wing out of the water as we climbed into the Zodiac and then continued to follow us. It’s pretty hard not to anthropomorphize that kind of behaviour and we were just in awe…grinning for days.

Manta ray

In between manta encounters we watched the sea birds play in the wind and humpback whales teaching their calves to breach (as well as other whale behaviour) in the bays around the boat. So cute as they tried to emulate their mothers and only sometimes got it right! At one point the wind was up and the swim grid of our boat was slapping the water pretty hard. In response, a humpback calf started slapping its tail against the water – a form of non-vocal communication in the whales – and did about 20 slaps before diving back into the water. We took the Zodiacs out a couple of times to free dive with whales and got to see a mother and a calf up close a couple of times. They are absolutely stunning creatures, and also staggeringly large – with one twitch of a tail they were out of sight almost instantly.

Dolphins

As the week went on, the dives kept getting better and better and the trip more and more unbelievable. I caught myself saying greedy things like, “it would be cool to see a hammerhead today since we haven’t seen one in a couple of days,” and then laughing into my regulator when my wish came true every time. Matt and I agreed several times that we were going to have to find a way to come back every year – until we realized that we had had an exceptionally good time of it and probably wouldn’t be so lucky on every trip.

But still, I can’t wait to go back. It was everything I hoped it would be and so much more. The crew was excellent, the food was amazing, ship was great, our group of new friends were just awesome, the animals were absolutely incredible…even the weather was perfect. A trip of a lifetime, to be sure. ¡Hasta luego, Socorro! See you again real soon.

Manta ray

Here are the rest of the photos:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157644447318893/

And here is the official trip report from Big Fish: http://bigfishexpeditions.com/Socorro_2014.html

Desert

 

Winter

Blackie Spit

“The winters were cold and bitter now, like the brothers of kings.” – Anne Fleming

This has been the coldest winter in a while, certainly in my lifetime and in fact in the last 66 years. Our friends from anywhere else in Canada laugh at us but we have no winter coats, we have no snow tires, we leave the house without gloves or boots and even though I once got the Hardiest Camper award in Girl Guides, I have been complaining a bit.

Trout lake

My grandfather used to send me letters occasionally, almost until he died at 97. He lived most of his life in remote parts of BC and for as long as I’ve been alive he lived alone in a log cabin on a huge acreage in Crawford Bay. So when he sat down to write a letter, they were like little paintings of a world he knew very well; the deer have come down to graze on the driveway, the hummingbirds are active now, it should be snowing soon. I think of his letters often when I look out our window onto the tree on Water Street and notice that the crows are nesting or that the leaves are budding. It seems amazing that we can take notice of such small details when we have all of this information and input flying at us, but I am glad we do and I make a point of doing it often.

My friend just posted this status on Facebook: “The sunset is amazing! The sky looks like it’s on fire. Standing in a crowded bus so cannot take a photo. Look now if you can.” That’s the spirit!

Whistler

We had a bit of snow on the weekend but it’s warmed up enough now that we are sure to expect grey and rain the rest of the week – much more typical for a Vancouver winter but it means that we have come inside. It turns out that as long as the sky is not dishwater grey and just as wet, I am happy to be outside. I decided to take a photo every day of 2014 in an attempt to have a visual record of what I’ve been up to and also to improve my photography skills. But even looking back on two months’ worth, the vast majority of them are outside. I’ve been up to Whistler boarding a few times,  diving pretty regularly (even cleaning out trash from lakes!), and hiking (or at least walking or dog-parking) with Riley. My drysuit decided that the dead of winter was the best time to fall apart so there were a couple of really short dives before I got a sexy new suit but even that was ok. I like being outside.

Crab park

This is old news. When I was a kid I was always playing outdoors –  first in the driveway, then the yard, then the creek behind our house and then the mountains and ocean behind the city. And this year I’ve had lots of time to play outside. My career coaches / books / websites keep asking ‘what would you do if you didn’t have to work?’ and I have determined that I do absolutely have to work. I don’t like have endless amounts of time on my hands but when I do, I fill it with reading and writing and playing outside.

Crab park

I’ve been reading a lot about the change cycle and finding your dream job and I think I will write a separate post about that but after months and months of thinking about it, I feel like I am finally getting close. It’s been an interesting journey (and I will write a post about that too) – almost interesting enough that I considered being a career coach myself but in the end I am back at digital communications and media. It’s the only thing that makes sense and I am enjoying digging in to it, but I am glad of the process that has led me to volunteer at the David Suzuki Foundation and the Museum of Vancouver, taking a Cabinet of Curiosities museum class at UBC and a whole whack of other classes online, going to Seattle for the IN-NW social media conference, putting on a whisky tasting and all the things I’ve learned along the way. And it’s been fun but I am anxious to get going.

Sea

Last month I attended an award’s dinner where my dad received a lifetime achievement award with his business partner. I am so proud! And so envious. He has worked hard all his life and loved every minute of it and is an absolute inspiration to me in my search. We are still moving to Seattle in the summer and I am focusing forward, checking out companies and careers as well as diving, hiking and networking groups. I’m really looking forward to the refresh but first I have a whisky tasting to put on and Riley’s first birthday to celebrate and then we are off to go diving in the Revillagigedo Islands (Socorro) off the coast of Mexico.  This is a life dream of mine and has been in the works for quite a while but it will all be worth it to dive with giant mantas, humpback whales and their calves, dolphins, eels, tuna and sharks (hammerheads, Galapagos, silky, white tip, silver tip and maybe even whale sharks)! Check this out: https://vimeo.com/64876316.

Trains

What I’m Reading and Listening to this month:

The Reluctant Cyclist

bike

In December I got my bike out of storage (which I consider an important first step) and bought some fancy cycling pants. But then it was snowing and there were holidays and I was beginning to think that I would never actually get to the point of riding it, which is a problem because in December I also signed up to ride my bike 220 km from Vancouver to Seattle for the Ride to Conquer Cancer.

I’m not really sure what I was thinking. This year I am putting some time into self-discovery and I’ve learned a lot about myself. Mostly as it pertains to careers and etc. but I was also made aware that I am not very good at sticking with my exercise plans. I mean, I knew that before, but as I get older I have less time and less patience with new ideas. I thought I could push myself through CrossFit by sheer determination and the fact that it’s less than a block away from my house, but I don’t have determination when it comes to exercising. I love to be active and especially outside, but there are few sports that can get me out in the rain regularly training for something and there are many lofty goals in a mucky trail behind me that can testify to that fact.

I didn’t always use to be that way. I used to run a lot and I did a couple of half marathons in amongst many, many shorter runs, but then I thought I would level up and do a full marathon. That’s only double the longest distance I had ever run! No big deal, and while I was making lofty goals, I may as well do one in Greece, along the original path of the marathon from the Marathon battle ground to the Olympic stadium in Athens. It was part of the Joints in Motion fundraising program for the Arthritis Society and so all of the travel and etc. was covered in exchange for raising thousands of dollars for charity. Piece of cake!

I’m not being very fair to my past self. At the time I had a lot of energy and I hadn’t had all the injuries I’ve had since. Besides, it was an organization that my birth mother had worked for and supported heartily and some of the participants were much, much older than me and also had arthritis. I really didn’t think it would be difficult, especially after my sister said she would join me.  And thank goodness she did. Honestly, I owe that girl beers for life. I wouldn’t have made it without her and in fact, I almost didn’t. I ran and ran and ran and when I wasn’t running, we were raising money. We did a fundraiser night at a couple of different pubs and invited all of our friends – all of whom had already given us money – and  we stood outside liquor stores. Everything short of having a bake sale. It was tough. The running part was going swimmingly in comparison, until I got a sharp pain in my hip at precisely the farthest point from a road in Stanley Park.

I will spare you the details of the months of chiropractor, bone scans, ART, acupuncture and whatnot but the short story is that I had developed a stress fracture and wouldn’t be able to run. Worse than that, I wasn’t supposed to walk. The running was obvious to me because I had been trying it every couple of weeks in spite of my highly trained team of caregivers, but the walking surprised me. I still walked to work and in fact, I walked into the place where I rented the crutches from. We all laughed when I said who they were for.

