The tower of the Amsterdam Westerkerk against a bright blue sky

The Iconic Tower of the Amsterdam Westerkerk–Photo of the Week

The Amsterdam Westerkerk, or Western Church, is a much beloved symbol of the Dutch capital. The crowned spire of its tower, the Westertoren, is the tallest church steeple in town, and you can see it from almost anywhere in the city center. It has been a beacon, a time-teller and a source of reassurance for Amsterdammers for hundreds of years.

The tower of the Amsterdam Westerkerk against a bright blue sky

The Westertoren, or tower, of the Amsterdam Westerkerk, the most important
Protestant church in the city and a much beloved icon for Amsterdammers.


A Symbol of Reassurance

More than four decades ago, I began a life-long love affair with Amsterdam. I lived in the city for a year, and put a lot of effort into trying to learn Dutch.

One day, when I was house sitting for a friend in the Jordaan neighborhood, I decided it was time to try to read something in Dutch, preferably something not too difficult but not a children’s book either. If it could be something I was already familiar with in English, so much the better.

The obvious answer was Het Achterhuis, Dagboekbrieven–the original version of The Diary of Anne Frank in the language in which she wrote those pages.

Not far into the book, I came across these lines:

In this quote, in the original Dutch, Anne Frank talks about hearing the bells of the Westertorn.

Saturday, July 11, 1942
Dear Kitty,
Father, Mother and Margot still can’t get used to the chiming of the Westertoren clock, which tells us the time every quarter of an hour. Not me, I liked it from the start; it sounds so reassuring, especially at night.

I put the book down and smiled, because those same damn bells had been keeping me awake night after night in the apartment I was sitting, just a few blocks from where Anne and her family hid all those years ago. That simple line in a young girl’s diary personalized her experience for me more than anything else had.

The Bells of the Westertoren

The bells of the Westertoren, the tower of the Amsterdam Westerkerk, have been chiming the quarter hour, accompanying lovers, reassuring frightened Jews, helping people get to work on time and generally punctuating the days and nights of Amsterdammers for almost 400 years. And they still do.

The Amsterdam Westerkerk was built between 1620 and 1631 in Renaissance style. It’s the largest church in the Netherlands built for Protestants and is still in use by the Dutch Reformed Church today. The 278 foot (87 meters) tower was added in 1638.

A Trip to the Top

For those able to handle very steep and narrow stairs, and a lot of them, the climb up the Westertoren, the tower of the Amsterdam Westerkerk, can be a highlight of your visit to the city. You must go on a guided tour, as you will not be allowed to climb it alone. You actually ascend only about halfway, approximately 40 meters (131 feet). The guide will stop at each landing to give some history of the building and point out things you might miss on your own (as well as providing a brief catch-your-breath mini-break, much needed by me!)

You’re not allowed to take a bag or anything with you but a camera and maybe a notebook in your pocket. Your bag will be safely locked away during the tour. Once you begin the climb, you’ll be glad you’re not wrestling a bag or anything else. You need both hands to climb the steep stairs.

Note to Older Women Travelers: The steps begin as a narrow spiral staircase with rope handles. Nearer the top, they turn into straight-up stairs that are really more like ladders, extremely steep. Apparently, people had much smaller feet in the 17th century, because the step treads themselves are narrow. Wear well-fitted shoes, take your time and concentrate on your footing. Also, it’s probably not a good idea to wear a skirt if you don’t want to give those below you a free show! Coming down, you’ll find it easier to descend backwards.

The Best View in Town–and Bells!

At the top of the climb, step out onto the balcony. Prepare to be awed by the view, a seemingly endless 360° panorama of Amsterdam, with views of the canals below, the rooftops, the parks, and everything in between. A short block away, you can look down at the tiny windows of the attic where Anne Frank sat and looked at the tower’s clock, one of the few things she could see. Also, take a minute to look up. Just above you is the coat of arms of the City of Amsterdam, with its white XXX, a design you’ll notice all over the city. The top of the tower is crowned with the Imperial Crown of Maximilian I of Austria, which is also part of the city’s arms.

Up in the tower, you also have a chance to see the magnificent bells of the Amsterdam Westerkerk. They’re among the biggest in the city and were cast by the master bell makers of the 17th century, the Hemony Bros. According to the current carilloneur, “The name Hemony is as much associated with bells as Stradivarius is with fine violins.”

Volunteers from the congregation still ring the bells by hand for Sunday services and special occasions, such as Dutch Remembrance Day. The largest bell, weighing in at 4000kg, is never rung for fear the vibrations will crack the walls of the tower. The carillon is the only one in Amsterdam that still rings out the time for the entire 24 hours every day. On Tuesdays at noon, the city carilloneur plays a delightful hour-long concert on the carillon. You can hear it from many blocks away.

