Multnomah Falls, 30 minutes drive from Portland, Oregon, is the #1 most visited natural attraction in Oregon.

Multnomah Falls—Portland, Oregon’s Nearby Magic Maiden

Multnomah Falls, Oregon’s #1 most-visited natural attraction, is just a short 30-minute drive from the urban world of Portland. And a place apart. Beware, she is a siren designed to pull you off the highway.

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Multnomah Falls is a temptress. Inexplicably female in her feathery beauty, she captures you first with her grace and then with her sheer size. With a 690 foot drop, she is the highest waterfall in Oregon.

You might as well give in. Go ahead. Pull off I-84, the highway that wends its way through the spectacular Columbia River Gorge. Multnomah Falls deserves a closer look.

Multnomah Falls, 30 minutes drive from Portland, Oregon, is the #1 most visited natural attraction in Oregon.

The pretty and pwoerful Multnomah Falls is bisected by the Benson Bridge, which merely adds to her beauty.


Multnomah Falls has several ways to rein you in. The sound beckons you from the parking area. After your short walk to the viewing platform at the lower pool, she plunges you into a natural fantasy—green, damp, pine-scented and vibrating from the power of the water. Crane your neck up to take in her whole beautiful length. A railed footbridge bisects the feathery fall, like a sash at the waist of a wedding dress. You want to get closer. Do it. Lean in on the railing, close your eyes and let the cool spray of the water caress your face.

Look around you, deep into the green—and blue, and gold. The firs and ferns, the mosses and the gray rocks. Let her speak to you.

If you want to get closer still, hike up the 1/4-mile paved trail to the Benson Bridge, that sash on the wedding dress. Built in 1914 by a wealthy lumber baron, it’s a great spot to look up at the 542′(165m) fall top tier of the twin-layered cascade, and down onto the lower one, which adds another 69′ (21m) to her majesty.

At Any Season, Multnomah Falls is Nothing Short of Gorgeous.

Spring at Multnomah Falls treats you to the greatest volume of flow, as the snow melt and rainwater run-off from high up in the mountains feeds into the streams and the natural spring that feeds the Falls year-round. In Summer, you can wear shorts, let the spray cool you and quite possibly see one of the many weddings that are staged here.

Oh, but then, there is Autumn. When the water pushes its way through yellows, golds and reds, it can stop your heart. And in Winter, you can capture a special still moment of her frozen beauty.

If You Go to Multnomah Falls

Driving Directions:
Driving to Multnomah Falls from Portland is super easy. For the shortest route, just a 30-minute drive, take I-84 eastbound. Get off at exit 31 (which is an unusual left-side exit ramp). This takes you directly to the parking area. Follow the path from there back under the highway to the viewing area for the falls.

For a more scenic drive of about an hour or so, again take I-84 eastbound from Portland. Take the Troutdale exit then follow the signs for the Scenic Loop Trail. This will take you along the old Columbia River Highway, the first drive in the country to be named a National Historic Landmark. It’s easy to see why. The drive offers up a feast of beautiful views of the Columbia Gorge, Mount Hood and several smaller waterfalls along the way.

Services, Fees and Amenities:
There is no fee to visit Multnomah Falls and a Forest Service pass is not required.

There are several bathrooms available on the grounds.

The Multnomah Falls Lodge is just to one side of the lower viewing platform. Built in 1925 using every kind of stone found in the gorge, it’s a popular destination wedding location. The Lodge includes a restaurant, snack bar, bar, espresso bar and gift shop. The amazing views of the Falls are free.

Also located at the Multnomah Falls Lodge is a US Forest Service Information Center. You’ll find information about the Falls, brochures, and trail maps. There are many books for sale to tell you more about the Falls’ history and legends. Open 9 am-5pm daily.

Pets are allowed at the Falls viewing area. They must be leashed and fully controlled at all times.

Accessibility:
The visitor center and the restaurant and facilities in the Lodge are all fully accessible.

Both the short distance from the parking area to the lower viewing area and the hiking path to the Benson Bridge are paved. The more difficult climb to the very top of the Falls, a distance of about a mile (.6km) is more rigorous, with many switchbacks. Parts of the hike can be damp and slippery. Older travelers who are unsure of their footing should considering sticking to the lower viewpoints.

A Bonus Look at Oregon’s Multnomah Falls

Still not convinced you need to visit Multnomah Falls? Check out this aerial drone video of Her Majesty, Multnomah. I’m betting it will have you packing your bags or loading the car for a trip to Portland and the Columbia River Gorge.


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When not sleeping or studying, the student inmates at the Heidelberg University student jail decorated the walls of their prison.

Boys Behaving Badly: The Student Jail at Heidelberg University

The Student Jail at Heidelberg University is proof that college students acting stupid is not a new thing. It is part of a long and rich history of university boys behaving badly.

Every inch of the walls of the rooms at the student jail at Heidelberg university is covered with graffiti.

A stint in the Student Jail at Heidelberg University seemed to bring out the natural artist in its bad boy inmates.
Every inch of wall and even the ceiling is covered with graffiti.

 

Boys Behaving Badly

As I write this, Spring Break has just ended, with the usual reports of naughty, outrageous and just plain stupid goings on by college students in their time off. Many adults shake their heads and wonder what the world is coming to. Where have these kids’ parents gone wrong?

But this sort of behavior is far from new for young people away from home. And the “Studentenkarzer,” the Student Jail at Heidelberg University, is the proof. Starting in 1823 and continuing to the beginning of World War I in 1914, young scholars at the prestigious German university—the oldest in Germany and one of the oldest in Europe—who found themselves in trouble with the rules ended up in these attic rooms designed to keep them off the streets until they learned their lesson.

And speaking of lessons, they were still expected to attend classes and lectures but had to return to their incarceration afterwards. There was a special door that allowed them to enter the Old University building directly from jail.

When not sleeping or studying, the student inmates at the Heidelberg University student jail decorated the walls of their prison.

The walls of the Heidelberg University student jail were a blank canvas for the bored young men. Student inmates passed their time sleeping, studying…and decorating their prison. Young men have always liked to leave their mark!

 

Go Directly To Student Jail. Do Not Pass Go.

The most common infractions that could land a fellow in the college clink? Carousing and rabble-rousing, dueling, and freeing the pigs of the town farmers, apparently a hilariously popular past time. Then, as now, such antics were often fueled by alcohol. The penalties were most often a few days in the Studentenkarzer, though a few weeks or up to a month could be handed down for more serious offenses.

The loo for the students in the student jail at Heidelberg University was tucked into a stairwell... a wooden bench with a lid, and a window!

A “loo with a view,” tucked under the eaves of the student jail at Heidelberg University.

The conditions weren’t bad, and apparently there was an almost universal party feel to the place. Students often broke the rules on purpose just to get a few days “inside” with their chums. Seemingly, serving at least one stint in the student jail at Heidelberg University was something of a badge of honor.

To see how these bad boys lived during their time in stir, you can visit the Studentenkarzer yourself. It’s located in the university quarter in the heart of Old Town, at Augustinergasse 2, behind the Old University building. Look for the hanging sign with an incongruous image of a cherub and the words Uni Shop-Studenten Karzer. Past the entrance, climb a dark wooden stairway to the top floor jail.

There are no cells here, just a warren of rooms high up under the eaves. Iron beds, wooden desks, a few chairs. But the rooms are far from dull or barren. That’s because spending time in the student jail seemed to bring out the inner graffiti artist in these collegiate inmates. The walls are completely covered with graffiti—cartoonish drawings, fraternity badges, family crests, poems, names and clever epithets. Everywhere are silhouettes of the frat boys themselves, each topped with the colored cap that was a standard part of the university uniform in the 19th century.

Family in the Student Jail at Heidelberg University???

While perusing the graffiti and snapping pictures, I came across one that especially made me smile. My grandfather, who I never knew, was born in Heidelberg. He left at 16 for America. I’m told he had a brother named Ernst who stayed behind.

The name E. Meyer is painted onto one wall at the Heidelberg Student Jail. My great uncle's name!

Could this have possibly been my great uncle, leaving his mark from a stint in the student jail at Heidelberg University?
Probably not… but I can imagine it.

So think how delighted I was to find one bit of graffiti scrawled with the name E. Meyer. Yes, I know, I know. Meyer is as common as Smith in Germany. And Ernst as everyday as John. But I still enjoyed the fantasy that perhaps my great uncle had one night imbibed a bit too much and roused some rabble with the guys, maybe chasing a squealing pig along the river… and landed himself in the brig for it.

The entrance to the Heidelberg Studenten Karzer, marked by a sign with an incongruous cherub.

The entrance to the Studenten Karzer at Heidelberg University, located at Augustinergasse 2.

Entrance to the Student Jail at Heidelberg University is included in the Heidelberg Card. The Card is a great bargain at €15-19, depending on the number of days of validity. It also includes entrance to Heidelberg Castle, the funicular ride to get there, free public transit and lots of discounts.

Without the Heidelberg Card, a ticket for the Student Jail at Heidelberg University costs €3, or €2 with a senior discount. This also includes admission to the Alte Universtat Museum, just around the corner, and the beautiful Alte Aule or Great Hall. You can get tickets at the university shop in the jail building’s ground floor.

 


Location: Augustinergasse 2, Old Town, Heidelberg, Germany
Hours: Open daily except Mondays, 10 am to 6 pm (4 pm, October thru March)

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The main facade of Culzean Castle, on the Ayrshire coast of SW Scotland, glows in the warm light of the Golden Hour.

Sleeping With Ike: The Eisenhower Hotel at Culzean Castle

On the top floor of Culzean Castle (pronounced Cull-ANE), in Scotland’s southwest corner, just 50 miles from Glasgow, is a special place. It was where Dwight D. Eisenhower went to get away and relax. To feel pampered and free from the stresses of being a hero… and later a President. Now you can go there too. You can even sleep in Ike’s bed.

 

The main facade of Culzean Castle, on the Ayrshire coast of SW Scotland, glows in the warm light of the Golden Hour.

The main facade of Culzean Castle, on the Ayrshire coast of SW Scotland, glows in the warm light of the Golden Hour.

 

Feeling At Home in Culzean

In the large courtyard of Culzean Castle, a long queue of people wait to pay the fee to tour the public rooms. It’s no wonder. The 18th-century Robert Adam masterpiece is glorious. The castle, which belongs to the National Trust for Scotland, is a popular spot with tourists.