I healed enough to leave the crutches behind when we went to Greece but only barely. Yes, we met our fundraising goal and so we went on the trip and I cheered for all the runners. In the years since I’ve gotten back into running and have since done a starter triathlon but my body isn’t really built for long-distance running and I’m ok with that. The other things I really like to do – diving and hiking and snowboarding and yoga and riding my motorcycle (I know, not a sport) take up enough time and money and keep me active enough.

So why am I now deciding to embark on another incredible training and fundraising program? Because it’s not just about my spectacular past failure: I also don’t really like cycling on the road, my bike is squarely consumer grade and I know from experience that I am not generally encouraged by the incredibly overly cheerful people who tend to be involved in these things.

But my birth mom died of cancer and so did my grandfather and several friends have been lucky enough to recover from it. It’s a cause that I believe in and I am hungry to be a part of something. I’m sure in no small part I want to see something like this through. Also, in this process of self-discovery, I’ve learned that I like trying new things.

Finally, if Bif Naked can be as positive and lovely as this (posted on her Facebook page, Dec. 4th):

GOOD TIMES are found in everything I ever, ever do. Since I have been home in this gorgeous place, This Rainforest City of My Dreams (Vancouver-Home-of-the-Vancouver-Canucks), I have been in a bit of a pickle: cancer tests. Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am here to tell you that I am a PRO and that I find so much fun in the wards-n-wings of the Cancer Agency ( http://www.bccancer.bc.ca/default.htm ) in fact: I am downright LUCKY to live six minutes away. As I went in to the O.R. yesterday, I sang “Rock and Roll All Night” by KISS ( https://www.facebook.com/KISS ) at the TOP OF MY LUNGS whilst being wheeled in on my little bed/gurney and had such a great laugh with the lovely and loving nurses and staff. I had so much FUN! I believe, with all of my bursting, little heart, that finding the goofiness+fun makes ANY situation better. Anything is better WITH laughs. I want to share with you my wishes for YOU and YOUR laughs, today. I send you all my gratitude, my positivity, and my deep affection. I am ever thankful to have a computer and the desire to share together, with you all. We are so lucky, in this moment. Sending each and everyone a big, squishy hug and throwin’ horns, listenin’ to rock-n-roll, and generally finding my fun. Love and Light to you. Namaste.

then certainly I can ride my bike to Seattle – just please don’t ask what’s the worst that could happen. Please send me your kind words, advice and encouragement, and if you are so inclined, I will take your donation too:

http://www.conquercancer.ca/site/TR/Events/Vancouver2014?px=3601641&pg=personal&fr_id=1514

RTCC

The Season to Be Sparkly

bokeh

Well, it’s been quite a year. The last time I wrote a holiday letter / year in review was at the end of 2011 and it started like this:

“Yowza, it has been a year. We travelled to Toronto, Montreal, Paris, San Francisco, Salmon Arm, Mexico, Whistler, Camrose Alberta, Lummi Island and a few more places I’m forgetting, we got married, we got matching Ducati motorcycles, we started working together full time at the technology company we started last year (Adience Solutions Inc.), and blew that out of the water. It’s been very busy but we’ve sure had a lot of adventures.”

2012 was quiet in comparison – the bit of calm sandwiched in between adventure and change – because in 2013 we travelled to the Bahamas, Kiev, Prague, Hawaii, Salmon Arm, Quadra Island, and Whistler. Matt got a job with Amazon and we went to Seattle a couple of times together but he’s been down at least a dozen more on his own too. Then we decided to move to Seattle and got all ready for that big change, only to postpone it until next June. I applied to, got accepted for, and then deferred my acceptance into the Masters in Digital Media program. We closed our company. We got a dog. I took the summer off to figure out what I was going to do and spent days hanging out in dog parks and hiking and diving and making art while Matt went to Seattle again and again.

Gastown

Together we rode curvy Highway 20 to Osoyoos on our motorcycles and learned to sail. I pressed on with sailing lessons and got my day boat captain’s ticket and I also earned PADI diving specialty certifications in wreck diving, deep diving, boat diving and shark conservation. Matt and I both dove with manta rays, turtles, hammerheads and sharks in warm water and  I saw so many orcas that it almost became expected. I dove with friends in Nanaimo and Barkley Sound and Port Hardy – three corners of the Vancouver Island dive diamond – and unfortunately missed the fourth to Victoria / Race Rocks but I did dive the Skookumchuck rapids in Sechelt Inlet which was quite an experience.

Gastown

We’ve already been up to Whistler this winter – we made it for the opening day on 7th Heaven for the second year in a row – and in spite of all the dive trips I did this year, the local diving season is really just getting underway. In terms of creative endeavours, I attended an incredible art workshop with Nick Bantock as well as with my regular teacher and mentor Jeanne Krabbendam, and learned many new things in terms of both perspective and technique. I started writing a book – a sort of memoir with recipes – that may never be finished but that is fun to work on in any case, and have continued occasionally updating SmokySweet.com and this blog. I’ve been cooking and baking a lot too, as well as attempting many food-related projects. Sourdough and jam are currently back in rotation now that the Christmas baking is done.

There’s no other way to write it other than as an incredible list of adventures. We keep a Jar of Awesomeness on our counter that we put moments in to as they happen to pull out and read on New Year’s Eve. I can’t believe how much we’ve done this year but I know there are lots in there that I’ve forgotten.

jar of awesomeness

Now it’s winter and dark from 4 PM until 8 AM. The crows have started to fill the alley and the square around Gassy Jack when I’m walking the dog in the morning dark and their cawing fills an otherwise quiet Gastown. The year has turned in on itself, bookended by these immense blocks of night but it is also nearly Christmas and the city has picked up a bit of an anticipatory bustle. On Water Street the storefronts are all dressed up in their finest and people are rushing here and there, dipping in and out of the dark and light patches made by the windows and lights. I was looking outside just now as the streetlights came on and with the huge tree outside our window also decked out in white lights, the street does feel sparkly and festive and a little bit magical. There are Christmas trees visible in several apartment windows across the street but those lights will come on a bit later, when people get home from work.  It’s snowing today for the second time this month – unusual for us this early – and I love seeing the city (nevermind the mountains) covered.

Gastown

We’re not normally big on Christmas but we wanted a quiet one this year and ended up actually having no plans at all. Surprisingly, that has brought out the Christmas spirit in me. I’ve been cooking and baking and even listening to a little Christmas music. Next week is Matt’s birthday and Christmas and we have plans to go to see the lights at the Capilano suspension bridge and VanDusen Botanical Gardens. Hopefully we will go to the German Christmas market tonight but in between I will be quite content to curl up and enjoy the quiet. I will bring out the sparkles for New Year’s but we’ll keep that low-key too.

After any year like this we have some work to do to bring things into balance – work on our budget, work on getting me a job, work on communication and balance, work on working out…but in spite of planning to keep 2014 low-key, I don’t see how it can be. I’ll have a new job, a new career, a new country, a new dive shop, a new set of friends…and I’m still not sure if Matt will be more or less busy if he’s in Seattle full time. But if I set my sights only on accomplishing those with some kind of grace and not add in too many stretch goals then I just might be able to pull it off.

Happy holidays to you if you celebrate them. Enjoy the sparkle.

And here are some beautiful words to bring in 2014:

“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something. So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

– Neil Gaiman

lights

What I’m Reading and Listening to this month:

October, November; Fall in Love

Degan
“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” 
~Albert Camus

Leaves
I expected to see rain as soon as we got home from Prague but this fall has been so beautiful and crisp and clear  – the kind of weather that brings out the colours in the trees and allows them to stick around for a little while without melting… a.k.a the kind of weather we never get here. Matt and I were even able to get in a couple of extra (chilly) motorcycle rides up the Sea-to-Sky highway and I’ve managed to put off buying both a winter coat and umbrella a lot longer than I should have been able to expect.

Tea
So Riley and I have been taking advantage and heading out to the dog park every day and running and generally spending a lot of time outside where I have fallen in love with the way the sunlight streams through the trees, dressed in yellows and reds and golds. I can’t seem to go around the block without taking a photo of everything.