The guided tour up the tower is offered Monday through Saturday from April to October. They only take up 6 people at a time, so you may have to get your ticket and then wait a bit. The first tour of the day begins at 10 am, and that’s when you are most likely to get in straightaway. The tour lasts 30 minutes and costs 8€. Tickets are only sold on the same day; no reservations are possible. Take cash because they do not accept credit cards.

Be Sure to Visit the Amsterdam Westerkerk Too

While you’re waiting for your tower tour, take a few minutes to explore the interior of the church. The Amsterdam Westerkerk is spare, characteristic of most Dutch Protestant churches. But it is lovely in it simplicity. With chairs instead of pews set out on the flagstone floors, wooden barrel-vaulting high above and some lovely stained glass windows, it’s a peaceful place. Since there are no tall buildings adjacent to the Amsterdam Westerkerk to block the sun, light pours through the 36 large windows to set the whitewashed walls aglow in a glorious “light effect.”

There is also a beautiful Duyschot organ, brass chandeliers, and the usual unassuming pulpit. Rembrandt was buried in the Westerkerk in 1669 but in an unmarked pauper’s grave. As was the custom then, his remains were removed after 20 years to make way for other poor people. There is a memorial to him in the church.

Access to the tower is obviously not accessible for wheelchairs and other people who have difficulty with stairs. The church itself, however, is accessible, though the flagstone floor may be a little uneven in spots.

When you’re looking the things to do in Amsterdam, make sure you take time to see this icon of the city and soak in some of its history. And if you can possisbly manage the climb up the tower, do it. You will be well rewarded for the effort.

The Amsterdam Westerkerk–A Symbol, a History, a Haunting

On July 9, 1942, Anne Frank, her mother and her father, walked through the pouring rain toward her father’s business and its hidden hiding place in the attic of the Achterhuis–the house behind. (Margot would arrive directly from school on her bike.) They sloshed through the city, wearing as many layers of clothing as they dared and carrying as many useful items as they could pack into school bookbags and shopping bags without looking too conspicuous. Their walk took them directly past the Amsterdam Westerkerk and its crown-topped tower.

Today, the tower continues to play out its place in Amsterdam’s history, comforting the people, marking the hours, and celebrating their joys with its magnificent bells.


For more information and a schedule of events, check the Westerkerk website.” It’s in Dutch but pretty easy to understand. If a specific date on the calendar says “kerk gesloten,” that means the church is closed that day. It also lists who will be playing the organ for Sunday services and the free Friday lunch concerts (April to October and highly recommended) and any other performances being offered. The acoustics of the church are marvelous.

The church itself is open year-round Monday through Friday from 11 am to 4 pm. From April 1 to November 1, it is also open on Saturdays. (Hours are sometimes shortened in the off season and shoulder season.) Sunday services are held at 10:30 am, in Dutch.

The Westertoren/Tower opens for tours at 10 am, Monday through Saturday, from April 1 to November 1. The last tour begins at 7:30 pm. 8€ entry fee, cash only.

The church entrance is at #279 Prinsengracht; the tower entrance is just a few feet away. Tram lines 13 and 17 stop right at the corner, at the Westermarkt/Anne Frank House stop.

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Visiting the Amsterdam Westerker and Tower-pinnable imageLearn why Anne Frank loved the bells of the Amsterdam Westerkerk and Tower - pinnable image

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.

Photo of the Week

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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Photo of the Week: Our Christmas Cocktail (with Recipe)

Every family has its holiday traditions. In mine, it’s a Christmas cocktail. Every year it’s different. But always yummy.

The tradition started when my brother-in-law, Matt Worrix, decided to invent a cocktail for a big family celebration. It was such a hit, that it continued. Every Christmas, Thanksgiving or family birthday, Matt would invent a new cocktail to celebrate the occasion. It was something everyone looked forward to.

A Christmas Cocktail of hot cider, bourbon and Grand Marnier, garnished with whipped cream, an apple slice and a cinnamon stick.

The “Tempo Toddy,” named for my sister’s business in McMinnville Oregon.
It has now been adapted for this year’s Christmas Cocktail for the family holiday celebration.

Matt and my sister, Marilyn, would spend a week or more working out the finer points of the cocktail–mixing, tasting, tweaking, mixing some more, tasting again. Adding a bit of this or a touch less of that. Agonizing over the proper garnishes. Figuring out the quantities needed for 15-20 people!

After a few “taste tests,” they were often giggling so much they had to stop. But the final Thanksgiving… or birthday… or Christmas cocktail always ended up a winner.

Sadly, we lost Matt this year. The holidays will not be the same. But by general agreement, his spirit will be with us as we celebrate with a new Christmas Cocktail.

Deciding what to make is always fun and challenging. What could my sister and I come up with that would stand up to the Matt Worrix standard?