They wait patiently—or not—to gaze at the armor, the massive curved staircase, to wander through the high-ceilinged rooms and admire the elegant furnishings, the elaborate plastered ceilings, the gilt and marble. From the looks of the line, it‘s going to be awhile before the last of them gets in.

But for you? No worries. You reach into your pocket and pull out a key. You walk across the courtyard to a small door in the wall of one of the large side wings. You calmly unlock it and let yourself into the building, where a private 1920s-era elevator whisks you to the top floor. Is it your imagination that the people in line watched you enter and wondered, “Who is she? Why is she so special?”

But that’s just what staying at the Eisenhower Hotel at Culzean Castle does to you. It makes you feel special, pampered, like an important and special guest of the house.

A Welcome with Afternoon Cream Tea

It was afternoon when our group arrived at Culzean, and misty. To get the full effect of the castle’s magnificent first impression, we opted to ignore the elevator and enter though the main hall.

Robert Adam's grand sweep of oval, colonnaded staircase at Culzean leads to the Eisenhower Gallery.

Robert Adam’s grand sweep of oval, colonnaded staircase at Culzean takes you up to the Eisenhower Gallery on the top floor.

It was a good choice. Our first view of Culzean’s interiors was the great sweep of Adam’s double-curved and colonnaded oval staircase. We stepped from marble to carpet the rich red of the best British claret. We tried to keep our jaws from dropping as we rose to our home for the night. Home? The idea made me smile.

When we’d climbed to the Eisenhower Gallery on the top floor, a very un-stuffy butler greeted us and ushered us into the round sitting room. A misty sky veiled the wide view of the Firth of Clyde from the windows. We were grateful for the welcoming fires crackling in the pair of fireplaces at opposite ends of the large room. We had arrived just in time for tea.

Steaming pots of tea, dainty sandwiches, light scones, jam, and double cream served by a butler—could anyone ask for a more perfect welcome to a Scottish castle? It felt like we were at a genteel British country home house party from the 19th century.

The round sitting room at the Eisenhower Hotel at Scotland's Culzean Castle.

The round sitting room at the Eisenhower Hotel at Scotland’s Culzean Castle is a lovely meeting place for Afternoon Tea.

 

Why the “Eisenhower Hotel”?

But why is a Scottish hotel in a castle in Ayrshire named after an American general and president? In the region where Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland, lived and wrote, how did Dwight Eisenhower come to have his Scottish White House?

Before World War II, Culzean was the home of the wealthy and prestigious Kennedy family for many generations. As direct descendants of Robert the Bruce, the Kennedy’s were one of the most important families in Scotland. It was David Kennedy, 10th Earl Cassillis, who commissioned Robert Adam to redesign the original 16th-century castle. Adams, the most important architect of his day, finished the Georgian masterpiece in the 1790s.

By 1945, the owner had been made the Marquess of Ailsa. The country was beginning its long recovery from the ravages of World War II. Taxes were high and the Marquess decided it was the better part of financial valor to gift Culzean to the country. He made his generous gift to the National Trust for Scotland.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower on his first visit to Culzean Castle, in Scotland, with his son John, in 1946.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower on his first visit to Culzean Castle, in Scotland, with his son John, in 1946.

But the gift contained one stipulation. On the top floor, they must create a self-contained apartment reserved for the use of General Dwight D. Eisenhower during his lifetime. The gift was made as gracious thanks from the people of Scotland to the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, for his part in saving Europe from the Nazi nightmare.

Eisenhower visited Culzean Castle several times, including once as President. He loved Culzean. “I can relax here,” he said of it.

It was easy to see why he loved it. So did I.

The Comfort of the Ailsa Suite

Warmed and satisfied after tea and those lovely scones and jam, I was happy to have the friendly housekeeper show me to my room. Others in our group of travel writers were led to the Eisenhower Suite (yes, Ike Slept Here), the Cairncross Suite, or one of three other rooms. I was taken to the Ailsa Suite. After asking if I preferred tea or coffee to be brought in the morning, she left me to enjoy my room. And what a delightful space it turned out to be.

The lovely Ailsa Suite at Culzean, with its carved and canopied four-poster bed and wooden steps to get up into it.

The lovely Ailsa Suite, named for Ailsa Craig, a haystack rock island offshore in the Firth of Clyde,
was my most comfortable home for the night.

The carved and canopied four-poster bed is original to the Kennedy family. I loved having to climb the trio of wooden stairs to get up into it because of its height. A fire was already burning brightly in the marble fireplace. The bathroom was huge and I made a mental note to enjoy the deep tub later.

The mist was clearing and pale sunshine began to seep through the sky, lighting the impressive views of Culzean Bay as well as the Clock Tower Courtyard below. As inviting as the stuffed chairs before the fire were, I wanted to take advantage of that bit of sun. Coat, scarf and gloves on, I headed out to explore.

Culzean Castle: Romantic as All Get Out

Culzean Castle aeriel view from the water side. Photo shows the drum tower, where the Eisenhower Hotel's round sitting room on the top floor.

Culzean Castle is magnificent from the water of Scotland’s Firth of Clyde.
The top floor of the central drum tower is the round sitting room, where we had tea.

Culzean Castle reigns from atop a 100-foot cliff overlooking the Firth of Clyde where it flows into the Irish Sea. It commands sweeping views of the water and the haystack peak of Ailsa Craig, a rock island jutting up 10 miles offshore. They say that on a clear day you can see the coast of Northern Ireland.

It wasn’t clear that day, but the mist had lifted enough to reward a shoreline wander. I took the path down the cliff to the rocks below. I wandered and jumped over tide pools, picked up stones and shells and watched a crab scuttle away. I listened to the waves as they rippled over the rocky beach like music. I felt the salt on my skin and my tongue.

I admired the view back up at the huge, elegant pile of stone. From the water, you get a powerful overview of Robert Adams’ brilliance with the architecture—elegant, imposing, opulent… but seeming just a bit lonely, perched there on its cliff facing the sea.

Finally the chill drove me back up the cliff, across the extensive gardens toward the castle. It was then that I made use of my key to bypass that line of tourists waiting to tour the public rooms.

There was just time to warm myself a bit in front of my private fire before a pre-dinner drink in the sitting room.

Food Fine Enough to Match the Setting

The three-course meal in the dining room was as elegant and finely detailed as the hotel itself, yet not at all stuffy. My red pepper-crusted salmon with couscous was perfectly cooked, pink, moist and flaky. The vegetables came from the property’s own gardens as did the fruit in my fruit crumble dessert, served with Arran ice cream.  After-dinner coffee and conversation in the round sitting room, with a pair of fires roaring, completed the day to perfection.

Next morning’s breakfast was everything you’d hope for in a Scottish castle, with rashers of thick Ayrshire bacon, smoked salmon and perfect oatmeal among the options.

So Much to See and Do at Culzean Castle

Before leaving Culzean Castle, you really have to tour the public rooms of this stately home. The neo-classical Georgian interiors open to the public include the State Bedroom and Dressing Room, the Dining Room, the Round Drawing Room with its beautifully plastered and painted Adam ceiling, the Blue Drawing Room, Lady Ailsa’s Boudoir and the Kitchens. All are worth your time.

Watercolor painting of the main facade of Culzean Castle painted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Eisenhower painted when he visited at Culzean, including this lovely watercolor of the main facade of the castle.

The property itself comprises more than 600  acres. Stables and a gas house and other out-buildings are surrounded by gardens, ornamental ponds, a deer park, follies. There is a conservatory, an herb garden, orchards, a peach house and an elegant camellia house dating from 1818. The formal terraced garden and Fountain Court are filled with flowers. Add in the 13-acre swan pond, an 1814 pagoda and sweeping lawns, and you realize you don’t want to rush off from Culzean Castle. There is too much to see and do right on property.

Culzean Castle: the Perfect Setting for a Hero.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower on a visit to Culzean Castle, now home to the Eisenhower Hotel, in 1959.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower on a visit to Culzean Castle, now home to the Eisenhower Hotel, in 1959.

Most of our generation of girls grew up on fairy tales. We knew about heroes—they were the ones who always rescued the heroine. Also for our generation—those born when World War II was still a very fresh and recent memory—Dwight Eisenhower was certainly a hero, idealized by parents and grandparents, the Savior of Europe, later the President of the United States.

So it is only fitting that Ike found respite and comfort at Culzean Castle. With all the dragons already slain, and the terror of World War II behind him, he could relax here.

So will you.


Room rates at the Eisenhower Hotel at Culzean Castle include afternoon cream tea in the drawing room and a full breakfast. Dinner is separate and is served only on Fridays and Saturdays unless by prior arrangement.

A tour of the castle is included in the price.

For more information, more photos and booking details, visit The Eisenhower Hotel’s website.


I visited the Eisenhower Hotel at Culzean Castle as a guest of the British Tourist Authority. I appreciate the opportunity. As always, all of my opinions and comments on the hotel are my personal observations. I will never recommend a hotel or event I didn’t love myself. I heartily recommend the Eisenhower Hotel for a deserved splurge.
Photos courtesy of The National Trust for Scotland.

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A tower sculpture made of books, with an opening so you can stick you head inside. Mirrors placed inside make the tower seem like it is infinite. Another of our great Prague secret, at the Prague Municipal Library.

Prague Secrets–12 Insiders’ Tips for Traveling to Prague

Want some great Insiders’ Tips for traveling to Prague? I’ve got them. I’m not a Prague local, not at all. But I know one. And he led me to hidden spots and secret gardens I never would have found on my own. With these secrets of Prague, you can find them too.

Prague castle lit by the setting sun at dusk.

Prague castle is visible from much of the city. Here, it glows in the last burn of a setting sun.

Prague is a New Old City

A short 20 or so years ago, traveling to Prague still held a tinge of the exotic. The city and its people were just emerging from the shadows of foreign occupation and its Communist dictates. No more. Prague is now one of the hottest go-to spots in Europe. And for good reason. Its churches and monuments, squares and parks, twisty streets and beautiful buildings enchant the millions of tourists that now visit the city every year.

Everyone traveling to Prague wants to visit Prague Castle, walk across the Charles Bridge, and drink Czech pilsner in the famous beer gardens. A stop at the John Lennon wall, catching the changing of the hour on the Astronomical Clock, strolls through Old Town Square and Malá Strana—all but compulsory. And every guidebook can give you the information you need for all these Prague highlights.

But what are the secrets of Prague? What do the locals know about visiting Prague that the rest of us don’t? It was these kinds of non-touristy things to do in Prague I was looking for when I first visited this gorgeous city.