Degan
This isn’t new for me (I love fall and I am always taking a photo of everything) but I am also taking a self-portraiture class with Vivienne McMaster. It’s the second art class I’ve taken this year that was at least as much therapy as art but it’s been interesting to explore some new areas. Normally I hate taken photos of myself and I’m not really interested in taking photos that “reveal my gremlins” but the light and the leaves have been incredible and my hair is the bright red of a tropical fish or dying maple leaf so I’ve been keeping an eye out for photo ops.

Degan
Autumn is all about tea and toques, sweaters and boots, seeing your breath when you speak in the morning, having rosy cheeks and spending evenings reading (preferably by a fire). It’s my favourite weather when it’s cold enough to wear a vest and a toque but not raining so you can wrap both hands around a mug of tea. I should probably move somewhere where this season lasts longer than a week (as it usually does in Vancouver) and I am looking forward to winter but I’ve just been so in love with this fall.

Fall
I’m still on my “summer off” working – it seemed like we had just got back from Europe before we left for Hawaii – but I am starting to dig in and see what’s possible there before we move to Seattle in June. Everyone told me that I would know my dream career when I saw it, and I guess that’s true because I can say pretty confidently that I want to work at the Museum of Anthropology or at National Geographic but in terms of career paths and moving to Seattle, that means going back to school to do Anthropology or Museum Studies or taking a job, any job, at the Seattle Art Museum and working my way into a good fit. In preparation for that I’ve applied to volunteer at the Museum of Anthropology, the Museum of Vancouver, the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Police Museum and registered for “From Cabinets of Curiosities to the Modern Museum” and “In the Footsteps of the Adventurer Archaeologists” – day long classes at UBC’s Continuing Studies and looking in to taking some classes at the University of Washington next September. I’ve also started doing some work at the David Suzuki Foundation, which I’m really excited about.

Degan Walters
But right now I just want to get to work.

Matt’s been working long and hard so we’ve been laying low but we did get to two amazing concerts this fall – Ms Mr and Nine Inch Nails – and I got my octopus tattoo finished and cut my hair off (the shortest it’s been in a looooooong time) so some big changes there. At some point I guess I’m going to have to dye my hair back to a natural colour but the sun and sea and salt in Hawaii has stripped it down to a coral pink already so I’ve been having some fun with that too.

Tea

What I’m Reading and Listening to this month:

We’ve also been watching a lot of Big Bang Theory and incredibly, I’ve been loving it. It’s either going to be the show that turns me into a TV watcher or I’m going to go through withdrawal when it’s over.

Degan Walters

Spain (revisited)

Walterses

Travelling through Europe again, taking photos of doors and writing in cafes has made me think a lot of our trip through Spain last year (we went in May 2012). We had such a good time, hanging out in Barcelona for a week before heading up to Girona and eating the dinner of our lives at El Celler de Can Roca and then motorcycling around the country through France to Andorra, then Madrid, Cordoba, Seville, Jerez, Gibraltar, Ronda, Granada, Costa del Sol, Valencia and back to Barcelona again. That was before I had a place to keep travel notes and the like, so they’ve been floundering around  in my phone and for lack of a better idea I’m just going to post them here, largely unedited. As always, the link to the flickr photo set is at the end of the post.

Gaudi

12-05-03 – 12-05-09 (Barcelona)

Coming from the airport we passed a hillside graveyard and fields and the general unused land around airports, but then the landscape closed in tighter and tighter as we got into Barcelona and then into Barri Gòtic – the Gothic quarter or Old town where what used to be paths hundreds of years ago has now been cemented into streets by years and stone. The taxi driver tried to tell us where our hotel was (we were not in front of it) but not understanding his Catalan, he shrugged and drove us to it down an impossibly small street.

Barri Gothic

The lock was broken so we called the landlord and waited a while but then the locksmiths broke the spare lock that they brought with them so finally we left them to it and went out to dinner. We were tired so we choose poorly and ended up at something too touristy close to La Rambla (the main street, a wide promenade full of shops and tourists) but it gave us an idea of what to expect.

Sagrada Familia

I loved wandering the labyrinthian neighbourhood, navigating to our street using graffiti on closed security doors and public art in seemingly out of the way squares, and passing jamón shops with legs of ham hanging in windows every 50 metres. On the first day we walked to see Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia (above) and on the way passed three of his other works – Casa MilaCasa Amatller, and Casa Batlló. On they way back we passed a restaurant I wanted to check out – Tapas 24 – and we ate pa amb tomate and jamón, croquettes and the best dessert I’ve had in  a long time – rolls of chocolate  ganache topped with sea salt and olive oil. 

We found a cava bar we liked in El Born (the trendy restaurant district near us) called Xampanyet and ended up going there 2 more times, we visited the Boqueria market twice and ate at the Bar Pinotxo. I had made both lunch and dinner reservations at Tickets, planning to cancel one of them but we ate there twice too and tried everything on the menu.

And so our first week in Spain passed this way, feeling easy and comfortable, being amazed at how small and compact and beautiful it was but happy to already have favourites and a familiar routine.

Motorcycles

12-05-10 (Barcelona / Girona)

When I first told Matt I wanted to eat at El Celler de Can Roca I explained that it was in Girona, a couple of hours north of Barcelona and he said no problem, he would sort out how to get us there. I assumed there would be a bus or maybe a train but a couple of weeks later he had rented us some motorcycles – a BMW R1200GS for him and a BMW F800ST for me – and planned a little romp around the countryside. Because he likes driving and I like seeing things that turned into the epic adventure that follows but our first leg was pretty short – we picked up the bikes and drove to Girona, checked into our hotel and ordered some surprise dishes off the entirely Catalan menu, and then I went to bed because we had spent a little too long at the mezcal bar the night before and I wanted to be in good shape for dinner.

El Cellar de Can Roca

Then we ate at El Celler de Can Roca. It was the best experience I have ever had in a restaurant and that covers food and service. Afterwards we met the chef and he thanked me for my sensitivity – what I had called “our gushing” about how good everything was earlier in the evening.

Cadaques

12-05-11 (Girona/ Cadaques /France / Andorra)

The next day was a long one. We wanted to ride through the Pyrenees and we had seen on Google Maps that the road through Andorra was a good one. But to get there we first needed to go north along the coast and then through France. So we passed through Figueres (where the Dali museum is meant to be) but didn’t see much of interest there and then I was anxious to be off again because my clutch grip was so stiff and my hand just gave out after too long in stop-and-go traffic.

A small town, Orriol maybe? smelled fantastically like cheese and made me grin and later a low-flying plane crossed over the road above us to land in a field and made me laugh out loud. It’s a bit lonely riding a motorcycle because even when you’re riding with someone you can’t be sure they’re sharing the same experiences and it’s rare that I get to take a photo but on the other hand, it makes you appreciate the moments a bit more and makes you try to remember them for later. There’s a bit of resonance there with my hesitation to get into underwater photography, I think.

Roses, the town where El Bulli used to be, was even more strange than Girona. It was tiny and felt somewhat like Osoyoos, with hills and windy roads and dry scrub and heat..not to mention the run-down go-carting place and crazy mini golf parks. I guess a seaside town is a seaside town is a seaside town.

But that road! We laughed all the way to Cadaques, twisting in and our of beautiful corners, bright yellow broom all over the place (with that particular cellulose smell), catching our first glimpses of the Mediterranean and were still smiling over beers and bacon-cheese sandwiches oceanside when we stopped for lunch. Cadaques is all square white buildings and square blue windows reflecting light off the ocean and Gertrude Stein was right – this is a perfectly cubist village. Cubism was created by Cadaques.

Cadaques

And then we got to ride that road again, inland! Aside from a small stretch of boring highway slab in France, the twisties continued all the way to Andorra. We passed a whole bunch of beach towns with intense azure water, a Castle with a moat, the vineyards of the Languedoc-Rousillon wine region, and then several small medieval towns with towers and walls and meadows and orchards and some beautiful horses grazing as we rode through a river valley. It’s so neat to think that these would have been about a day’s journey between each town and we just whipped by them one after another.