We were out Christmas shopping last week, on a freezing, snowy day, and stopped for a late lunch at Golden Valley Brew Pub, a wonderful and cozy spot in McMinnville, Oregon. We definitely needed something hot to warm us up, so we asked the waiter for a suggestion. And boy, were we glad we did? What he brought us was one of their popular seasonal concoctions, a wonderful combination of hot apple cider, bourbon, and Grand Marnier, topped with fresh whipped cream.

We knew immediately we had found this year’s Christmas Cocktail.

With a bit of tweaking, testing, tasting, and tweaking again, here is our version of the “Tempo Toddy.” Feel free to tweak the proportions to your personal taste. Try it. I think you will like it!

Tempo Toddy Christmas Cocktail

For One Christmas Cocktail

4 oz. hot spiced apple cider
1 oz. bourbon
1/2 oz. Grand Marnier.

Mix well together.
Place a whole cinnamon stick in each glass/mug and add the hot mixture. (If using glass, be sure it can withstand the heat without cracking.)
Top with sweetened whipped cream and garnish with a thin slice of apple on the rim.
Think up the perfect Christmas toast, raise your glasses all high, and enjoy!

(Alternately… add one pair of warm, fuzzy slippers, a roaring fire, some holiday music and a good book–with the air scented by the piney bite of the Christmas tree. Enjoy!)


If you find yourself in McMinnville, Oregon (and you should–it is a delightful town) do stop in at Golden Valley Brew Pub for a meal or one of their terrific craft brews. You won’t be disappointed.


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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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Nichos for urns, graves, a cross, plastic flowers, and the windows of people's homes overlooking the whole thing -- a glimpse of a typical Mexican cemetery, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.

POTW: Restos: The Cemetery in San Miguel de Allende

At the rear of the Panteón Municipál, the city cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, is a columbarium, the wall of nichos where the urns of ashes of those cremated are interred. It holds memories and tells stories. It also tells us about cultural differences and ideas about life and death.

Nichos for urns, graves, a cross, plastic flowers, and the windows of people's homes overlooking the whole thing -- a glimpse of a typical Mexican cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.

Nichos for urns, graves, a cross, plastic flowers, and the windows of people’s homes overlooking the whole thing
— a glimpse of a typical Mexican cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.


I like Mexican cemeteries. To me, they seem very real and very human. They are not sterile, tidy places. They are not manicured. They are certainly not uniform. They are a reflection of the life that came before them, the untidy lives lived by the people that now inhabit—and perhaps haunt—them.

They are not like the cemetery in southern California where my mother lies buried. It is one of those “Green Hills” type places, the kind they don’t even call a cemetery anymore. It’s a “Memorial Park” or something like that and looks more like a golf course. Like no one is buried there. You are not allowed to have an actual gravestone in such a place. Nope. No monuments or statues or mausoleums. None of these overdone, over-wrought tombs with weeping Victorian angels like the ones that adorn and beckon from the cemeteries we love to visit on our travels, cemeteries like the lovely Pére Lachaise in Paris or Highgate Cemetery in London.

No, these “memorial park” pseudo-golf courses allow only a simple plaque marking the plot where love now resides. A stone or metal rectangle, flush with the manicured lawn. No headstone or tomb or even a cross is allowed to break the clean, un-dead line of the rolling hills of grass.

No Grass… but Ahhh… Life Among the Dead

But Mexican cemeteries! Ahhh, now here we have signs aplenty of the actual people behind the graves, both living and dead. The Mexican graveyards I know and love are much like life in this rich and colorful country—varied and many, often untidy, frequently haphazard, exuberant and overdone. Ranging from the professionally correct to the lovingly hand-crafted. Seldom perfect but invariably heartfelt. There are large and fine mausoleums housing whole families with carved marble columns and weeping angels aplenty. They sit next to roughly hewn crosses with hand-painted remembrances. There are live flowers, in full flush or wilted, but they are usually outnumbered by an overabundance of plastic posies, frequently red, often faded to old-lady dusty rose.

At the back of the Panteón Municipál, the cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, is the columbarium, a wall of small nichos where the urns or boxes of ashes of those who have been cremated are placed. Each nicho has its plaque, its shelf for vases of flowers or perhaps a candle. But except for their square size, the nichos’ only uniformity is their lack of sameness. Some are bricked up. Others have rather plain cement slab fronts. Some have marble, others stone. Some are white, others pink; some have the names and dates carved, others are written by an unsteady hand. The creators of my mother’s cemetery would, ahem, be turning in their graves at the untidiness of it all.

But to me, the cemetery in San Miguel de Allende is a far more inviting place, despite the fact that at my age I have way too many friends now silently residing there. It is vivid… in the true sense of that word. It reflects life rather than death. It is vibrant with the whole mess of human feelings and actions and levels of being.