My Personal Guide to Hidden Prague.

Guenther Krumpak, my personal guide to Prague

Guenther, my guide to discovering cool and quirky things to do in Prague–his mission of learning all about his adopted city is a labor of love.

I was lucky right out of the gate. When I decided I would be traveling to Prague, I booked an AirBnB room from a pair of guys, and one of them was a Tour guide! Guenther Krumpak, originally from Vienna, loves Prague and it shows. He has made it his personal mission to learn everything about the art, architecture, culture, history and quirks of his adopted city. And sharing that info with their guests is a labor of love.

Each morning after breakfast, he would spread a map of the city and ask, “What kind of experience do you want to have today?” Not “what do you want to see,” but basically “How do you want to feel?” His question opened my eyes to a new way to discover a city and led me to many experiences I would never have had on my own. I was so excited about his vision of Prague, that I hired him for a personal walking tour through this magical city. Best money I spent on my whole trip! Guenther’s insider information and knowledge of the hidden things not to miss in Prague led me up backstreets and into hidden gardens, to cups of coffee on almost deserted terraces and down stairways that Salieri might have traversed in the filming of Amadeus.

So with great thanks and a lot of credit to Guenther Krumpak of FunTastic Prague, here are the Prague secrets I discovered. I can’t wait to go back and find more of them. Because, as Franz Kafka wrote:

“Prague never lets you go… this dear little mother
has sharp claws. One has to yield, or else.”

The Hidden Garden of Květnice–a True Prague Secret

A white iron bench in the hidden garden of Květnice on Petřín Hill.

A corner of the “secret” Květnice Garden on Petřín Hill in Prague. I was the only person there!

The Rose Gardens on Petřín hill are famous, and definitely worth a visit for anyone traveling to Prague. But there is another garden right next to them that few people know about or ever see. “Květnice” translates roughy as “Blossomarium,” a garden full of blossoms. A perennial flower garden planted to be beautiful at almost any season. Guenther told me how to find it. On the day I went, a sunny September afternoon, I was the only person there.

The entrance gate that leads into the almost-hidden Květnice Garden on Petřín hill. Worth a visit when traveling to Prague.

The entrance gate that leads you into the peace and abundance of the almost-hidden Květnice Garden on Petřín hill.

Walk or take tram 6, 9, 12, 20 or 22 to tram stop Újezd. From there you can get on the funicular up to Petřín Hill. When you get off, you will be almost in front of the famous Rose Garden. Do take a few minutes to enjoy the roses if they are in season and gaze at the lovely sculpture called “Kiss,” by Josef Mařatka from 1921.

Facing the Rose Garden, turn left and walk along the wall until you see a discreet entrance in it. Turn in there and a few feet further in, on your right, you’ll see the pretty wrought-iron gate into Květnice. Overflowing with flowering shrubs and water plants, lawns and white-rocked pathways and surrounded by a hornbeam hedge, it has a way of catching the spirit. Sit a spell on one of the white iron benches and enjoy the peace. And if you listen carefully enough, you just might hear the light tinkle of fairy laughter. It’s that kind of garden, a truly enchanted secret of Prague.

Černý’s Upside-Down Horse and Lucerna Gallery. What?

Whimsical 1990s upside-down horse sculpture by Czech artist David Černý in Lucerna Passage in Prague. See many of Černý's pieces wen traveling to Prague.

This whimsical 1990s piece by Czech sculptor David Černý is found within the Art Nouveau/Deco explosion that is Lucerna Passage in Prague.

The Czech’s seem to have a penchant for black humor and no one does it better visually than the post-modern sculptor David Černý. There are several of his works you’ll want to check out when traveling to Prague. But this one, by far, is my favorite. I can’t even look at a photo of it without smiling, and I think I was giggling the whole time I was there photographing it.

For a more detailed story of the piece, check out my Photo of the Week post about the Upside-Down Horse. You’ll find this whimsical sculpture in the Lucerna Passage off Wenceslaus Square. The 1920s passage itself is worth exploring, a sort of cross between Arab bazaar and Art Deco/Nouveau hallucination.

To find the passage and it’s upside-down horse, begin in Wenceslaus Square. With your back to the National Museum and the original King Wenceslaus statue, walk along the left side of the square. The entrance to the passage, “Lucerna Pasáž,” is a bit before the entrance to the Mustek Metro station.

The Mucha Museum—a Paean to the Master of Art Nouveau

Alphone Mucha's brilliant bigger-than-life-size Art Nouveau poster of Sarah Bernhardt in Gismonda. The actress wears a golden Byzantine gown with orchids in her hair, holding a palm frond, with her head outlined by an arc like a halo. See it at the Mucha Museum, Prague

This Art Nouveau poster of Sarah Bernhardt in “Gismonda” is the work that jump-started Alphonse Mucha’s career, the one that quickly turned him into “the most famous artist in Paris” in 1895.

I’m a bit of an Art Nouveau freak, so of course Prague was the perfect city for me. It’s everywhere there, around every corner. And one place I really wanted to explore was the museum dedicated to the work of my favorite Art Nouveau artist, Alphonse Mucha.

The Mucha Museum in Prague is an ode to the master’s lovely Belle Epoque ladies with their diaphanous gowns and long sinuous locks of hair. (Those waves of Medusa-like hair came to be called “spaghetti” or “vermicelli.”) I loved his famous posters of Sarah Bernhardt, but I didn’t know they actually launched his stratospheric career.

The museum also has paintings, drawings, sculpture, jewelry, and some wonderful photos of Mucha’s atelier in Paris—which he shared for a time with Paul Gauguin.

The breadth of his versatility was truly astonishing and the Mucha Museum gives a very good overview of that.

Insider Tip: You can see more of Mucha’s work at the Smetana Theater, where he painted the ceiling in his prototypical Art Nouveau style. There is also a stained-glass window he designed in St. Vitus’ Cathedral.

For a more complete story on the Mucha Museum, Prague, and why you should visit it, read this post. 

Choco Cafe U Cervene Zidle

Entrance to the Choco Cafe in the Stare Mesto area, a good place for a break when traveling to Prague.

The entrance to the Choco Cafe U Cervene Zidle in Prague’s Staré Město area. Let the smell of chocolate draw you inside for the best mug of hot chocolate you’ve ever had.

You’re certain to be walking around Staré Město, Prague’s Old Town. A lot. At some point you’ll want a break, to rest your feet and your mind, maybe get out of the rain or cold or too much sun. You’ll need a chance to stop and process all you’ve seen and done.

My favorite spot to do that was the wonderful Choco Café on a nearby side street. I loved it so much I went back three times! It was the smell that caught me and pulled me through the door the first time—the heady scent of chocolate wafting sweetly on the air. It was the hot chocolate that brought me back—simply the best I have ever had, anywhere. It’s thick, almost pudding like. Think of the best chocolate bar you ever had melted into a mug with a little cream, then topped with whipped cream. Yep, that’s it.

Choco Café is casual, relaxed, with wicker and wooden chairs and comfy sofas. The staff is friendly. It was never over-run with tourists when I was there but is popular with locals. Prices are very reasonable. The WiFi is good. And the cakes are to die for.

Find Choco Café at Liliová 250/4, between Zlata and Naprstkova in Staré Město. Open daily, 10am-9pm (8 pm on Sundays). There is also a second location at Bethlehem Square #8. For more pictures, visit their web page. (in Czech).

The Sculpture Garden of Sternberg Palace

Leaf-draped steps in the walled courtyard garden at Sternberg Palace.

The walled garden at Sternberg Palace, near Prague Castle, is one of those places I would NEVER have found on my own. One of my favorite Insider Tips for Traveling to Prague. Thank you, Guenther!

This is another garden oasis, one of the Prague highlights I never would have found without Guenther guiding me there. The Sternberg Palace is part of the National Gallery. It houses a superb collection of Dutch, German and Austrian art, among others. But saving that for another day, let’s check out the sculpture garden.

Although the former Baroque palace is only a few steps from the entrance to Prague Castle, it’s tricky to find it. It shares an entrance with the Archbishop’s Palace, and there is almost no signage. Go through the arch into a lane or alley. Walk down that passage where it curves to the left. You’ll see some large iron gates with the letters “n g” for National Gallery above them. If the gates are closed, just push on the small door on the right, and you’re in.

At the entrance, simply tell them you’re going to the café. You won’t have to pay the entrance fee and you can walk right past the café into the garden. A well-curated collection of 20th-century Czech sculpture is intriguing and well displayed among the green.

Despite being almost within spitting distance of the Castle, with it throngs and hordes of tourists, the small walled garden is quiet. We were the only people there for the half-hour or so we wandered its paths. If I’d been alone, I might have spent all afternoon. I would sit and listen to the breeze through the leaves, watch the light bounce off the water in the granite pool, feel the smooth bronze of the sculptures, and smell the green.

If you’re hungry or thirsty, do step into the café. It is better, cheaper and more comfortable than anything at the Castle itself.

Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6pm. To visit the collection of European Art–which is superb–inside the palace galleries, it’s best to use the combined ticket that gets you entrance into all the National Gallery properties.

Shop for Hedonistic Luxury at Botanicus

A glimpse of soaps and other organic products at the original Botanicus store.

The original Botanicus store in Prague is overflowing with organic soaps, creams, lotions, cordials, essential oils, honey, chutneys, and other hand-made small-batch organic items you won’t want to come home without.

In the Týn Yard, in Staré Město, you can find my favorite shop in Prague. Botanicus now has outlets around the world–traveling to Prague is not absolutely necessary to buy their luxurious products–but this is the original.

The first thing that hits you when you enter Botanicus is the smell—earthy, fresh, spring-flowers-and-sweet-grass heady. The products here begin at Botanicus’ own farm at Ostra, about 35 km. from Prague. Everything is grown organically, using as many traditional methods as possible. No fertilizers, chemical sprays or growth stimulants are used. The manufacturing uses age-old recipes and traditional small-batch techniques. Flowers, herbs and fruits are processed raw, not dried, to get the best quality oils and extracts.

The result of all this attention to tradition and fine craft is a huge selection of hand-made soaps, cosmetics, essential oils, honey and marmalades, teas and candles and herbed vinegars. There are cordials and chutneys, syrups and spices. If you’re like me, you’ll need to keep reminding yourself of the limitations of your suitcase. But thinking ahead, this is perhaps the best place in Prague to buy gifts for those back home or for hosts and friends you’ll encounter later in your trip.