Andorra

Unfortunately I didn’t realize that the Go Pro camera battery was dead so even when we drove practically through a castle I didn’t pull over to take any photos. We’ll just have to come through here again some day. Approaching Andorra looks so much live Bavaria or BC even (or like a mountainous region, I suppose) but with stone huts and more horses and then suddenly it was all snow and duty free shops. It felt like a mall. The air temperature didn’t drop until we were practically on top of the ski resort, though, but it was pretty glorious. And the road up and down the summit! The switchbacks were so severe that Matt and I were almost facing each other a couple of times. So awe-inspiring, although Andorrans drive like assholes and there were several tracks off into the air so I went slow.

Hard to believe we went from sea level to glacier in the same day, through 3 countries. By far the best day riding of my life.

And then I was ready to be off the bike; I was tired and thirsty and headache-y and my shoulders were quite sore from the ergos on the bike and Matt’s back had been bothering him for hours, but we were almost in Andorra la Vella and then there was another small town, and another, and another and then we were there but there was a river and such a long, drawn out town you never did see but finally we arrived and after 14 hours of riding got ourselves stranded up a steep, narrow dead end. The road was just closed off at the top of a hill so steep that Matt had to back into a corner to turn around and I had to ride up on to and off of the sidewalk, through some bollards and around a car while Matt held my bike and I freaked out because I couldn’t touch the ground. It sucked very badly but eventually we got to our hotel and almost got into a fight with a horrible Italian man who told Matt, “traffic is not bad, you are stupid!!” after honking at us then driving around us and over the median and reversing through the intersection, and the next day Matt came off his bike after breaking too hard from not yielding at a courtesy corner. We hated Andorra as soon as we arrived.

Madrid

12-05-12 (Andorra / Madrid)

Nothing much to report on the journey down the super slab highway from Andorra to Madrid. It was even more boring than we thought it would be, although in some parts there is interesting scenery – including some that looks for all the world like Utah except for the fields of windmills and periodically placed huge toro silhouettes along the way. I guess they don’t call it the Sierra Nevada in both counties for nothing. Also we met a crazy truck driver near Zaragosa who we had quite a long conversation with while actually exchanging very little information. He was rad though and we watched some Moto GP videos of Rossi on his phone. As Matt says, motorcycle people are motorcycle people no matter where you are. I love how many people wave and smile at us here. Motorcycles just make people happy I think.

Arriving in Madrid was busy but sane. People know how to drive here and there is respect for motorcyclists which is awesome and the city just seems electric with energy. We were surprised that we felt good and had some energy after a shower, beer and food  so we decided to walk up to the Reina Sofia museum to see Picasso’s Guernica. This is a painting I have been wanting to see for a very long time and so I was so grateful. It’s one that demands a visit in person to understand the utter immensity of it. It’s enormous and the effect of all those layers and textures of wood just does not come through in photos. His ability to convey emotion like that through form is just such brilliance. I could have sat there for hours.

The museum has several other Dalis, Magrittes, Miros and other famous pieces and we saw quite a few but Matt was getting tired so we didn’t stay too long and then found a nice spot overlooking the city where we could drink our beers before dinner. The light was amazing and the thing that I already love about this city is that there are almost no tourists. It was so nice to just hang out in close proximity to some Spaniards and watch the footy game that was happening down  below. Later we tried to go out for dinner on the Calle de la Cava Baja – Madrid’s tapas row and we were astounded at how many people were out milling and eating, streaming out of streets like water. We thought there was an event on but it turned out to just be Saturday night.  This city is so ALIVE!! Every bar is packed to the gills and we could hear music and people out partying until almost morning. We were in bed early though – we did 700km AND a museum and that was enough. We’ll have to come back.

Madrid

12-05-13 (Madrid)

We toured the entire Prado today! We were not as impressed with Velasquez’s portraits as I had expected and I’m not a huge fan of Goya but it was good to see the original Las Meninas after seeing so many of Picasso’s studies in Barcelona. Also, I hadn’t realized that there were so many (or any, for that matter) of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings in Madrid, so it was a real treat to see the Garden of Earthly Delights and 4 others up close. So much crazy detail in those.

We were cooked afterwards but decided it would be better to press on and eat instead of napping. So we had a couple of beers and then headed back to the bottom of the Calle de la Cava Baja where we had been the night before, ready to tuck in.

The first place we went was a chain called Toma Jamón that (obviously) had jamóns hanging all over the place and one ready to slice on a barrel in the doorway. Gin and tonics seem to be the drink of the moment in Madrid – every bar was promoting them, including our hotel – but I had vermuth again (Matt stuck with beer) and we ordered jamón, pulpo gallego (octopus), and gambas (prawns). I tried to order more but the proprietor waved me off with a laugh and then brought me to the counter to show me the prawns – there was a choice between ones the size of my hand or larger. He also brought out an order of tomato bread and small but meaty green olives so I worried that we were going to fill up on our first stop. Matt laughed at me for being up to my elbows in prawn but they were so delicious – meaty and flavourful and not like any prawn I’ve had in recent years. We were pretty full by the time we got to the octopus but we didn’t much care for it anyways. It was thinly sliced on top of thinly sliced potatoes and doused in smoky, meaty-tasting paprika. It was fine as a protein but not good enough to warrant eating my beloved octopuses.

Gulas

Bar #2 (TxoTolia Pinoteca Madrileño??) was packed but we squished in and Matt got a table while I ordered drinks and scoped out the tapas. I told Matt that there was one of the best looking ones I had seen so far (a fist-sized bomba with potatoes and mushrooms) and one of the grossest (a pile of tiny grey eels – “gulas” – on toast with a lone slice of red pepper for garnish). He told me to get one of each and I stared at him in disbelief for a moment before running to the counter and ordering before either of us changed our minds. Surprisingly, the eels were even better than the bomba that ended up coming warmed with mushroom gravy or the morcilla sausages wrapped in a fried egg on toast and even the Spaniards were shocked since most of them were eating tapas that looked like little cheeseburger sliders.

We were pretty drunk by this point but decided to try one more place. And unfortunately the one we tried one wasn’t very busy or very good but we had some anchovies (tasted as expected) and croquettes (tasted of oil) , some hazelnut ice cream (delicious) and some terrible, bitchy service before stumbling home.

Cordoba

12-05-14 (Madrid / Cordoba)

Even more boring than the last freeway jaunt except for some vineyards and olive trees. It’s pretty cool to smell olive oil in the air though.

So hot. I am melting in my leathers. Matt says him too but I look at his canvas jacket that unzips to practically nothing and think that he just has no idea.

We arrived in Cordoba and parked on the sidewalk, peeled the leathers off and left them in a damp pile on the sidewalk. The hotel was nice but we decided to go out and see the mosque-cathedral immediately instead of waiting until later so we changed and headed out but it was so hot. We were cranky and sweating before we had even made it all the way across the river.

The mosque (way more mosque than cathedral despite the altar in the middle and the various culty chapels around the perimeter) was stunningly beautiful with its rows of candy cane arches and forest of pillars and I was happy that so much of the original remained but I couldn’t help but wish that it had all been preserved. I guess that’s not the way of history though.

For some reason most of the dogs we saw in Cordoba are German Shepherds – all of them with their tongue almost touching the ground. It’s unconscionable. It’s way too hot in this town and the old quarter was full of tourists so we hid out in the hotel room and drained the mini bar until evening. We tried to go to the pool but it was closed so we took a lovely walk around the mosque and old city walls again.

Seville

12-05-15 (Cordoba / Seville / Jerez)

More freeway, we hate freeways. And more cows but now there are some garlic farms and many many more olive orchards. The air was full of the smell of them and Matt smelled sherry as well at one point. Sevilla was bigger than expected and apparently had hosted the Olympics at some point as we recognized the infrastructure pieces that seem to accompany them. It’s also much cooler than we expected (32 instead of 38, at least for now) and we’re so grateful but still astounded to see guys walking around in the sun in black suits, or a FUR shop! There are orange trees with fruit on the growing everywhere on the streets and beautiful purple flowering trees that I think must be Jacarandas. We didn’t have much time in Seville, unfortunately, but we headed to Zelai for lunch where we had jamón and manchego cheese (both delicious, but possibly a poor choice to fill up on), patates ali-oli with saffron, tuna tataki and croquettes. Simply prepared, for the most part, but it was some of the best food we’ve had in Spain. For dessert we had a PB & jam pudding with a chocolate top that I thought was pretty good. Driving out of Seville I was so distracted by the incredibly beautiful architecture and wished we were able to stay longer to explore. Gorgeous palace after bull ring after manor houses…even the tourist information booth was in a beautiful building. And then we were back on the freeway with nothing much to look at but at least we were glad of the breeze.