At my mother’s “memorial park,” every one of those dead souls, who was so much a vibrant being full of individual tastes and feelings and favorites and hates and loves, is reduced to the exact same-sized plaque in a rectangle of pesticide-fed lawn, all marching in lockstep down the rolling hillsides of the “park” at the precise same distance apart.

A flat carved grave plaque in a flat lawn in a cemetery in California, with roses.

My mother’s grave plaque in a “Green Hills” type cemetery in Calfornia–just like every other stone


The Music in the Air of the Cemetery in San Miguel

When I visit an American “memorial park,” I never hear music in my head. The only notes I might hear would be the somber hymn of a funeral in progress under a tent canopy on the next rolling hillside over. But in a Mexican graveyard, I always fancy I hear music, even when the place is empty. It might be the Cucurrrrucucu of “La Paloma Triste” or the weeping notes of “La Llorona.” Or maybe I just hear the small voice of a child singing “Las Mañanitas,” the birthday song. But it is always there, just below the surface.

During the night of Dia de los Muertos in San Miguel de Allende, the music rises up and becomes real. For days beforehand, the cemetery in San Miguel, like those across the country, is cleaned and weeded, the graves scrubbed and painted. Flowers, especially cempazúchitl, the Mexican marigold, are carried in by the armload. Candles, sugar skulls, gold paper decorations, and other items are brought in to decorate the graves.

On the night itself, the whole place becomes party central. Whole families basically camp out at the graves of their loves ones, eating and drinking and having a fine fiesta. The music might be a radio or iPod. Or it could be mariachis. By morning, it could turn into a fairly drunken version of “Caminos de Guanajuato” with its refrain loudly declaring “No vale nada la vida…” “Life is worth nothing…”

Yes, Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is one of the best times to visit San Miguel de Allende.

Make Mine Mexican

For me, the choice is pretty clear. Unless you can sprinkle me over a mountain top or throw me wildly to the wind and the waves, I’ll take the messy but vivid life and fullness of a Mexican cemetery over the tidy uniformity and dullness of a Stateside “Memorial Park.” Just bury my heart in the cemetery in San Miguel de Allende.

Blue doors, a rose-colored step and fuchsia bougainvillea petals in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

POTW: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico-It’s the Little Things

On how a photo presented itself to me in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and reminded me to pay attention. To look up.  To look down. To listen and smell and feel the air. To notice the “little things” that can turn any trip into a rich and fulfilling adventure.

On Noticing the Little Things Along the Way

Blue doors. A rose-colored step.  A sprinkling of fuchsia-colored bougainvillea petals.

Blue doors, a rose-colored step and fuchsia bougainvillea petals in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

A perfect still life in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, one of the “small moments” we must slow down to notice as we travel.

This lovey composition was just there, being itself in all its beauty, not waiting for me to come along, not posed for the camera or “set-up” as a perfect shot. I just happened to be walking by. I was on my way home from a meeting, my mind spinning with ideas and “must-dos”—what to fix for dinner, a business call I had to make, a bank balance I had to check. I was half-writing my next blog post in my head while keeping one eye on the ground to avoid tripping over the cobblestones or an all-too-common hole in the sidewalk here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. My only real point of focus was getting home.

But something made me turn my head to the side. A flash of color. A piece of composition. It barely registered and I kept walking. But then I stopped, turned around, walked back the few steps to look at it again. I realized it was beautiful, a perfect composition of color and form, shape and placement. It was a little piece of Mexican art handed to me on a plate.

I whipped my phone out of my pocket and snapped a few photos of it before going back on my busy way.

Later that evening, I looked at the photo again, and I liked it. I decided to put it up on my Instagram page. I post quite a few pphotos of my home town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico there and they usually get a nice response. I also shared that photo on my NomadWomen Facebook page. I didn’t think too much about it for the rest of the evening.

But when I looked at my page the next day, I realized that this one photo was getting a much greater response than usual. Something about this pretty color composition had struck a chord. People were liking, it, commenting on it, and sharing it like crazy, this little photo that was basically an afterthought.

And that got me thinking. How many of these small moments, these little gifts of noticing, do we let go right past us in our normal lives and even in our travels? If you’d been walking up Calle Hernandez Macias on that sunny afternoon, would you have seen that blue door with its rose-colored step and its sprinkling of fuchsia petals? How many times have I passed something very similar in this town and NOT seen it myself?

The Lesson for Travelers from my San Miguel de Allende, Mexico Moment

The moral here, I think, is a simple one. First: Slow down and pay attention. Let your senses run free. Look around you. Smell the wind. Taste the air. Feel the stucco or the water or the wooden door.

Ask yourself: What “small things” and precious moments do we miss on our travels as we rush from place to place? When we go from one “must-see” attraction to the next, when we focus our attention on the street ahead and the day ahead instead of being fully present in the moment, what wonders go right past us unseen, unheard, unnoticed and lost forever to our conscious enjoyment of our trip?