For more information about Botanicus, their mission, their farm and their shops, visit the Botanicus website.
Open every day, 10am-6:30pm

Find Your Journal at Skoba Bookbinders—or Make Your Own

Two beautiful hand-made journals, made using recycled paper and vintage sewing patterns at Skoba Bookbinders, one of my favorite Prague secrets.

These hand-made journals from Skoba Bookbinders used vintage sewing patterns for one of the decorative elements.

The next stop on our Prague Secrets insiders tour is both a shop and a workshop. Something you might not know about me is that I am a bookbinder by hobby, so this was one of the unique things to do in Prague that I found really exciting.

At Skoba Bookbinders, in the interesting Žižkov neighborhood, you can browse the shop to find the perfect hand-made journal for your precious words, plans, and lists. But even better, if you time it right, you can take a 3-5 hour workshop and learn to make your own personalized journal. 

Owner/master bookbinder Václav will teach you step-by-step how to make a “notebook with a soul” using eco-friendly paper and lots of vintage elements. And there’s cake and lemonade! It’s a great way to spend an afternoon in Prague.

You’ll find Skoba at Ševčíkova 4, Žižkov, and it is open Monday to Friday, from 10am to 7pm.

To find out more about the shop and the workshops, check out the Skoba website.

Get Dizzy in a Tower of Books at the Public Library–One of the Best Weird Things to do in Prague

A tower sculpture made of books, with an opening so you can stick you head inside. Mirrors placed inside make the tower seem like it is infinite. Another of our great Prague secret, at the Prague Municipal Library.

Cleverly placed mirrors inside Matej Kren’s “Idiom” make the book tunnel seem like it goes on into infinity.

Just a two-minute walk from Old Town Square brings you to the Prague Municipal Library for another of our non-touristy things to do in Prague—experience a work of art in a new way. Inside the foyer of the main building, which is right across the street from City Hall, is an art installation by Slovak artist Matej Kren. He has used some 8000 hardcover books decommissioned by the library and formed them into a tower. As you come through the library’s main entrance, the book tower is just ahead of you and up the stairs.

Dubbed “Idiom,” the installation reaches right up to the ceiling. Be sure to stick your head inside for the full effect. Kren has placed mirrors in such a way that the spiraling tower seems to go down into infinity. It’s a bit dizzy making, but quite wonderful. Have your camera ready. This thing is an Instagram photo op just waiting for you.

The Ride That Never Stops—the Paternoster Lift at Prague City Hall

Right across the street from the library and its magical tower of books, is Prague’s City Hall. Come on, we’re going for a little ride. And it’s one of the most fun free things to do in Prague.

Have you ever heard of “The Elevator of Death?” I hadn’t, and when I did, I wasn’t sure it was something I’d ever want to try. But actually, it’s fun! Picture an elevator, just big enough for one person, with no door. And it never stops moving. You stand there in front of the open elevator door until it slowly comes along and you step inside to get whisked (slowly) up or down. It sounds a bit weird, but really, it’s not much different than stepping onto a moving escalator.

Staff in the building use the paternoster elevator all day to move from floor to floor. If you’re going to try it, plan to make a “round trip.” Step into the elevator as it passes and ride it to the very top of the building, past the last “stop.” When it reaches the attic, it will turn in a circle, rumbling and shaking as it does so, (just hold on and keep our fingers away from the wheel) and then it will begin its descent. If you’re really adventurous, you can ride it all the way down to the basement, where it will once again turn in a circle before heading back up to where you began.

To find the paternoster elevator at City Hall, walk straight from the entrance to the back of the building. You’ll hear it rumbling before you see it.

Are you seeing it? Maybe this video will help you get what I’m describing. Obviously, this for people with significant disabilities. Only the sure footed should try. But if you’re game? I found it was my one of my favorite unique things to do in Prague.

 

Feed the Swans at Vltava Beach

There is a small, man-made sandy “beach” on the banks of the Vltava River between the Charles Bridge and the Manesuv Bridge in Malá Strana. It’s generally a peaceful spot. The great view of Charles Bridge makes for a wonderful photo op.

But mostly it has swans. There are ducks too, and quarrelsome seagulls. But mostly… swans. A lot of swans. They are very used to people so you can walk among them easily. If you bring some bread or pretzels, they will eat from your hands. But be careful, they do have a tendency to snatch.

And did I mention the views? Those beautiful bridges are right there, so do take your camera.

To get a better sense of what it’s like to feed, photograph or just watch the swans at Vltava Beach, check out this video.

Hopefully, it won’t be a gray, rainy day when you are there.

Have Coffee and Pastry at the Art Nouveau Municipal House Café

The beautiful Art Nouveau interior of the Municipal House Café in Prague

Enjoying coffee and pastry in the incredibly beautify Municipal House Café in Prague is like going back
to the glory pre-war days of Europe’s café culture.

This has to be one of the most beautiful cafés in Prague. This is the kind of café I always imagine when I think of old Vienna. It’s the sort of place you can picture ladies in hats and fur wraps, men in well-cut suits with cigars. Refined. Glamorous even. It’s a pre-war movie come to life.

In high Art Nouveau style, the soaring ceilings, tall windows, mirrors, and crystal chandeliers of the Municipal House Café make you simply want to look and look, to take it all in. From the mahogany booths and leather-covered benches to the stained-glass details and marble-topped tables, every detail is perfect.

The coffee was rich and delicious; the pastry was flaky and flavorful; the service was impeccable. This is a must-see spot in Prague.

To get a better feeling of what to expect, take a virtual tour of the Municipal House Café. Municipal House is located right on Republic Square, next to the Powder Gate, at Náměstí Republiky 5.

Open every day from 7.30 am–11pm

A Discount at Prague Castle

Finally, here’s a little tip to save you some korunas.. You most definitely WILL want to visit the castle during your visit. It’s one of the highlights of Prague. So let me give you a quick tip that is perfect for you not-so-young Nomad Women travelers. When you buy your entrance ticket to the Castle grounds, tell them you are over 65 to get 50% off the price. If you are buying a combination ticket that includes all the Castle venues and exhibits, it’s a significant savings. I don’t recall if I had to show ID or not.

And here’s another insider’s trick: In high season the Castle can be unbelievably crowded, as in totally crazy making. BUT…most tourists are a bit lazy; hey, they’re on vacation…and don’t like to get up and out too early. But even if you, like me, are assuredly NOT a morning person, you might reconsider when you learn that the Castle complex opens to the public at 5 am in summer, 6 am in winter. If you go then, almost nobody will be there.

However, the cathedral and other parts of the castle requiring tickets do not open till 9 am. So my suggestion is to get to the castle grounds around 8-ish and wander around a bit–there is quite a lot to see–then head to the cathedral at 9. First in, least crowded.

Also note that your ticket is good for two days, which means the day you buy it AND the following day. The buildings and grounds are extensive. And don’t miss Golden Lane!


If you want to experience Prague with the best guide, as I did, you can find Guenther Krumpak at the Arcos Guest House website. Consider staying with Guenther and Jan, enjoying one of the best breakfasts of your life, every morning. And you get access to all that personalized information in the mix!

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Four brass-topped solpersteine are engraved with the names, birthdates and date and place of death of four members of the Wertheimer family in Heidelberg.

Stolpersteine: Stumbling Across Reminders of the Holocaust

Stolpersteine are small, only noticed if you happen to be looking down. But these “stumbling stones” hold large pieces of the individual and collective memories of those the world lost to the Nazi Holocaust.

Photo of The Week: Stolpersteine

There are many monuments great and small to the millions of Europeans lost to the Nazi Holocaust. There is Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., the gray abstract pillars of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and dozens more.

In Heidelberg, I “stumbled across” another memorial to the murdered millions. It is both very small and enormous. It is 10 cm (4”) square and it ranges over thousands of kilometers in diverse towns and cities in some 23 European countries.

Four brass-topped stolpersteine are engraved with the names, birthdates and date and place of death of four members of the Wertheimer family in Heidelberg.

Four small brass-topped solpersteine commemorate the last freely chosen residence of four members of the Wertheimer family near the Old Town Square in Heidelberg, Germany. Three of them died. One escaped.

This monument is called, collectively, solpersteine in German. That translates as stumbling stones because you can easily “stumble across” a part of this monument unaware. Thousands of the cobblestone-sized blocks have been laid. They memorialize the Jews, Roma, homosexuals, communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Resistance fighters, black people, the mentally ill and physically disabled and others who were all victims of the Nazi’s rabid “purification” campaign during World War II.

The stones I found near the Old Town main square in Heidelberg mark the last family residence of the Wertheimer family. Julius was apparently the head of the family, father to two sons. He was 56 when he was first taken into “protection” at Dachau. Two years later he was deported from there and killed. Klara, his wife, was 59 when she was deported and died shortly afterward. Fritz was just 16 when he was taken away. The last two lines on his stone read 1940 Auschwitz. Murdered. His older brother, Karl, was the “lucky” survivor. In 1937, at age 22, he fled to Colombia.

How the Stolpersteine Came to Be

The concept of the stolpersteine began in Berlin in 1992 when German artist Gunther Demnig had an idea. December 16the of that year was the 50th anniversary of Heinrich Himmler’s 1942 order to deport the Sinti and Roma “gypsies” in Germany to concentration camps. Demnig thought the date should be commemorated. He engraved the first sentence of that infamous decree onto a stone and laid it in front of the town hall in Cologne. From there, the idea blossomed into what he calls a “decentralized monument.” It would become the largest in the world.

He began making small concrete blocks topped with inscribed brass plaques. One person, one block. He then set them into the pavement in front of the last place where those people had freely chosen to live before falling victim to the Nazi terror. Whether it was deportation to an extermination camp, death by exhaustion, hunger or disease in a labor camp, euthanasia, suicide, or a more fortunate escape abroad that caused them to leave their homes, the stumbling stones now mark where they were a part of daily life before the horror.

Personalizing the Holocaust, Bringing the Victims Home

Six million dead—or eight million or twelve million—is a number impossible to comprehend. But a group of small brass squares in the sidewalk, each marked with “Here lived…” followed by a name, a date of birth, the time of leaving, a date and place of death… that is something personal, comprehensible. That is something that allows you to feel the true tragedy of one plus one plus one, and on and on to seeming infinity.

The stolpersteine represent a kind of “coming home” for these disappeared people. Set flush with the other paving stones, they become an intrinsic part of the neighborhood, just as those they commemorate once were. They remind us that these people walked here. They rode their bikes here, walked their dogs, took out the trash and brought in the shopping. They laughed and cried, courted, gossiped with neighbors, perhaps danced in the street on festive occasions, all right here, over this pavement, where the stones still remember them.