Andalusia

Passed several castles in the afternoon. We seem to be in the part of Spain (mountainous but near enough the coast) that has one on every hilltop. I tried to get Matt to stop several times but I couldn’t get his attention. He’s been trying to ride more and more like a Spaniard which is better for the flow of traffic but means we’re passing dramatically and I’m often left with very little space. Hopefully it will make me a better rider and not just bitter but the heat and angry pressure building meant that I was in a pretty terrible mood when we stopped in Arcos de la Frontera and Matt yelled at me for not knowing where we were. Obviously there is a need for yelling when we’re both wearing earphones but he’s the one with the GPS so the conversation was maybe besides the point. Turns out there’s nothing to see in Arcos so we pressed on, melting.

We had reservations at the Sherry Park hotel which cracked me up for its Britishness but it is apparently the best-rated hotel in Jerez. We must have looked sunburnt, sweaty and miserable (never how we must have smelled!) because the clerk, Kino (who turned out to be awesome) joked with us that riding a moto in this weather, with this gear, is more like riding a sauna with wheels. So true. I would have laughed but all I could managed was a weak smile.

In the room we cranked the AC and drank 2 beers and 2 waters each before hopping in a cool shower. When we felt human again we went down the tho pool and I ordered some fino sherry (Tio Mateo). The bartender free-poured it, filling up my glass and it cost only €1,50. l love this country! Our new friend Kino recommended a little walk into town so we could get some photos and sample some Jerez cuisine (and sherry of course). Lovely man. When I asked about sherry bodegas he asked how much of a rush we were in in the AM because it was day off and he would be happy to take us to some special ones, but we had a big day ahead of us so we sadly had to skip it.

Jerez

We hadn’t expected anything of Jerez, just a place to sleep and maybe some sherry but we ended up falling in love with it. It has such a character all its own and I can’t help but think that that’s what Barcelona was to be like before all the tourists arrived. The first place we stopped was called Tabanco Plateros and I ordered a palo cortado sherry (which Matt admitted to liking although he still ordered beer for himself) and some delicious fresh cheese – payoyo, I think it was called – with morcilla. The morcilla was hella oily but the flavour was excellent. Same with the plate of green olives that arrived with the sherry. The place was packed and full of excellent energy and an accordion player came by for a while. I could have stayed there for a week butI wanted to see some of the town before dark.

Sherry

From there we walked through the old town (drunk) and took some photos of the cathedral and the square and the crazy swallows flying and chirping all over the place – feeding, I guess – and the sherry bodegas that are right smack in the middle of the old town. The restaurant Kino had recommended was a gastrobar called Reina something or other and was so adorable. They brought a table outside onto the street patio for us because it was still too hot to eat inside and then a bottle of wine (but no ice and no opener!). Lorenzo our waiter was so clumsy he kept tripping over Matt and stepping on his feet, so we laughed a lot, even more after we got the wine opened.

Gibraltar

12-05-16 (Jerez / Gibraltar / Ronda / Granada)

So much wind today! We are tilting at windmills for real as we get buffeted around. And it’s mercifully cold – down as low as 19 degrees today which is a shock after seeing 37 inland. The Rock of Gibraltar was significantly more impressive than we expected; coming down the hill into town we could see it shrouded in mist and all the ships in the harbour, but the “town” is pretty much nonexistent.

Ronda

The ride from Marbella up to Ronda was SPECTACULAR; cold, warm, cold, warmer, hot, hotter / oceanside, foothills, pine tree scrub, shale, farmland, village / sea level, ~3500 ft, etc. grinning the whole time. And then we got to Ronda, a beautiful little village with the oldest and most beautiful bull ring in Spain and the Medieval bridge through the gorge. We also found a whole bunch of tour buses.

More crazy wind, then some crazy traffic and we were ready to be off the bikes but Granada is super gorgeous once you get up the hill into the old town. And then we saw why so many reviews said the hotel was “tricky to get to” because we were up and down and around on ancient, steep, slippery cobblestones. At one point I was watching to see which way Matt was going to turn and realized that the road only went one way – and the other way was stairs! Our hotel was amazing – a 600 year old manor house on the hill overlooking the Alhambra. It has a decorative pool in the courtyard and lovely wood detailing everywhere and heavy ornate metal latches. Also the parking garage has an elevator so that was pretty cool.

Alhambra

We hadn’t bought our tickets to Alhambra in advance because we weren’t sure which day were were going to arrive but we also knew that it sold out quickly, so we walked down the hill that our hotel was on (in the Albayzín district) and up the hill that the Alhambra was on where the ticket sellers just told us to come early in the morning. It’s a beautiful walk through the gate and gardens though, so it was pleasant enough. For dinner we made the mistake of asking the hotel for a reco and he sent us to a super tourist place whose patio looked out to the Alhambra. It was very lovely and romantic but the food was predictably mediocre.

Alhambra

12-05-19 (Granada / Calahonda)

The hours that we spent waiting in line disappeared pretty quickly once we got inside the grounds of the Alhambra. It was a fortress and a palace through several generations so there are different areas to visit that are interesting in different ways. We say the beautiful rose gardens and fountains with the ancient water delivery systems (turned over roof tiles joined together to form a trough that takes water all over the hill) and the old dungeons and watchtower and then we had a bit of a wait before we could get into the gorgeous Nazarene palaces.  I sat Matt in the shade and got him a beer and a jamón sandwich, most of which he ended up feeding to the feral cats (who figured out pretty quickly that we were a good mark).

Alhambra

The palaces are incredibly gorgeous. It’s hard to imagine the work that must have gone into the detailing, where every surface in some of the rooms had been covered. In others, beautiful fountains and pools were the focus, or a quiet garden that looked out onto the town. I’ve been in love with this aesthetic most of my lift and to see it in person was almost overwhelming. I could have spent days in there.

Calahonda

We decided not to stay another night in Granada but instead head out to the coast where we expected it to be cooler, so we got packed up and put the bikes in the elevator. It turned out to be one of our less good ideas because we were hot and tired from walking around Alhambra all day but also because the ancient cobblestones had become slick with oil and heat during the day and were at their absolute worst by mid-afternoon. As the parking garage was at the top of a steep hill, this made is something akin to riding a motorcycle down a ski hill – with cars on it. Matt did okay but my boot slipped while I was balancing on a slick part of the street and I dropped my bike. That made me cranky but even worse was that we changed our plans and just ate at a tourist shop facing Alhambra at the bottom of the hill and for the second time in two days we had a bad meal in Spain.

The drive to the coast was not long and it did mercifully get cooler as we got towards the water. Apparently Spain had been in some kind of heat wave (no shit!) that was almost over as well but it seemed like maybe poor timing now that we were finally at the beach. We stopped in the first hotel in the first town (Calahonda), happy to be off the bikes and out of the heat, then went down to the bar on the beach. We just sat there until the restaurant opened (in the same  space as the bar) and thought that we would see a menu but the waiter just brought me more wine and then started bringing us food. There was a lovely salad with smoked salmon followed by a fish casserole (caught right in front of where we were sitting) and some toro (bull) meat. When we were full, we told him and he brought us some fruit and an after-dinner drink. It was so easy and unpretentious and lovely. Also one of the best meals we had the whole trip.

Peniscola

12-05-20 (Calahonda / Benisanó) 

As we started riding up the Costa del Sol, two things happened – the “sol” disappeared in the rain and we arrived at the Spain that is familiar to German, French and British holiday-makers – tri-lingual picture menus and huge billboards advertising patio furniture rentals, etc. We had thought that we would just ride up the coast until we found another cute little town to stay in but the roads have been expertly designed to get traffic in and out of these small towns quickly and so you turn off of the super highway onto a smaller one and then onto the road that leads to your town. To get out or even to get to the next town you do the same in reverse. That sucks for motorcycling and the rain isn’t great either so we just kept going until we got to Valencia – the next town that I knew I for sure wanted to visit.