Some Examples from my Own Recent Travels (with Bonus Photos)

If I had rushed through the Rijksmusem, seen the paintings I love, and then run off to the next thing on my Amsterdam “must-do” list, I would not have stopped to rest on a chair in the gardens behind the museum. I would not have noticed how the sun shining through the dancing fountain there created a rainbow that gave me great delight as I watched its changing stripes of color weave through the droplets while the fountain danced its rhythms.

A rainbow in the fountain behind the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

A rainbow plays with the dancing fountain in the garden behind the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

 

If I had been solidly focused on getting to the Charles Bridge in Prague, a highlight of any trip to that magical city, I might not have been hit so hard by the divine smell of chocolate when someone opened the door of the Choco Cafe just as I passed by. I might not have realized I could take a break to rest my sore feet, step inside and order what turned out to be the most decadent, most sensory-fulfilling, most delicious cup of thick hot chocolate I’ve ever had.

The facade of Choco Cafe, near Old Town Square, Prague

The facade of the Choco Cafe, at Liliová 250/4, near Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic.
Photo courtesy of Choco Cafe.

 

If I had not been paying close attention as I strolled the aisles of La Boqueria market in Barcelona, my nose might never have taken in the full variety of the different fish smells and my eyes may not have taught me that barracudas have wicked sharp teeth and are apparently a popular food fish in Catalunya. Or that the movements of the man slicing Jamon Iberico from a large hanging shank of that specially cured and especially delicious ham are a beautifully choreographed ballet.

Head of a barracuda with sharp teeth on a bed of ice at La Boqueria market in Barcelona.

A barracuda with its wicked sharp teeth, resting on a of ice at La Boqueria Market in Barcelona….
not someone you’d want to meet out in a wine-dark sea, or even a sunny one.

 

And I never would have caught, from the corner of my eye as I hurried home, the perfect abstract composition of a pair of blue doors, a rose-colored step and a handful of fallen bougainvillea petals in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.


Pinnable Image of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico with Text Overlay--How Noticing the Little Things Can Turn Your Trip into an Adventure

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Mexican handicraft Otomi dolls for sale in a doorway in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

POTW: Mexican Folk Art – Otomi Dolls

Mexican handicrafts come in all types and styles. In our Photo of the Week, Otomi dolls for sale in a doorway in San Miguel de Allende show the wonderful sense of color, the embroidery tradition and the hand-sewing skills of their Otomi Indian creators. This is Mexican folk art at its most authentic.

Mexican handicraft Otomi dolls for sale in a doorway in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Handmade dolls stitched by the descendants of the ancient Otomi Indians for sale in Mexico.
The old-meets-new irony? This is the entrance to the courtyard of the local Starbucks.

Otomi women can regularly be seen selling these beautiful and creative handmade dolls, as well as other Mexican handicrafts, all over San Miguel, especially in the streets around the Jardín, or central plaza. These sales represent a significant addition to their families’ cash flow.

The Otomi Indians were here on the land where San Miguel now sits long before the Spanish came, saw and conquered. They are one of the oldest and largest indigenous groups in central Mexico and have inhabited the area for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. The ancient Cañada de la Virgen pyramid and burial site near San Miguel was constructed by Otomis. This recently excavated archaeological treasure is the northernmost pre-Columbian site ever found. It dates from approximately 530 AD and was abandoned around 900 AD.

Many of the rancho villages around San Miguel in the central state of Guanajuato are populated by Otomi Indians. I have met many of them personally, much to my joy. My friend Doña Maria Tovar, who lives in the rancho village of Agustín González, just outside San Miguel, is a full-blooded Otomi. Her parents spoke only Otomi, so she learned the language as a child, along with Spanish. But when she married, her husband forbade her to speak Otomi at home. He wanted his children to speak only Spanish, like good Mexicans. So her adult children now do not speak the language of her birth. But here’s a nice irony: her grandchildren are now studying Otomi in school. The government is trying to insure that the country’s many indigenous languages don’t disappear. Many times I have heard Doña Maria’s young neighbor Stephanie sing the Mexican National Anthem in Otomi.

The Otomi Lifestyle – Ancient in Many Ways

The people on these ranchos are predominantly subsistence farmers, growing their crops using the ancient and highly sustainable milpa system. Three crops are planted in the same field: corn (maize), beans and squash. As the corn sprouts and begins to shoot up, it provides support for the beans to climb. As the beans and corn grow, their leaves provide shade for the young squash. Finally, as the squash grows full, its large leaves shade the soil to keep down the summer heat and hold in the moisture. Each of the three crops adds different nutrients to the soil, benefiting them all.