By 2017, stolpersteine have been placed in more than 1400 cities, neighborhoods and towns in 23 European countries.

Who Places the Stones?

The stones are ordered by relatives of the victims, by concerned individuals, often by residents of the buildings where these people once lived. Students, historical researchers and others all help come up with the names and other information and the correct locations for the stones.

The entire solpersteine program is a private initiative, although Demnig does require that all local state and city permissions are received before he begins to create new stones. To have a solperstein created and placed costs 120€, and there is a waiting list of many months. That’s because each stumble stone is created and laid by hand. Michael Friedrichs-Friedlander makes the stones and embosses the brass plate. He can make about 450 per month. Demnig then travels across Europe and lays them.

Since pedestrians generally step around them, the brass plates tend to oxidize instead of being regularly “polished” by shoe soles, as Demnig intended. They can turn brown or even black and unreadable, so residents often keep them cleaned and polished.

One observation the artist has made is this:

“One of the most beautiful pictures, I find, is this aspect that, when you want to read, you have to bow, before the victim.”

For more information about the stolperstein project and Gunther Demnig, visit the Stolpersteine website here.

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You know you want to remember this for your next trip.

Paris street sign-Rue de l'Arbe Sec

Losing Myself at La Galcante, My Favorite Paris Shop

It’s a secret, a wonderful secret. It’s La Galcante, a Parisian shop probably like none you’ve ever been in before. It’s books and magazines, dust motes floating in pastel lemony light, soft jazz from the radio and the musty-lovely perfume of old paper. It’s magic. Come inside with me.

When I’m traveling, nothing is more wonderful to me than stumbling across a little-known treasure that most tourists never find. It’s those secret places, addresses passed from friend to friend, with instructions to “turn right and look for the blue door,” that put you behind the scenes in a new city and make you feel like a local.

So when a friend told me about La Galcante, a shop that specializes in what they call “Old Press,” I was intrigued. The name itself is a play on words. It’s a combination of galerie (gallery) and brocante (a kind of flea market or second-hand business). As a flea market and vintage junkie (more about that here), I was eager to see it for myself.

Follow Directions to Find La Galcante

The corridor entry to the courtyard where La Galcante is located.

The entyway to La Galcante is a perfect Paris scene. Let yourself get drawn in.

It’s not the kind of place you stumble across. You have to know where to look. You must be told that it is in the 1st Arrondisement, just a few streets from the Louvre. You are told to walk down Rue de l’Arbe Sec to #52 and look for the blue door with the heavy brass knocker. Through that door, you’ll step into a shadowy corridor, maybe with a bike or two leaning against the old walls. At the end of the cobble-stoned corridor, there it is, tucked into a corner of one of those fabulous little Parisian courtyards that make you think you’re in an Audrey Hepburn film.

Step through the arched glass doors and you discover yourself surrounded by seven million bits of paper—stacks of paper, shelves and tables and boxes and crates of paper, towers of paper. It’s a bit overwhelming. But let yourself sink in and be surrounded. The treasure hunt is about to begin.

The shop’s “Old Press” specialty includes newspapers and broadsides from the time of the French Revolution to the present. Most of the collection dates from the 1850s forward, with the most popular requests being for items from the 1920s to 1970s. But they also stretch their mission to include most things paper. Beyond the newspapers and collections of old New Yorker magazines and the entire run of Paris Vogue, you’ll find calendars, vintage advertising, catalogs, broadsides, prints, etchings, cigarette cards, vintage maps.

Walls are lined with shelves stacked with boxes of flt files, and ladders to reach them all.

Wall-to-wall, floor to ceiling shelves and drawers are filled with everything paper-related at la Galcante.

When you first enter the shop, you’re met by walls lined floor-to-ceiling with shallow drawers and shelves stacked with white boxes full of flat files. These are all carefully labeled: Piaf, Hemingway, Hitchcock, Bowie. Those are stuffed with assorted and sorted ephemera about whomever you are currently obsessed with, including articles, photographs, drawings and magazine stories. Others are labeled with subjects like Suisse Chocolat, Chansons, Mode Masculines. Still others merely have numbers, with catalogued newspapers someone will direct you to if you ask.

Wend your way through the narrow aisles towards the back, where you’ll find a perfect Paris atrium ceiling, pouring light down onto that lovely, dusty old paper.

I was greeted by Pierre, tall, slender, and very French in a long-sleeved black sweater, with an offer to help me look for anything special. Casual and friendly, he speaks excellent English and can find most anything in the shop. But since I had no specific requests at that moment, he left me to browse.

Stacks of bagged magazines, books and some old film canisters on a table at la Galcante.

Vintage children’s books, comic books, posters, even cans of fill the shelves and boxes at La Galcante.old film

I spent a couple of solitary hours simply foraging—pawing through stacks of old photos and bags of advertising stickers. I scanned magazines, thumbed newspapers and studied the shelves at random. I could easily have stayed there the whole day, doing just that, forgetting that the beauties of the Louvre and the sunshine of the Tuileries were just a few minutes’ walk away.

After a while, Juliette arrived. She’s lean and leggy, with a bouncy energy. Juliette has been working at La Galcante a long time and she seems to love a good hunt. Ask her for a copy of Pilote magazine from 1963, with the serialized story of “Asterix and the Banquet.” Her eyes will take on a moment of intense inner concentration and then off she will go to find it for you. She knows every inch of the place, back to front, and apparently every piece of paper in the shop. If it is there, she will find it.

La Galcante first opened in 1975, the brainchild of Christian Bailly, a former journalist and a passionate collector of old newspapers. In the 1970s, he inherited hundreds of thousands of the things. He found that newspapers with stories of significant events are easy to sell, but the others? Not so much.

So he invented the concept of the “birthday newspaper.” People can ask for copies of newspapers printed on the day they were born, or an anniversary or other fond memory—not a copy but the actual, original paper. The idea is now a significant part of the shop’s business.

crates with vintage magazines

Magazines are a staple here, all kinds and all eras.

Shelves show off some of the 7 million items in stock at Las Galcante.

There are over 7 million items in the collection. that’s Million!

With limited luggage space and a tight-ish budget, I planned only to browse that day. Easier said than done. While it’s true that it’s free to enter the shop and browse as long as ever you like, unpressured and unmolested, temptation lurks on every shelf and table, in every box and drawer.

When I finally left, my wallet was 100€ lighter and my one carryon bag just a bit heavier.

Watch this video to get something of the experience of wandering the aisles at La Galcante.

La Galcante | Weld Art Collective from weld art collective on Vimeo.


 
La Galcante
#52 Rue de l’Arbe Sec,
Paris, 75001
Open Monday through Saturday, 10 am-7:30 pm

Dutch citizens celebrate as British soldiers with the 1st Canadian Army liberate the Netherlands in May, 1945.

Remembrance Day in the Netherlands: The Power of Silence

In Holland, Liberation Day is for celebration. But Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, “Dodenherdenking,” is for the silence of deep and painful memories, the solemnity of “We Will Never Forget.”

Liberation Day is celebrated in the Netherlands on May 5th. It marks the day in 1945 when the Germans surrendered in Holland and the occupation of the Netherlands officially ended, and with it the long nightmare of World War II for the Dutch people.

Liberation Day, Bevrijdingsdag, is marked by celebration. It’s a national holiday, a happy day, a day for fun and picnics and laughter and parties. Everyone gets the day off from work. There are music festivals throughout the country. The day’s festivities end with a major concert on the Amstel River in Amsterdam. The people celebrate their freedom, democracy and joy.

Dutch citizens celebrate as British soldiers with the 1st Canadian Army liberate the Netherlands in May, 1945.

British soldiers from the 49th (West Riding) Division—the Polar Bears—attached to 1st Canadian Army,
liberate Utrecht, the Netherlands in May, 1945.

Remembrance Day in the Netherlands Comes First

But for the Dutch, the rule has always been, “First commemorate, then celebrate.” And so the day before all the fun and festivals, May 4th, is the day to remember all those who died or were murdered in World War II and in every armed conflict since. Remembrance Day ceremonies are still taken very seriously and are held throughout the country, with the major one taking place at Amsterdam’s Dam Square, where wreaths are laid by the King and Queen.

Remembering My Remembering

My own memories of Remembrance Day in the Netherlands are smaller, more personal than the pomp and royalty on the city’s main square. But perhaps the more powerful for all that.

It was 1971 and I had been living in Amsterdam for only a few weeks, but I was already in love with the country and the people. I was not on Dam Square that day. I didn’t see Queen Juliana lay a wreath or hear the bugles play. I didn’t watch any of the pageantry or hear the solemn speeches—which I would not have understood anyway as my Dutch was non-existent at the time. I was not part of any crowd. But what I saw was much more meaningful to me.

It was a beautiful spring day in Amsterdam, I recall, with flowers spilling from every window box and a few flat-bottomed white clouds dotting an unusually blue sky. The windows were open in many of the flats, their so-Dutch white lace curtains ruffling slightly in a spring breeze.

I was walking along the Rozengracht near where it crosses the Prinsengracht. I was on my way to meet a friend for dinner at a favorite café and hoping we’d be able to find a table outside to enjoy the beautiful weather. The Dutch are such inveterate sun-worshippers, they were out in force, filling every available seat of every terrace café I passed.

People at a terrace cafe in the sun in Amsterdam

Today, as in 1971, Amsterdammers love sitting outdoors at a terrace cafe canalside on a sunny day in May.


A tour boat slid quietly up the Rozengracht canal, leaving a small wake where the sunlight glistened off the water. Moms pushed strollers and prams along the cobblestones. A young couple bicycled past on their traditional old-fashioned Dutch bikes, each with one hand on the handlebars and the other clasped between them, in perfect balance. The café patrons laughed and chatted over their drinks—a koffee, a pilsje, a jenever.

And the World Stopped

The sky was still light at 8 pm, the sun sailing low in the sky when, almost as if the earth took a deep breath and held it…everything and everyone in the Netherlands simply stopped.
Cars pulled to the side of the road and stopped. A tram moving down the middle of the street slowed and rolled to a complete stop mid-block. Pedestrians stopped walking and stood like relaxed statues. People in the sidewalk cafés put down their cups, their forks, their glasses of pils.