Except that we didn’t stop in Valencia but kept going on to the suburb of Benisanó. The only thing that I wanted to do in Valencia was eat a proper paella (although there are a couple of nice restaurants in that stretch that I would have liked to eat at, had we been able to get in) and so Matt looked up the primo place to eat paella and it turned out that it’s Levante, out in the suburbs. There’s only one hotel in Benisanó – a classy joint that has put a potted plant in front of the  2 Star plaque out front – and so we stayed in it, in a room that felt like the spare room at an estate museum or something. There was a dresser that looked like it had been got at a garage sale and although I think we and the people next to us were probably the only four people staying in the whole place, they had put us right next to each other and the walls were so thin that we could hear the guy yelling at his wife from the shower. But no matter, we were going to have paella for dinner and then we were going to leave so we just needed to find a couple of hours to fill until then and as we had discovered on this trip, beer does a pretty great job of filling an afternoon.

Luckily the paella place was just a few doors down so I went and checked every so often it kept stubbornly being closed.  Finally we asked the hotel proprietor and he said in his very limited English that he thought it wasn’t open. That seemed pretty obvious so after a while I asked if we could have paella there in the hotel restaurant and he looked surprised but said he thought they might have some left over from lunch. They did and we ate it while sulking a bit. Later we learned that paella is usually cooked outside over fires made with orange wood and that it’s traditionally made by men who were out working in the fields. For this reason, it’s usually a lunch dish rather than eaten for dinner. Try again tomorrow.

12-05-21 (Benisanó / Peníscola / Barcelona)

Checked out and went and parked ourselves at the cafe next door to Levante. I got crankier and crankier as we filled up on snacks from a suburban Spanish bakery and the paella place never opened. Finally we had to leave and now I will have to come back to this shit town again some day and stay in this shit hotel just to eat paella.

As we rode out of town though we passed orange grove after orange grove and the smell was intoxicating. I always tell people that motorcycles are the best way to travel because you are so connected to the land – the terrain, the climate, the smells – and travelling from Barcelona through Madrid and then Andalusia we passed through the countryside experiencing the things that we would eat at the next town; fields of garlic, olive orchards, orange groves, etc.  Some of these things weren’t pleasant (the pig farms in particular) and when we crested a hill outside Valencia and saw a fire filling the sky with black smoke, we prepared to ride fast through it and hold our breaths against the acridness. The opposite thing happened though. It turned out to be a fire in an orange grove and it was the smell of smoky perfume, spicy pot pourri…the smell of our denied paellas cooking on an open fires of orange wood…If it weren’t for the ERT vehicles we may have turned around and rode through it again and again. It didn’t quite make up for not eating paella but that was a pretty amazing experience.

Stopped in Peníscola (another poor Spanish town about to be overrun by sun-seeking tourists) for lunch and had a lovely meal on the beach of cuttlefish, cheese and Albariño before pressing on to Barcelona. So tired and achey now. I actually have bruises on my ass from riding so hard and just desperately wanted to be off the bike but as we were riding through Penedès (cava wine country) I couldn’t help but signal to Matt that I wanted to pull over and buy some. He looked pretty incredulous – we’d been travelling around Spain for weeks with strangely-shaped, un-flexible luggage the size of overnight bags and in every town I had found something that I wanted to buy. Matt would hold it up against his hard case (he had a bigger bike so therefor bigger bags) and tell me I could get the smaller one. About 2/3rds of the way through the trip he threw out some of his underwear to make room for some regional delicacy I couldn’t live without. So in Penedès he told me I could have ONE bottle of wine and that was it, then he went to the bathroom. 

The proprietor showed me around his operation, through the cellar and the storeroom and finally told me about each of the different wines. He was doing it in Catalan though, and so when he said that the bottles were €60, €70 and €90 each and I just about died because it was the most expensive cava I had ever seen in my life, he actually meant €6 – €9. I wish I had a truck.

Matt rented us a super posh hotel on the water in Barcelona so we just cruised up to the door and parked our filthy, bug-encrusted bikes on the sidewalk beside the luxury cars and went inside to drink our wine. Wanted to go to Cal Pep but it was closed so ducked out of the rain around the corner in a super cute tapas place that we hadn’t seen yet called Bastaix. We had fava beans with jamón iberico and mint, piquillo peppers with goat cheese and honey, morcilla sausage on toast with roasted apple and cheese, a plate of manchego, and some nice Albariño. For dessert there was that gorgeous chocolate ganache and EVOO and sea salt dessert and more PX (from Alvarez this time) which  Matt enjoyed. He seems to be a convert.

We had an unexpected couple of days in Barcelona that we thought were were going to spend along the coast but it was raining and we were tired and the  jamón iberico at the hotel was excellent so we laid low and feasted, shopped, planned our next trip – to Northern Spain…

 

Here are all the photos from our trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157629894497730/

 

Hawai’i: Maui and Kona

Flying

Hawaii was nice. How can Hawaii not be nice?! Unlike Kiev and Prague, this trip has been on the books for a while – it was Matt’s pick after we got back from the Bahamas last winter and he has especially been looking forward to going somewhere beachy and warm so a quick trip to paradise to get in some sunshine, downtime and great diving was just so nice.

Hawaii

It had been a long time since I was last in Hawaii last and probably a decade for the time before that, but my grandmother used to live in Makaha on Oahu part time and so we went what seemed like often when we were kids. I remember falling asleep and waking up to the sound of the ocean, crawling the beach to collect little knobs of coral and digging big pits (instead of castles) in the sand. When we were still too small to swim in the surf my my grandmother used to hold us and body surf us through the waves until our homemade swimsuits were full of sand. When we came inside, she would cut up fresh papaya for a snack and these things must have made an impact because I have never lost my love of the sea and fresh fruit.

Honoloa Beach

Matt had never been to Hawaii so we split the difference between Maui (which I thought he would like best) and Kona (where I wanted to go on the manta ray night dive) and that worked out well except that we both wanted to spend more time in both places. Ah well, next time.

Honokowai

MAUI

I was pleasantly surprised to find Lahaina less horribly touristy than I remembered (although we did have a couple of terrible meals there and why does every restaurant or retail shop in Hawaii seem to have a T-shirt for sale?) but we were still happy to be staying in quiet, tiny Honokowai, with a lush garden in front of our condo and the ocean working its endless magic steps away from our door. The first night after we got settled in to the condo we went and sat by the ocean until we lost all the light and could only hear the waves lapping at the seawall beneath our feet.

And then went to bed because we had a 4 AM wake up call to go and see the sunrise on Haleakala. Diving and flying gets complicated on an archipelago with 10,000 ft peaks so we decided to get the heights over with first thing and booked in our diving after that.

Haleakala

Thankfully we had the time change on our side because it actually didn’t seem that bad when we were stumbling around getting dressed. The summit is a polar region and we hadn’t packed accordingly so I just wore all the warm things I had; a t-shirt, my rash-guard, a paper-thin windbreaker…and flip flops. Matt had said so many times leading up to the trip that he just wanted to sit under a tree and read that I hadn’t even bothered to bring shoes or socks. That’ll be my lesson learned.

 

Haleakala

The last time I climbed Haleakala I made it about an hour’s hike into the valley before I was overcome by altitude sickness. I didn’t know what it was, just that I felt like I was moving through toothpaste and my boyfriend was getting farther and farther away no matter how hard I tried to keep up. Finally I just sat down next to an alien-looking tree and cried. We eventually figured out what was going on but then we still had to climb all the way back up to the visitor’s centre. It wasn’t fun and I wasn’t anxious to repeat it so I made Matt go slowly and stop whenever there was a pullout which made the two hour trip drag. By the time we got the to summit, the morning light had illuminated the clouds and brought some definition into the crater. Several people had assembled, wearing whatever warm things they could collect from their rooms – beach towels and house robes were common – and I was not the only one with toes showing! What a motley crew we looked like to greet the rising sun!

Walterses

Haleakala means “House of the Sun” and in Hawaiian history, the summit was only accessible to priests. It’s easy to see why it was considered a sacred space. We were on top of the world, high above the clouds and the light reflecting off of them and into the moon-like crater was incredible. Through the occasional break we could see all the way to the sea and in the distance far below us the West Maui mountains that had seemed so large when we drove past that morning.