I have met many farmers who use this system successfully, assuming the weather cooperates. They are almost wholly dependent on a good summer rainy season, since they don’t irrigate their crops. The staple diet in these villages populated primarily by the descendants of the Otomi includes the corn, beans and squash from the field, rice, nopal cactus (with its beautiful tuna fruit in summer), homemade cheese (from both cow’s and goat’s milk), fruit (often from their own trees), eggs from their own chickens and vegetables from the garden. Meat is generally only eaten for holidays, parties and other special occasions. But then they will go all out and cook an entire pig all day long for delicious carnitas, besides roasting huge numbers of chickens to serve with mole.

Cash can be a rare commodity in these Otomi villages and is always needed to buy the things they can’t grow or make themselves. If you visit San Miguel de Allende, keep an eye out for the Otomi women selling this authentic Mexican folk art in the streets around the centro. These delightful stuffed fabric dolls make a wonderful and colorful souvenir. They’re lightweight, don’t take up much room in a suitcase, and will be a great reminder of your trip to Mexico. Plus you will have the joy of knowing your money has made a difference in the life of a true indigenous descendant of the ancient Otomi people of central Mexico.

For a closer look at life in the rancho village of Agustín González, whose people are mostly of Otomi stock (including a glimpse of my friend Doña Maria), check out this video of the Rancho Tour. Sixteen women in the village have also formed Las Rancheritas craft cooperative to sell their handmade hooked rugs.

The Skinny Bridge--Magere Brug--in Amsterdam

POTW: Amsterdam’s Magere Brug, the Skinny Bridge

The most famous bridge in Amsterdam is lovely, but the “Skinny Bridge” is not really all that skinny anymore.

There’s a reason Amsterdam is called the “Venice of the North.” Riddled with canals and the Amstel River as it is, it has more bridges than any other city in the world… yes, far more than Venice. All this water criss-crossing the city wherever you look calls for hundreds—thousands—of bridges. Some accounts put the number as low as 1250, others at twice that. Apparently, Venice rings up a measly 400. Perhaps Venice should be called the “Amsterdam of the South.”

Arguably the most famous of those hundreds of Amsterdam bridges is the Magere Brug, which translates as the Skinny Bridge.

The Skinny Bridge--Magere Brug--in Amsterdam

The delicate drawbridge called the Skinny Bridge
is the most famous bridge in Amsterdam.

“Throughout the city there are as many canals and drawbridges as bracelets on a Gypsy’s bronzed arms.”
~Felix Marti-Ibanez, Spanish author


The pretty and delicate-looking white wood structure is a double-swipe “bascule” bridge, which means it uses a counterweight system to make opening and closing its two drawbridge “leaves” easy. That’s a good thing because it opens and closes a lot—on average every 20 minutes throughout the day. A common and perfectly legitimate excuse for being late for an appointment in Amsterdam is “The bridge was open!”

Those of us from the true Nomad Women generation might remember the bridge from the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. Ah, for the days of the only real James Bond—and we all know that was the one and only Sean Connery. Seldom mentioned in stories of the bridge is its unhappier memory. It was used as an accumulation point for Dutch Jews about to be shipped east during the Nazi occupation of World War II.

The Skinny Bridge’s first incarnation was built over the River Amstel in 1691. It was apparently so narrow two pedestrians could barely pass each other when crossing the span, creating its popular nickname. If you take one of the famous rondvaart canal boat tours—and you really should—the tour guide will likely tell you a charming but apocryphal story of its name. It goes something like this….

A Delightful Story

Once upon a time, there were two sisters whose family name was Mager. They loved each other very much and insisted on meeting each morning for that much beloved Dutch custom of koffie en koekjes. But getting to each other for this coffee-and-cookies tradition was difficult because they lived on opposite sides of the River Amstel. And so they built a bridge to connect with each other more easily… Poof! The Magere Brug came into being.

The truth is more prosaic, as it so often is. With commerce burgeoning during the 17th-century Golden Age, there was always a need for more means of getting around, running hither and yon, doing business, moving things, making money.

The Skinny Bridge has been rebuilt a few times over its life, first in 1871, when the decrepit little old thing was also widened to allow for more traffic. Fifty years later, the city tried to replace it with a steel and stone construction, but the outcry from the tradition-loving Dutch was loud and long. The new-fangled design was scrapped. The last reconstruction was in 1969, still keeping to the original design. Since 2003, the Skinny Bridge has been closed to all traffic except pedestrians and bicycles.

The bridge is high enough for the low-profile rondvaart boats to pass under it, and it’s pleasant to stand in the center of the span and watch them float past below, especially in the evening when both the bridge and the boats are illuminated.