A waiter stepped from inside to the doorway, looked out and stopped. A streetsweep stopped and leaned on his broom, looking down at the now-clean cobblestones beneath his feet. The pair of bicyclists back-pedaled to brake to a halt, still holding hands. On the humped bridge over the canal at the corner, a couple leaned on the railing of the bridge, completely still.

My shadow across the pavement stopped too, as I took in the whole, still, surreal scene and its meaning.

Conversations stopped. Laughter stopped. The sounds of tires on cobbles and wheels on steel tracks stopped. The clatter of cups and glasses and forks stopped. Everything except the breeze, the soft ripple of water in the canal and the cooing of pigeons just stopped.

For two minutes, no one spoke, no one laughed, no one moved. Instead, they stopped and they remembered. They remembered what their country had suffered.

In the silence, they remembered the ones who died—the Jews sent to be exterminated, the Dutch fathers and brothers and sons sent to become slave labor in the German munitions factories who never came home, the Dutch Resistance fighters who saved so many lives but could not save their own. They remembered the Dutch citizens who died in Japanese concentration camps in Indonesia. They remembered the Dutch children and the old people who died from hunger in the last brutal “Hunger Winter” of the war.

And they remembered every Dutch citizen who has died in armed conflict since World War II because the world has not yet learned to live in peace.

For those two minutes of silence, I stood there, feeling the low-angled sun on my face as I listened to the quiet lapping of the water. I realized I was only a two-minute walk from the very building where Anne Frank and her family had hidden from the Gestapo for years until finally they were found only months before the war ended and sent to the concentration camps, where most of them would die. I realized what these people, this country—like so many others in Europe—had been through and how fortunate we in the US had been to escape so much of that suffering.

The tower of the Westerkerk in Amsterdam, where the bells toll for Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, along with all the other church bells in the city.

The bells in the tower of the Westerkerk in Amsterdam began to toll, like all the bells in all the churches in all the cities in the Netherlands for Remembrance Day.

When the two minutes of silence were over, the church bells began to ring. The sound seemed to come from every direction. I was less than a block from the Westerkerk, and those bells seemed to sound almost inside my head. All the bells from every church in Amsterdam tolled out the memory of their loss and the end of their suffering. It filled the air and it filled me, that sound of relief that it was finally over.

Slowly, the world around me woke up again. The tram began rolling down its steel tracks once more. The tour boat resumed its easy float along the canal, pointing out to people from all over the world the magic of this beautiful city. Cars moved, bicycles rolled again, people started walking. Conversations and coffee resumed in the cafés.

The ceremony of Remembrance Day in the Netherlands was over for another year. Normal life resumed and I continued on my way, off to meet my friend, hungry for my late dinner.

But I was not quite the same person. I never would be again.


If you are planning to visit Holland and your timing is flexible, consider planning your trip to coincide with Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, May 4th. The silence, the remembrance, the respect the people still show for those who died–and are still dying today from the idiocy of war–will leave you moved, and touched. Then stick around for the parties, the fun and the pure joy of Liberation Day.

Pin it For Later: Pin for Later: Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, a time of silence, remembrance and resolve

I bite into my first ever Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon, Portugal.

Hooked on Lisbon’s Delicacy: Original Pastéis de Belém

When in Lisbon, Portugal, eating Pastéis de Belém, the iconic Portuguese egg tart, is an absolute requirement, whether you’re a foodie or not. Here’s why you must try it and how to enjoy it at its best.

I admit it. Last year in Lisbon I became a junkie. Obsessed. Hopelessly addicted.

My drug of choice? The Portuguese egg tarts that fall under the general term Pastel de Nata. And for the best fix of all? The original, the only, the best… the supreme Pastéis de Belém.

Portugal is famous for Pastel de Nata, and you’ll see them all over Lisbon. Most are good, a few are great. Some are just… meh. But once you learn to spot the good ones—and it’s not hard to do—it’s near impossible to pass them up. Or at least it was for me.

A plate full of Pastéis de Belém egg custard tarts of Lisbon.

The beautiful, delicious and iconic original Pastéis de Belém egg custard tarts of Lisbon. Photo by Jordiet on flickr, CC license.


A Religious Source-Tarted Up Like Sally Fields

So how did these pastry treats come to be an almost universal symbol of culinary Lisbon?

Back in the day, say in the 17th century or so, many priestly garments, nun’s habits, headdresses and such were heavily starched. (For our generation, think Sally Fields lifting off as The Flying Nun and you get the idea.) Can’t you just imagine the intimidating “swish” of the stiffened underskirts as they glided past? Anyway, to get that desired stiff and glossy finish, they used beaten egg whites.

But this practice of basically painting their clothes with meringue made for a whole lot of leftover egg yolks lying around monastery and convent kitchens and laundry rooms. What to do? Wasting them would surely be a sin, would it not? Such thrifty folk couldn’t simply toss such golden goodness down the drain.

So the nuns in the kitchens began inventing a lot of special dishes to use up all those otherwise-to-be-wasted egg yolks. (Apparently gluttony must have been seen as a sin of a lesser order than waste.) As it happens, there was also a sugar cane refinery next door to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a monastery in the Belém area southwest of Lisbon, so sweet desserts, cakes and pastries became the use-up-the-egg-yolks recipes of choice. Convenient how that worked out, no? Clearly, the religious folks there dined well and often.

Skylinde detail of the wedding-cake Manueline style architecture of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos monastery.

Detail of the elaborate Manueline architecture of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos monastery in the Belém section of Lisbon, where the famous Pastéis de Belém egg tart was created and just 100 meters from the bakery where it has been sold since 1837.


Pastéis de Belém as Financial Savior

The sweet egg tarts might have remained safely hidden away within the walls of the convent and monastery of Jerónimos forever, fattening only the prayerful and lucky few. But in 1820, there was a liberal revolution in Portugal, and things did not go well for religious institutions. By 1834, monasteries and convents had been closed down and the inhabitants lost all public and government support. The days of dining on sweet pastries were over. They were left to fend for themselves and hunger was looming.

In order to survive, the nuns from the Jerónimos monastery had the idea to begin selling their delicious egg tarts. The sugar refinery had a small store attached, and this became the first outlet for the Pastéis de Belém (Pastéis is plural for pastel, which means cake or pastry in Portuguese.) Eventually, the nuns sold the recipe to the refinery bakery.

At around that same time, the grandeur of the Manueline architectural style of the monastery itself (which is beyond amazing in its size, wedding-cake ornamentation, and beauty) and the nearby Tower of Belém, became popular tourist attractions with the good folk of Lisbon. They could take a steamboat from the city for a day excursion and sail right up to the monastery’s own docks. The fame of the delicious sweet treats sold at the sugar refinery store, now officially known as Pasteís de Belém, began to spread. By 1837, their popularity had outgrown the small store, and the baking moved to larger premises about 100 meters away. The visitors quickly made their pilgrimages to the new location.

They are still doing it today. Now they come in hordes, both locals and tourists. But these tarts are so good almost nobody minds standing in line for them.

Bue and white sign of the Pastéis de Belém bakery with the date, "since 1837"

In 1837, the business had outgrown the tiny refinery store next to the monastery. They moved 100 meters down the street
to a larger location, where they are still do business today.


A Secret Signed in Blood?

Even 180 years ago, when the recipe was first passed on to the sugar company, the secret of making the perfect Pastéis de Belém was entrusted only to a few “master confectioners.” That still holds true today. And those few who do know it are sworn to secrecy. One guide told me, in hushed tones, that it is a blood oath. Another said it was a signed and sealed sacred legal contract. Then he added that the few people who know it are never allowed to all travel together. Imagine if they were all lost! He rolled his eyes and shuddered quite dramatically while telling the story. Apocryphal or not, it’s a good one, you must admit.

There was a line outside when I got to the Café Pastéis de Belém, just as I had been told to expect. I had also been told it would move pretty quickly. But I was hungry, my feet hurt from wandering the vast halls and lovely cloisters of the Monastery, and I felt like sitting down. So instead of getting in the take-out line, I went in the door to its left, which had no line at all, and into the café itself.

The place is much larger inside than it looks from the street, with many tables winding through several small rooms. Except for the very busiest times of day, it’s generally possible to find a seat without much of a wait. If it looks full, just keep wandering through the corridors towards the back, through room after room, until you find a free table.

You will also find clean bathrooms inside as well as a glass window where you can watch the magic happening in the kitchens as the bakers produce dozens upon dozens of tarts as well as other bakery treats.

I found a seat at a table in a front room, beside a wall covered in traditional blue-and-white Portuguese tiles. In only a few minutes, I’d ordered a pastel and a galea—a tall glass of milky coffee. There are also beer, soft drinks and other options on the menu, but for me, a coffee drink is the perfect accompaniment.

As I bit into this warm piece of heaven, the look on my face must have been like something out of a movie—a sort of Meg Ryan look in “When Harry Met Sally” prompting the woman at a neighboring table to say “I’ll have what she’s having!” The young German couple at the next table started to chuckle. Then with sign language, they offered to take a photo of me enjoying my treat. How could I refuse?

I bite into my first ever Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon, Portugal.

As I bite into my very first original Portuguese Pastéis de Belém, I am tasting a bit of heaven. I will never be the same!

First, you realize your tart is so fresh it is still warm, just out of the oven. The first thing your mouth encounters is the crust. It’s super flaky, like a thousand layers of phyllo-type dough have been gently laid atop each other, with crispy bits offering gentle resistance. Then you reach the warm custard, soft, almost-but-not-quite runny enough that you think it really has melted in your mouth. The top is lightly blackened is spots, like the best crème brulée. Shakers of powdered sugar and cinnamon are offered on the table. Add them if you like—or you must—but necessary they are not.

Ordering a single tart was a mistake obvious from that first bite. It was never going to be enough. I ordered another as soon as the waiter passed by. When I asked him how many of these delightful treats are swallowed here or toted out the door every day, he happily answered. “We bake 20-22,000 on a normal day.” While I was still blinking at that enormous number, he added, “but on special days, holidays and such, it can be 40,000.”

Yeah, you might say that Pastéis de Belém are just a mite popular.

If your goal on heading to the Café Pastéis de Belém is to have some of the tarts to take home for later, my advice is still to go inside and find a seat, order a pastel and a coffee, enjoy it at your table, order more to go, which your waiter will happily bring all wrapped up in a lovely box, and then go on your way. You’ll have your pastéis to take home, you will have had a nice break and a treat, and you will probably still have saved time!

If you can’t wait until you get back to your hotel to tuck into that pretty blue-and-white box for more, the tranquil Jardim de Belém park, directly across the street from the café, makes a refreshing spot to sit and down another one—or more.