I’m not normally one for sunrises but when there is in fact something magical in watching the first ray of sunshine break into the day and even more so when a park ranger chants a mele oli” (chanted poem) in honour of it:

Haleakala sunrise mele oli

Dolphins

The next day we headed out to sea. After discussing with Lahaina Divers, we decided to do the Cathedrals – beautifully formed lava caves – off the coast of Lana’i and the hammerhead sharks dive off the coast of Moloka’i. Later we added a couple of dives on Maui to round it out but even before we got to our first dive site we were joined by a pod of 40-50 dolphins. They surrounded the boat when it slowed but as soon as the captain resumed speed they sped up excitedly to ride our bow waves then dropping back to leap through and do flips in the wake. I laughed out loud at the site of such pure and obvious joy – they are truly the puppies of the ocean.

Cathedral

The Cathedrals were as beautiful as I remembered and we got to see the rare albino black coral “chandelier” that hangs from the ceiling. It’s a testament to the dive shops in the area educating divers that it’s still intact…we saw much coral-kicking on this trip but at least the stony reef-building corals are a little heartier.

Fish

We were enjoying the chill diving so much that we decided to just stay on the boat for the afternoon dives too. That turned out to be an excellent idea because our last dive on at Mala Pier was one to remember!  It’s a collapsed pier so it has the air of a shipwreck with all the beams and boards piled on each other and provides some great swim-throughs for divers and/or hide-outs for turtles, sharks and schools of fish – we saw all of them as well as a squadron of spotted eagle rays.

Urchin

Perhaps because it’s a busy site also accessible from the shore, or perhaps because there were so many places to hide the creatures didn’t seem to be bothered by us in the slightest. One giant turtle kept a baleful eye on me while he surfaced for a breath but a moment later I turned around to see him swimming by right behind me. And I hurriedly snapped a photo of the eagle rays on the first pass, expecting them to bolt but they cruised by so many times afterwards that I got tired of pointing them out. Even the sharks were chill.

Matt

It’s a stunning dive site and I look forward to diving it again some day – hopefully at night.

Walterses

The next day we headed out to Mokuho’oniki Rock off the coast of Molokai to dive with hammerhead sharks. This was a life-list item for me so I was really happy that we were in Hawaii on a date that the shop was going out. They considered it an advanced dive so Matt had some detailed questions about depths and current and etc. but it turned out to be me who needed to be nervous because getting there involved crossing the dreaded Pailolo channel – Hawaiian for “crazy water.” In the briefing the captain warned that meds might help any people prone to seasickness on normal trips but on this one we were pretty much “f——“. Yikes!

Hammerhead

I wouldn’t pass up a chance to dive with hammers even if I had to be dragged behind the boat so we signed up anyways and it turned out to be not too bad at all. The first site of these majestic creatures made it all worth while anyways and we were lucky enough to see three hammerheads and a Galapagos shark gliding through the blue water on each dive, with two of them swimming along together on the last one. It was just so beautiful to watch and I only wish that we were a little bit closer or that the photos had turned out a little better but I think Matt got some video as well. At any rate, life list item #64 completed!

Degan

One drawback  of all that sun and salt is that my hair had almost no red in it by the end of the trip (more like a pinky coral colour) so I love this photo that Matt got of me underwater where I look like some kind of tropical fish (also showing off the new octo tattoo in its natural element!).

Jeep

Maui is pretty spread out so we spent a fair amount of time in the Jeep driving around. On one of the days that we were going to Lahaina there was an accident and way too much traffic on the road so we decided to just take the long way around the West Maui mountains and see what we could see. We had an Adventure-Mobile, after all.

Honoloa Beach

As we drove north from Honokowai we came up to stunning Honolua Beach where there is good surfing and snorkeling / diving on alternating days. Then the road narrowed and as we got into some seriously lush countryside we passed several signs that warned we were on a one lane highway (as if that wasn’t obvious) and that we had left the official roadway behind. We learned later that this was also the point you weren’t supposed to take the rental cars past but it was great to see the rugged coastline and rural communities up there and it took a lot less time than driving to Hana.

Driving

KONA

Life list item #67 was to do the manta ray night dive in Kona and it seems a bit incredible to check two things off in one week but we only had two days on the big island – one to do the manta ray night dive and one to get the nitrogen out of our bloodstreams before flying – so that meant we weren’t able to summit Mauna Kea or see the lava fields on Mount Kilauea or do the pelagic magic night dive… so while I may have checked some things off the list,  I’ve also added a few to it as well.

manta ray

The build up to the manta dive terrified me. The boat was full of both divers and snorkelers and no one seemed to have any idea what was going on but they were all doing it exuberantly. When we got to the dive site we found that we were not the only ones, but apparently one of several such boats all decked out with lights and surfboards rigged with PVC pipes ready to see some manta rays. The idea was for all 70 – 90 people to be in the water all at about the same time. Matt saw the incredulity in my eyes and asked out right, “this is going to be worth it, right?.” The dive master assured us that it would be but a few minutes later when he asked who was on their first night dive I thought it was a joke because I could not imagine putting new night divers into that chaos.  And then we were in the water, trying to keep one eye out for manta rays and another on our guide.

The idea is that the divers stay low to the ground and shine their lights up while the snorkelers hang on to the surfboards and shine their lights down. Plankton is attracted to the light and then the rays come to feed on it. It all started when a hotel (now the Sheraton) was shining lights into the bay for their night swimmers and noticed that the rays were gathering. While the hotel was closed for renos the site moved to the current location where we were diving but they seem to travel up and down the coast – we went to the hotel for dinner later and saw a couple of manta rays from the patio!

We only saw one manta ray on our dive – Eli, the same juvenile that we had seen on our check-out dive – and I found out later that the record number of rays they’ve seen there is 44,with the norm being somewhere between 17 – 20.  So I consider ourselves just a tiny bit screwed on the manta ray front but by the same token it was such a spectacular dive with an octopus and several trumpet fish and eels hunting off our lights and I also consider myself very lucky to have been so close to the manta ray so frequently during the dive. Many people didn’t see him at all.

Degan Walters

On our last day in Hawaii we didn’t have a lot of options. We couldn’t dive or go above 2000 feet (so no horseback riding or ziplining or summiting volcanoes), we didn’t have a car (so no plantation tours) and we needed our gear to dry (so no snorkeling) so as a pretty awesome last resort we walked into town and hung out at the Kona Brewing Company for lunch. We had been in love with the Big Wave golden ale since the day we landed in Maui but I tried a couple of blond and wheat variations and Matt dug into the IPAs and we were both pretty happy about that.

dog camp (1)

Riley was at Camp Good Dog for the first time and it seems like she may have had as much fun as we did.

Here are all of the photos from our trip:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157637717057644/with/10897388444/

Prague

Charles Bridge

After Kiev, Prague felt like fairy tale. Not a candy-coated one Disney one with their plethora of princesses, but more of a dark Brothers Grimm one, with something a bit sinister in it. The book I’m reading cautions about applying too much myth and mysticism to the city but it’s hard to avoid. Walking from the Hradcany castle district, over the Charles Bridge to the old town (a walk that I did every day I was there, for various reasons), there are secrets and mysteries tucked into every corner; in the almost unpronounceable language, behind the ornate house insignia in the upper old town, and of course in the architecture.

Hradcany

Prague was one of the few cities in Europe that was never bombed or burned and so you can see how the city has grown over time; Gothic, then Baroque, then Renaissance, then Neo-Gothic, then Modern…all crammed up against each other. Like most European towns, there is a castle on the high ground but in Prague the castle is a relatively modern addition and really more of a palace so what you see towering above is instead St. Vitus Cathedral.

We were staying in Smíchov, a non-touristy neighbourhood about 40 minutes away from the Stare Mesto old town / down town and while there is a good transit system in place, I like walking and was too busy to get in any runs in Prague, so I just walked to town along the Vlatava river every day, and then up to the Hradčany castle district. I didn’t mean to go every day…the first day we were exploring as a group and then the second day I went to spend more time on my own. Later I went to check out the Loreto of Prague, a baroque Catholic church and cloister and Strahov Monastery, with its grand library and Cabinet of Oddities a little farther up the hill but it got so that I enjoyed the slow transition from bustling everyday working Prague, through the dog park and past the art gallery along the river to the Charles Bridge and then into the tight meandering and steep streets up to the castle, and so I just walked.