A Bonus Photo – The Skinny Bridge at Night

The Skinny Bridge in Amsterdam, lit up at night

Amsterdam’s Skinny Bridge is illuminated at night by some 1200 white lights.
Photo copyright Nico Aguilera. CC License


You can find the Magere Brug/Skinny Bridge between the Keizsersgracht and the Prinsengracht, where the Kerkstraat meets the river on the east side and connects it to the Nieuwe Kerkstraat on the west. Take trams 9 or 14 or metro line 54 to Waterlooplein, then walk toward the Amstel. If you need to ask directions, you’ll find that virtually everyone you meet in Amsterdam speaks English.

The portales in the main plaza of San Miguel lit up at night.

POTW: The Portales in San Miguel de Allende at Night

Once again, for the Photo of the Week I’ve chosen the picture that is #1 on my Instagram account, a night shot of the portales in San Miguel de Allende, where I live. These arched and covered sidewalks run alongside the Jardín Principál, the main central plaza in San Miguel.

I was not prepared for this shot since I had no tripod with me. I was walking home one evening after a dinner with friends when I saw the lights all glowing on the old cantera stone arches and knew I had to take this. I backed up to the wall of a building on San Francisco, braced the camera flat against the wall, held my breath to minimize camera shake and clicked the shutter. It was a pretty long exposure and I had no idea if it was going to come out sharp or shaky, but I was pleased with the resulting shot.

When I first came here in 1989, the portales in San Miguel and the Parroquia were not lit up at night. Nor were the streets surrounding the Jardín closed off to traffic. Both these changes have added so much to the aura of the centro.

The portales in the main plaza of San Miguel lit up at night.

The portales in San Miguel de Allende glow beautifully in the lighting the city has installed, highlighting the details on the 18th century cantera stone buildings.

The portales in San Miguel are in a very traditional style you see all over Mexico, a remnant of Spanish colonial style. They serve many purposes besides looking elegant and inviting. These graceful covered passageways shade you from the hot sun or protect you from the monsoon downpours in the summer rainy season. In San Miguel, it’s not unusual to see a crowd huddled just under the edge on a rainy afternoon, peering out at the torrents running down the streets—which turn into real rivers, like “kayak-needed” rivers—waiting for the storm to pass. Fortunately, the downpours seldom last long. Then the sun comes out, the water runs off quickly, and the streets dry up. San Miguel is its usual sunny and beautiful self once more.

The portales in San Miguel are also covered mini shopping arcades. The mix has certainly changed since my first visit 25 years ago. Then, the buildings housed a small supermarket, an art supply and book store, a used furniture store, a juice stand. Even a hardware store. The east portales also had an artisans market with stalls selling jewelry, weavings, baskets and decorated tinware. These were moved to the Mercado de Artesania in the ‘90s. The only more-or-less permanent street vendors left are the flower ladies. Today they seem to sell primarily dried flowers and the currently wildy fashionable flower crowns with ribbons. And in the evening, bands of mariachi players in their silver braid-and-button finery, are usually seen leaning against the buildings, waiting for someone to request yet another replay of “Cielito Lindo.”

Nowadays, the spaces have gone upscale and touristy. Those small, practical mom-and-pop stores can no longer afford the rents that being here command. The portales in San Miguel now harbor mostly sidewalk cafes and boutiques. The Café del Portal, on the south corner with a superb view of the Parroquia, is a nice spot for a coffee and dessert. You can get a great Parroquia photo by using the arch of a portal as a frame.

On the opposite side of the Jardin, Rincón Don Tomás is a popular spot with locals to meet for coffee or lunch, catching up and people watching. Just a few doors up, visit El Bazar del Angel, a boutique owned by local writer and radio personality Yolanda Lacarieri. She has a well-chosen collection of jewelry, beautiful scarves and rebozos, San Miguel shoes, hats and San Miguel gifts, including the whimsical hand-painted tin nichos with funny calaca tableaux inside by Estudio Cielito Lindo.

The building at the northwest corner of the Jardín, in the very front of the photo, was once the town home of the Counts of Canal, one of the most important families in San Miguel in the 17th and 18th centuries. They also, of course, had a country home, a huge hacienda with thick walls of gray stone. Now I don’t know about you, but I usually think of a “country home” as being, well, in the country. I suppose at one time it was, but the beautiful and graceful building, with its elegant central patio, interior arcades and a small family chapel, now houses the Instituto Allende art and language school. And it is a 15-minute walk from the Jardín and the family’s “town” house under the portales in San Miguel. It probably took less than 10 minutes on a horse all those years ago, even without much of a road.

When you visit San Miguel de Allende, make sure to take time to wander up and down the portales in San Miguel and feel like you are back in colonial times, with all the elegance that entailed.


I am loving posting photos on Instagram every day, and I think the process has really sharpened my eye as a photographer. Have a look at my Instagram feed and let me know what you think in the comments below.