Pretty take-out boxes await customers buying Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon, Portugal.

Pretty take-out boxes lined up and ready as the crowd throngs the counter at Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon, Portugal.
There’s always a line, but it moves quickly. Photo by Andres Monroy Hernandez on flickr CC license.


Good Pastel de Nata Beyond Belém

While the original Pateís de Belém recipe is so secret is has never been precisely duplicated—and likely never will be—you will find similar egg tarts everywhere you go in Lisbon. These copycats are called Pastel de Nata and their quality ranges from excellent to good to meh to awful… basically a dollop of thickened custard pudding in a pre-baked mini pie crust, and the whole thing’s been in the display case too long. Most of the Pastel de Nata I had was quite good, and I would have been happy to have it every day, had I never eaten the real deal in Belém.

The best Pastel de Nata I ate in Lisbon, almost, but not quite, as good as the original, was at a small café just outside the entry gates to the Castelo San Jorge at the top of the city. Its name, appropriately and accurately, is The World Needs Nata. The tart was served warm, and I had it with a glass of galea. The custard was rich and smooth, the pastry light and crispy. When I came out from exploring the castle a couple of hours later, I sat down and ordered another!

My personal bottom line for Lisbon: Do not—repeat, DO NOT—fail to make the trip out to Belém while you are in this beautiful city. There is much to see and do there, including the Monastery, the amazing collection in the Coach museum, the Monument of the Discoveries, the Belém Tower and the Presidential Palace, among others.

But for me all that is icing on the tart. The TRUE reason to go to Belém is the egg custard bites, the true, the original, the one-and-only Pastéis de Belém, eaten right where they were created some 200 years ago.

Powdered sugar and cinnamon shakers and a box of napkins sit on the table to add to your egg custard tarts.

Shakers of cinnamon and powdered sugar sit on every table for adding to your egg custard tarts–a nice addition, perhaps, but not really necessary. They are perfect just as they are! Photo by Inayaili de León Persson on flickr. CC license.

As for me, I am jonesing for more Pastéis de Belém as I write this. And since I quite fell in love with Lisbon on my last trip and have plans to go back as soon as possible, I have no intention whatever of looking for a recovery program for my addiction. On my next arrival in this gorgeous city on the Tagus River, I’ll hit the ground running—toward the first tram that will get me out to Belém, a tall glass of galea, and a plate full of warm, crispy-crusted, runny-fillinged goodness. With my plate of Pastéis de Belém before me and a look of total joy and satisfaction on my face, I will be fine once more. Just look for me there.

 

For more information about the original Pastéis de Belém and more pictures of the bakery and restaurant, visit their website here.


Café Pastéis de Belém
Rua de Belém, 84-92
Belém, Lisbon, Portugal
Open 8 am -11 pm in winter, 8 am–midnight in summer

The World Needs Nata Café
Rua de Santa Cruz do Castelo 7,
Lisbon, Portugal
Open daily, 9:00 am-9:00 pm


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Pedestrian walkway in the center of Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Strolling Avenida Amsterdam in Condesa, Mexico City

Let’s go for a walk. In La Condesa, the hip and trendy neighborhood in Mexico City, let’s take a slow afternoon stroll along a paved path beneath trees in full leaf, surrounded by beautiful architecture, chic cafes and unexpected corners. Let’s discover another side to this crowded, cacophonous, sometimes overwhelming megalopolis. Let’s wander along the green and leafy peacefulness of the oval called Avenida Amsterdam.

 

La Condesa—A Place to Breathe Peace in a Crowded City

If you’ve never been to Mexico City, one of the largest and most congested urban megalopolises in the world, you probably have an image of what to expect—smog, noise, crowds, crazy traffic, noise, street vendors on every corner, noise, food stalls, beggars—roiling untidy noisy life in all its messy humanness. And in much of this great city, that image would not be far off the mark. With an estimated 25 million people in the greater metropolitan area—no one really knows for sure—the cacophony and assault on the senses is undeniable.

But Mexico City is far more than just that. It is also a city of world-class museums, amazing churches and other historical monuments, great centers of music and art, universities, parks, architecture to turn your head, friendly people, stellar food. And many pockets of green and peace and simple urban joy.

Pedestrian walkway in the center of Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

The pedestrian walkway, called a camellón, on the leafy green Avenida Amsterdam
in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.

One of my favorites of these peaceful, leafy spaces is in the heart of the chic, young artsy neighborhood of Condesa, sometimes called the SoHo of Mexico City. Let’s take a walk together and discover why I fell in love with Avenida Amsterdam on my recent trip to this not-to-be-missed city.

Colonia Hipódromo, the Original Heart of La Condesa

In the core of Barrio La Condesa in the very early 20th century, there used to be a popular horse racing track, called the Hipódromo. Its shape, the classic oval, still defines the area where horses once pounded the turf. When the racetrack moved out, green and people moved in. The center of the oval became the popular Parque Mexico, surrounded by Avenida Mexico. And around that, presumably where ladies in hats and men with cigars and fists full of pesos for betting used to sit and watch the racing thoroughbreds, runs Avenida Amsterdam.

It’s here we will travel today, at a much more leisurely pace than the horses did. We will stroll, stop for photos and gazing and breathing in the peace and perhaps a coffee or a chocolate treat. Since the street still runs in an oval, just as it did in its racetrack days, it’s pretty much impossible to get lost. So we can just start walking it anywhere and keep going. We’ll eventually end up back where we started.

Condesa has been a trendy part of the city since the early 20th century, when wealthy people began moving out of the Centro looking for more space and more green. Many of the buildings that line Avenida Amsterdam were built after the 1920s. The area is rich in Art Deco and Streamline Moderne style with some newer higher-rise apartment buildings. That makes it a great street for one of my favorite city activities—façade gazing.

House painted in black-and-white geometric pattern on Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

This house with its geometric paint job really stands out.

A colorful house on Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa-Mexico City

A more traditionally Mexican-looking home but with some early 20th-century influences visible.

An Art Deco style building in Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Art Deco Style runs rampant throughout Barrio La Condesa in Mexico City

A "streamline moderne" style building in La Condesa, Mexico City

“Streamline Moderne” is another style you see frequently in this part of La Condesa in Mexico City

To say the Avenida Amsterdam is quiet is perhaps an overstatement. Mexicans, at least in the city, don’t really do quiet. I sometimes think they are actually uncomfortable when things get a little too quiet. But by Mexican standards, it’s peaceful and inviting. It’s a broad two-way street with a wide central pedestrian meridian called a camellón. This paved path is lined with plant beds and trees, benches, the odd sculpture here and there. It’s popular with doe-eyed young couples, new mothers with strollers, dogs walking their owners. The benches attract sitters, people watchers, readers and cell phone gazers. Work-out stations invite fitness mavens to come under the trees. And there are always runners.

Two young mothers with baby strollers on the Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

The “camellón” in the center of Avenida Amsterdam serves many purposes, including strolling with the baby.

Youn men working out on the Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

The young man on the left had just run past me a moment before, then returned on his hands, with a friend spotting him from behind. The young man on the right was taking advantage of a convenient work-out station.

Even on a hot day, it’s cool and pleasant in the shade of the elms and alders, oaks, palms and rubber trees. And jacarandas. I was there in early autumn, but I must go back in spring when all those jacaranda trees will create purple clouds of blossoms drifting above the camellón. Yes, I must do that; I must see that.

Original concrete benches, street signs and lampposts from the 1920s

The original concrete street signs, benches and lampposts on Avenida Amsterdam in Mexico City’s La Condesa neighborhood date to the 1920s.

The neighborhood is mostly still residential, but we do pass several chic shops, small businesses like the tailor and the dry cleaner, the electrical repair shop and the flower stall. And the cafes, bars, and restaurants. Because Avenida Amsterdam—indeed, much of Condesa—is café society central. We definitely won’t go hungry or thirsty on the oval Avenida.

We might stop for a coffee at Milo’s, a chic, deco-style spot suggested by the host of my AirBnb home. A friend and I went there for a snack one afternoon and it was exactly what we needed, perfect in every way. We shared a plate of Vietnamese rolls and each had a glass of delicious white wine seated at one of the sidewalk tables.

Milo's restaurant/bar on Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Milo’s is a chic cafe/bar on Avenida Amsterdam in Mexico City

Vietnamese Rolls at Milo's, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Delicious Vietnamese Rolls at Milo’s on Avenida Amsterdam

Let’s stroll along a bit more, looking at the odd and delightful combination of Mexican architecture, a smattering of overdone French-accented pseudo-Gothic, and a lot of Art Deco through ‘50s Moderne buildings with some fading-glory-Mexican thrown into the mix for seasoning. This façade gazing is both art and diversion on Avenida Amsterdam and, indeed, throughout La Condesa. With unexpected nooks and crannies, with surprises tucked into unlikely places and with the Mexican love of saturated color, you’ll want to have your camera along. For those of us old enough to remember the phrase, Avenida Amsterdam definitely present a whole bunch of “Kodak moments.”

Pair of doors in an archway, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Is it just me, or do these doors on Avenida Amsterdam look just a bit “hobbit-y”??

A colorful blue house, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Mexicans love highly saturated color… seen everywhere in La Condesa, Mexico City

Steel constructed building with geodesic dome on the roof, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

This one took me by surprise… a modern steel construction building with a geodesic dome on the roof!

Restaurant Matisse, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

The Restaurant Matisse is a well-known gourmet experience on Avenida Amsterdam.

By now it’s quite likely we are hungry again! Good thing there are eateries of every type everywhere we look. With no previous research, and having had my fill of Mexican food, I’m voting for that Italian place I see on the corner of Michoacán and Amsterdam—Nonna Cucina Bar. Let’s take this nice outside table.

I’ve decided on the Pollo in Crosta di Limone, a smoked chicken breast with parsley sauce, topped with thinly sliced lemons and then grilled. It is served with a salad of spiral cut carrots, beets and zucchini with grilled peaches and is as pretty as it is tasty. It comes with a plate of lovely warm puffed-up pita bread and olive oil with balsamic for dipping.

While we are eating, an accordion player comes buy and stops to play a few songs before passing the hat among the customers. I don’t mind giving him a few pesos. I love living in a country that still has a robust job market for accordion players!