Tyn Church

From there I would walk down through the maze of paths and streets back over the bridge to the Old Town Square. This is a beautiful spot, with Tyn Church (above), the  Astronomical clock (below) and Town Hall, several street food vendors, a Baroque church, a carriage stop and many restaurants. It’s also a fine time to mention the tourists.

Weddings

I know it seems like after Kiev, I may have been pining for a tour bus but not only do I don’t care for swarms of tourists, but I generally don’t like a lot of tourist attractions either. I hate eating non-local food when I’m travelling (unless it’s somehow relevant and culturally important), I don’t get the point of 90% of souvenirs and tourist escapades and reenactments that take advantage of / bar you from seeing historical buildings and sites fill me with rage. Prague has a reputation for being a bit of a tourist trap so I was a bit worried about it, but it turned out to be just fine. That’s not to say that I didn’t see the potential and preparedness for the tourist hoards – in the multitude of tiny museums, menus with pictures and 6 language sections and wide open spaces in restaurant back rooms and in front of ticket kiosks – so I know they must come, but during a rainy week in September it was really quite manageable.

Astronomical clock

I crossed the bridge several times a day, at all hours, and was never stuck in a bottleneck of tourists, I had no issues with scams (other than being given a heaving plate of Prague ham sold by weight when I had asked for one order – but it was delicious), and I criss-crossed town square almost every day without tripping over anyone. Yes, there were bagpipes and some offensive thing being done to Mozart on an organ and plenty of tourists taking horse-drawn carriage rides but they were easy enough to avoid and so worth dodging for the sake of looking at this beautiful church. On one evening we ate on a patio in the square and as the light got dimmer and dimmer, I kept taking “just one more photograph” until I had a collection but the beautiful black powder towers with their sky-reaching spires are straight out of that fairy tale I mentioned, especially when golden hour hits.

Charles Bridge

I had the same relationship with Charles bridge. Our first sighting of it was midday with the whole group of Matt’s coworkers so we only saw a small part of it at it’s most crowded but I came back to it several times over the next few days. One magical evening when I was rushing home after a day of wandering and shopping (Matt was sick at the hotel) I saw that it was golden hour and tried to catch the light on the bridge for some photographs. I just missed it but saw that glass-harp player Alexander Zoltan was setting up in between the artist stands and could not help but stay for a bit of his performance. He played Air on the G string exceptionally well – on water glasses! and he was funny too. So I stayed and listened then continued on my way back to the Smíchov neighbourhood, only to see that the lights had just come on on the bridge and a full moon was rising over it, white swans gliding silently by underneath. It made for some gorgeous imagery but between the swans and the music and the lovers leaning into corners and the just-right temperature of the air, it was almost too much so I got an ice cream and walked home the long way, stopping to listen to more street musicians with a dopey smile on my face. I will never forget it.

Strahov Monastery

Another favourite stop was the Strahov Monastery library at the Loreta of Prague. The chapel and cloister were closed so I missed seeing the statue of St. Wilgefortis in the chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows which made me so sad, but I did get to see the library’s Cabinet of Curiosities. The cabinet of curiosities is the precursor to modern museums with their collections of oddities. I’d never seen one before and I was surprised to see that more than half of the collection was marine-related, including many extinct species. This collection came to the monastery from the estate 1798 when Prague’s access to the see would have been very limited, so it makes sense that there would be a fascination with those kinds of objects.

Trdelnik

Czech food is ridiculously heavy and clearly meant to stick to your ribs; goulash (gulášovka) with both bread and potato dumplings (knedlíky), fried cheese (smažený sýr), sausage (klobása), Prague ham, lots of pork and other roasts, fruit dumplings (ovocné knedlíky) and lots of beer. There is occasionally a vegetable, although it’s usually cabbage. It all comes in enormous sizes and quantities and costs virtually nothing so it’s hard not to over-order every single time – especially as it was almost universally delicious. I had read an article before we left about a regional specialty involving marinated head cheese and Matt was trepidacious but even that turned out to be tasty.

On my last night I had to order something that I’d seen on all the menus but hadn’t had the stomach space to order yet – a Bohemian pork knuckle braised in beer with apple horseradish, mustard and pickled vegetables. It comes to the table on a tray, an absolutely massive thing with a knife simply sticking out of the top of it. I did my best but if we lived in Prague that would have come home with me to be an entire second dinner.

There is a strange round pastry called trdelnik (above) which is sweet dough wrapped on a roller and dusted with sugar and almonds before being cooked over an open flame. It’s usually sold on the street and there are trdelnik shops all around the old town so we had it a couple of times.

Patio

Czechs drink more beer per capita than anyone else in the world and so it’s easy to come by. The beer is as plentiful (and enormous, and cheap) as the food and I truly don’t understand why everyone here isn’t obese or at least very stout. Pilsner Urquell and seems to owns this town with buddies Budvar and Staropramen and every square has at least one (but usually several) patios filled with umbrellas and signs indicating the particular brewery loyalty.

Beer

But the real fun is in the beer halls. U Fleků beer hall is the oldest in Prague and seats 1200 so I couldn’t help but be reminded of Hofbräuhaus in Munich, although here their only beer is a special 13% dark beer that they’ve been making since they opened in 1499. It’s not heavy or overly flavourful, just nice and strong and the guy with the tray comes by often, handing them out to anyone who makes a move. There was also a choice of honey or herbal “aperitif” that turned out to be a shot, handed out by an adorably pushy waiter and a series of rotating accordion players, including one that looked like Super Mario.  I also went to U Černého Vola – a tavern where the decor is medieval, the beer is good and dark, and the barmen are the appropriate combination of friendly and surly – and U Medvídků.

Smoking inside is strangely permitted for such a modern European country but after picking up an ashtray in Andorra last year and looking at it from all angles before deciding it was some kind of weird vase, we were at least a little more prepared for the possibility here.

Ossuary

One of the days found me in the  small town of Kutná Hora, east of Prague, where I went to see the Sedlac Ossuary, a.k.a. the bone church. The ossuary has 40,000+ bones stacked in the basement of a church. They had been dug up from surrounding lands (that were to be used for something else) and brought to the church where they were washed by a half-blind monk and later they were made into artful piles and decorations. It looks cool but there wasn’t much of a story there so I was surprised to find myself more interested in the rest of the tour.

Kutná Hora is an old silver mining town that dates back to the 10th century. It had the deepest mine in the middle ages – 500m deep – and the only way in and out was by climbing up and down a ladder single file. A mint was created and all that silver coming through town meant that it was the second richest city in the Czech lands. It competed with Prague for centuries during which time they built a gorgeous Gothic cathedral (that still has Gothic and Renaissance paintings on the wall), a beautifully decorated Gothic home and even a Gothic water cistern. As the town became richer they moved the town hall to the Italian Court with intricately painted walls (especially in the gorgeous – but not photos allowed! – Chapel of St. Wenceslas) and built a promenade reminiscent of the Charles bridge in Prague.

Cesky Krumlov

On our last day Matt and I went to Český Krumlov, a small town that is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Like all towns, the castle is front and centre but being so close to the Austrian border and at the valley’s entrance leading to Prague, this one is actually quite well fortified. The castle uses the river partly as a moat (and live bears at the gate) with sheer walls rising up from the water. Inside the walls are painted to look like architectural details, a technique that I liked but Matt found distracting. The bus trip took a couple of hours which didn’t leave us much time to look around, but it’s a small town and by the time we walked up the tower and through the grounds and down to the town we were pretty much done. It would have been nice to spend an evening checking out the pubs and restaurants but we hopped back on the bus to Prague instead.

Cesky Krumlov

We loved Prague and the Czech countryside and can’t wait to go back and explore it  some more. The people are generally pretty awesome, but they are not universally nice (which is okay because between the $2 beer and fairy tale towers there are enough tourists). People smile and say good morning to you, and there is a genuine warmth. They were out enjoying the September days, drinking beer on patios or walking dogs in parks…it was just wonderful.

Charles Bridge

Here are the rest of my photos from the trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157635563944293/