NomadWomen’s Instagram Gallery

Oscar's Neon Martini Glass on Fremont Street in old downtown Las Vegas

POTW: Oscar’s Neon Martini Glass-Las Vegas

Anyone who ever visited Las Vegas before about 1990 will forever associate that City of Glitter with neon. I hope this photo of Oscar’s Neon Martini Glass will take you back to that time when neon was the very symbol of Las Vegas—flashing, glittering, dancing neon, lighting up the fronts of buildings, illuminating the sky, and enticing passers-by to come on in. It’s fun in here. It’s exciting. Join us! And bring your money!

Oscar's Neon Martini Glass on Fremont Street in old downtown Las Vegas

Oscar’s Neon Martini Glass glows against a deep blue desert twilight sky, beckoning visitors to old downtown Las Vegas.


Neon Comes to Las Vegas

Though neon was first shown off to the world at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, it wasn’t until 1929 that the first-ever neon to greet visitors to Sin City appeared at the Oasis Café on Fremont Street. But then it took off, limited only by the over-the-top imagination of Las Vegas entrepreneurs. Oscar’s Neon Martini Glass, though not old, recalls that treasured Vegas “look” and atmosphere.

When I was a kid growing up in southern California, my mom loved Las Vegas. We always took a family road-trip vacation every summer—to Grand Canyon, Idaho, Vancouver, and/or points beyond, but it seemed like wherever we headed, north, south or east, Las Vegas was always “on the way” and was always where we spent our first night. I remember the excitement of seeing the city on the horizon, rising from the dust of the long road from Los Angeles, telling us we could soon get out of our Mercury station wagon “woody” and stretch our cramped legs.

From all those family trips in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, I remember most clearly the façade of the old Mint Hotel and Casino in downtown Las Vegas on Fremont Street. It featured a huge marquee-type “wave” all lit up in, of course, mint green neon. I can see it flashing across the top of the building in my mind’s eye to this day. But neon, with its need for very specialized gas-filled tubes, was expensive and hard to maintain. When viable alternatives began to appear, casino, hotel and other business owners pounced. Gradually the neon lights of Vegas were replaced by LED lights and giant LCD screens. The neon all but disappeared.

Neon Re-Born in Las Vegas

Fortunately, The Neon Museum, near downtown, has collected dozens of classic pieces of old Vegas neon. Most have not been restored (and probably won’t be) but can be visited in the area called The Boneyard, a sort of graveyard for these eclectic electric fossils piled up higgledy-piggledy. They will make your camera cry out and your shutter finger itch to capture them.

Some of the best neon has, in fact, been restored and remounted along a Neon Gallery on Fremont Street and Las Vegas Blvd. downtown. These can be seen at any time, but are best viewed at night, when the pure neon colors still glow rich against a deep blue desert sky. Look for a good collection on East Fremont, just past the end of the enormous LED ceiling screen of the Fremont Street Experience.

Oscar’s Neon Martini Glass shown here, though it is mounted on East Fremont along with many of the other renovated signs in the “gallery,” is not actually a restored vintage sign. It was created new a few years ago. It was named for the long-time mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman.

Some of the other neon signs you can see in the open-air gallery include the golden magical lamp from the old Aladdin Hotel and Casino, all a-sparkle in yellow, and a prancing horse and rider from the long-gone Hacienda Hotel. That one is mounted on a pole at the intersection of Fremont St. and Las Vegas Blvd.

A visit to downtown Las Vegas is always fun, fanciful and full of light. The massive overhead light show that flickers across the giant LCD screen “ceiling” of The Fremont Street Experience is something everyone should see once. Then wander a couple of blocks further and check out some of the beautiful new and restored neon, like this Neon Martini Glass, that brings a bit of old Vegas back to life.

And a Bit of Personal Nostalgia

Imogene Meyer seated at a slot machine in 1959.

Imogene Meyer, who loved to play the “slots,” playing at
The Mint in Las Vegas in 1959.

Just for an extra bit of fun and Vegas nostalgia, I’ve added a second photo. This is my mom, seated at one of her beloved slot machines, in 1959. It was likely taken at The Mint or the Golden Nugget. The casinos used to send “camera girls” around to take pictures of the players. I don’t recall if you had to pay for a copy of if they were given out as souvenirs to entice you to come back. In any case, I have quite a collection of my pretty mom with this same big smile on her face. You can pretty much track the years by her changing hairstyles!

I imagine more than a few of us mature Nomad Women remember back in the day when you actually had to put a coin in the slot and pull the handle of the “one-armed bandit.” My mom would end the evening with her fingers black from the nickels and dimes and her right arm sore! But with a huge grin on her face.
 


While you’re in the downtown area, be sure to make a stop at Luv-It Frozen Custard for a sweet frozen treat you won’t soon forget, especially if it is a hot day or evening. Open till 10 pm Sunday through Thursday, till 11 on Friday and Saturday.

For more information on the Neon Museum, including how and when you can visit The Boneyard, check The Neon Museum website.