Polla in Crosta di Limone with salad at Nonna Cucina Bar, Avenida Amsterdam, Condesa, Mexico City

Pollo in Crosta di Limone with a salad of beets, carrots, zucchini and grilled peaches at Nonna Cucina Bar,
Avenida Amsterdam 240-1, La Condesa, Mexico City

Time to stroll some more and work off that meal. But soon we will want dessert. And the only possible place for that on Avenida Amsterdam, I am told, is Tout Chocolat at Amsterdam 154. It is chocolate heaven, I am told. Just go, I am told. Nothing else comes close, I am told. I always do as I am told… at least when it comes to chocolate.

So off we go to the pretty and classy shop on the corner owned by Luis Robledos Richards. He trained at the prestigious French Culinary Institute’s “Classic Pastry Arts” program and the Ecóle Lenotre in Paris, and then worked as head pastry chef at both Paris’ Le Cirque and the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. He’s been named one of the Top Ten Chocolatiers in North America and has won the World Chocolate Masters competition TWICE. Yeah, the guy has the creds. And now Mexico City gets the benefit. And so do we!

Tout Chocolat patisserie and chocolate shop, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Tout Chocolat, in La Condesa, where you can get some of the best and most innovative chocolate in Mexico City

Open the door. Close your eyes. Inhale. Ahhh… that smell. Pure chocolate decadence. What could be better? And remember, Mexico is where chocolate was first invented!

The beauty of the offerings is staggering and so are the choices. Chocolate bars, cakes, brownies. Truffles and hot chocolate and bonbons. Just a few of our flavor choices include: marshmallow or maracuya, spicy chia, white peach and apricot, hazelnut balls, lime caramel, mezcal truffles with sea salt (quite amazing and impossible to describe but YES!). Then there are pear chocolates, ginger chocolates, white chocolate, salted caramel chocolates…. Sorry, I am running out of room and drooling onto the keyboard here. But be sure I am buying some to take back with me!

Our stroll is nearly done as we return to the spot on the oval of Avenida Amsterdam where we began. The din of traffic notches back up a few decibels. Perhaps tomorrow we’ll explore more of this hip Condesa neighborhood. Or maybe pop over to Roma or Polanco. Or head into the Centro and check out the enormous central square called the Zócalo. Or marvel at the pre-Columbian treasures in the Anthropological Museum.

A flower stall on Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Flowers to take back to a hotel room or an AirBnB temporary home.

Perhaps for now, we’ll just stop at that stand on the corner and pick up a bunch of bright flowers to take back to our room, a little something to bring a bit of the peace and color of Avenida Amsterdam with us. How nice to remember the pleasure of a slow stroll beneath the trees—the peace and the people, the food and the color, to take in this part of Mexico City that so many tourists never see.

And besides… chocolate!

 

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On my visit to Mexico City, I stayed in an accommodation I booked through AirBnB. Have you tried it yet? I love AirBnB and have used it in France, Spain, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Mexico and the US… so far! In expensive cities, like Amsterdam and Paris, I find I often save money over the cost of a hotel, and I love the convenience of having kitchen facilities. I even host guests in my own home in Mexico through AirBnB.

If you haven’t yet tried the service, consider signing up today. If you use this AirBnB link to register, you’ll get a $20 credit you can use towards your first booking. In some inexpensive locations, that’s like getting your first night free! And I will also get a credit towards my next booking, so I’ll be a happy Nomad Woman too! Don’t you love win-win?

Remembering Joy in San Miguel de Allende:
The Concheros Dancers

How the Concheros—the pre-Hispanic-style Dancers of Mexico–and all the movement, color, and joyous sounds they bring with them, rekindled remembered joy in a depressed heart.

When you live where every day is a holiday of some kind—an excuse for a fiesta always at hand—it’s easy to forget one. That day I had forgotten. But Mexico has a way of reminding us.

Conchero Dancers stomp, leap and spin their devotion in San Miguel de Allende

Conchero Dancers stomp, leap and spin their devotion in San Miguel de Allende

I’d had a bad night, full of dark images and lonely threats and deceptive might-have-beens. Still living the aftershocks of a destroyed 25-year marriage, financial worries, aging, and the accumulated weight of depression, I had no smiles left.

Walking blindly across the cobblestones, I trudged up one of the many hills that make up San Miguel de Allende, moving toward the Jardín, that central plaza that is the very heart of the town and functions as everyone’s public living room. My mind wandered too, dreading some errand to be run, some friend to be called, some smiles to be summoned up on demand from a well that seemed drained dry. Sore of feet and blue of spirits, all I really wanted to do was go back home and crawl into bed. But there was little food in the house, the library book was overdue, and finances urgently required a stop at the bank.

Lost in my thoughts, I saw but did not register the young woman dressed in the standard conchero costume of neon lamé and huge red and green feathers on her head as she passed me going down the hill in the sun.

The wooden sticks pound the hide skins of the concheros drums

The pounding of the concheros drumming vibrated up through my sandals.

The first thing to get past my funk was the vibrations. The thrumming rhythm of drums had penetrated the paving stones, crept down the hill and wriggled straight up through the soles of my sandals. Had I been paying more attention, I would have heard them before I felt them; their pounding was strong, deep, relentless. A reminder.

After years of living in San Miguel de Allende, I’d forgotten to check the calendar. It was the first Friday in March, one of my favorite feast days in a city that has more than its share and one of the best times to visit San Miguel de Allende. The day honors Our Lord of the Conquest and celebrates the arrival of Catholicism in Mexico. It is a day when many Mexicans honor the twin traditions of their indigenous roots and their deeply held faith in their Christ and their God.

Here in San Miguel, a magical colonial pueblo perched on the high plain of central Mexico, it is also called the day of the Concheros, dancers named for the “conchas”—shell-like seed pods—wrapped around their ankles to rattle as they dance, spin and stomp, jump and leap, mimicking the Aztec dancers of Mexico’s glorious past. A robust mix of pagan and Catholic, this show of their devotion is a highlight of the year. Every year on this day, they fill the Jardín with their fervor, color, movement. And sound. Lots of sound.

The conchero dancers of San Miguel de Allende are a blur of movement engulfed in color and sound.

The conchero dancers of San Miguel de Allende are a blur of movement engulfed in color and sound.

I emerged from the narrow street into the wide space in front of La Parroquia church. Its pink cantera stone spires glowed and shimmered in the spring sunshine, that elusive light that draws so many artists to San Miguel. A wave of sound—no, make that noise—almost knocked me over as the pounding of the concheros’ drums rolled over me. I felt assaulted by sound, color, movement. Settling onto a wrought-iron bench beneath the trimmed laurel trees, I let the exuberance take me.

The Concheros Engulf My Senses

The concheros’ flashy pseudo-Aztec costumes, heavy with Pre-Hispanic symbols, neon-colored lamé and fringe, and their two-meter long pheasant plume headdresses, undulated across the plaza, riding the wave of the drumming beat.

Copal incense smoke rises from a burner beside a conch shell and candle--symbols of the conchero dancers' devotion

Copal incense smoke rises from a burner beside a conch shell and candle–symbols of the conchero dancers’ devotion

From the center of their circle, the pungent bite of copal incense pricked my nose, wafting up from a pottery burner set beside a mandolin made from an armadillo shell, a conch shell, fragrant herbs and a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A low mournful note sounded as a senior conchero lifted the giant conch shell to his lips.

All around the Jardín, the celebration pulsed. Three separate groups of concheros twirled, jumped and lunged on the three sides of the square. No group danced or drummed in time with the others. The un-synched roar attacked from all sides.

Three photos of conchero dancers in full regalia in San Miguel de Allende

Conchero dancers in full regalia in San Miguel de Allende

The dancers and drummers were not alone in their push to summon the gods of music and joy. In the pretty kiosk centering the square, the town band played. A brassy Souza march rolled across the cobblestones, the notes slightly off-key but the oompah strong and enthusiastic. The tuba player looked to be at least 70 years old. The young drummer might have been his great-grandson.

In Mexico, no reason for a fiesta goes to waste, so preparations were being made to continue the concheros’ party well into the night, but to a different beat. In front of the church, a wooden stage waited for more festivities. A rock band sound-checked equipment to make sure it was sufficiently deafening. Then a guitarist launched into a ragged rehearsal, a weird counterpoint to the traditionally beloved oompah blaring a few meters away in the kiosk.

From the southwest, clouds of black, boat-tailed grackles rolled into the square to settle into the branches of the laurel trees where they roosted for the night. It always took them a while to settle in as they discussed their day, squabbling over favorite perches perhaps or crowing over fattest-worm bragging rights. Their raucous cawing rained down like sharp pebbles onto the paving stones.

A pair of conchero dancers feeling it in San Miguel de Allende

A pair of conchero dancers feeling it in San Miguel de Allende

I closed my eyes, feeling pleasantly assaulted by the noise surrounding me. It rolled up from all sides, like a big cushion determined to block out all thought, all pain, all sensation of anything but itself.

And then the bells began. The huge bronze bells of La Parroquia poured down their peals like waves from the high faux-Gothic spires. They were almost—but not quite—in sync with the throbbing drums, the concheros’ rattling seedpod anklets, the conch shell’s moan, the off-key Souza march, the wailing rock guitar and the grackles’ cackles.

The black mood that had engulfed me an hour earlier was fighting for dominance. And losing. The feeling of that heavy cloud of despair lifting from my shoulders was almost palpable, carried off on the enormous wave of sound and dissipated into the brilliant San Miguel light.

An image sprang to my mind, myself as a young girl with long red braids and freckles sitting in a Sunday School class, reciting and memorizing Bible verses. We were learning the opening of the 100th Psalm:

“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”

My eyes, my ears, my whole being swept around the square and took in the scene—the color, the movement, the vibrations… the SOUND.

A conchero girl danced herself into a trance of joy in San Miguel de Allende

A conchero girl danced herself into a trance of joy in San Miguel de Allende

And with a smile of pure joy, a heart light and clear, I thought… finally, I know what a joyful noise really sounds like.

It sounds like San Miguel de Allende on the first Friday in March.


If you go:

In San Miguel de Allende, the Conchero Dancers perform for Dia de La Conquista every year on the first Friday in March in the plaza in front of La Parroquia church. The dancing begins around mid-morning and continues throughout the day and often into the evening. Photographing the dancers is allowed.

San Miguel de Allende lies in the central highlands of Mexico. By car, it is nine hours south of Laredo, Texas, on highway 57. The nearest airport is Bajio International Airport (BJX) located in Silao, about an hour from San Miguel. International flights also fly into Mexico City, about 4 hours from San Miguel by bus or private shuttle.  For more information about visiting San Miguel de Allende, visit Experience San Miguel de Allende.

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