Sunrise over Yosemite. See it for free with a National Parks Senior Pass

U.S. National Parks Senior Pass Price to Rise Soon–a Lot!

The U.S. National Parks Senior Pass has been one of the best bargains on the planet for 25 years. That’s about to change. But there’s still time to get yours—cheap! Find out how to do it and why you should.

Sunrise over Yosemite. See it for free with a National Parks Senior Pass

The sun rises at Yosemite National Park in California. You can just see the famous “Half Done” in the distance. See this park for free with a National Parks Senior Pass. (And keep reading for more breathtaking National Park photos.)


But Do They Really Have to Call us “Seniors”??

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know I hate the word “senior,” unless it’s referring to an upperclassman in high school or college. When I think of “senior citizens,” I think of my mother at the end of her life (she lived to be 97). Even she then acknowledged that she was, uh, “old.” The word makes me think of free lunches at the “Senior Center” and the other women who shared my mom’s table at her Senior Independent Living Home.

Not that there is anything wrong with any of those places, mind you. I think they’re a great option for many people who are getting up into the high digits. But for those of us Nomad Women who feel like we are still in the prime of our lives at 65 or 75, the term can be, well, jarring. We are women who travel the globe, who seek out adventures and deep travel experiences. We live large and love it. We don’t think of ourselves as “senior” anythings.

On the other hand, I have always been more than willing to accept the financial benefits occasionally offered by my age. Yes, ladies (and gents), the “Senior Discount” is your friend. Which bring us to the topic of this post.

For mature lovers of “America’s Best Idea”—the U.S. National Parks system—there’s good news… and a bit not so good.

The U.S. National Parks Senior Pass–Bargain of a Lifetime

The good news? If you’re a U.S. Citizen or permanent resident age 62 or older, you can still visit every National Park in the country for a one-time fee with a National Parks Senior Pass. For the rest of your life. That is not going to change.

The U.S. National Parks Senior Pass, a handy card that will fit in your pocket but will take you to magical places.

The U.S. National Parks Senior Pass, a handy card that will fit in your pocket but will take you to magical places.

Currently, the National Parks Senior Pass, costs just $10 for lifetime access. It will continue to be available at that price until October 1, 2017. This pass has been one of the greatest bargains in the country for older Americans for the last quarter of a century.

The bad news? That bargain price is about to change. It you want to jump on this bargain, you need to do it soon.

Uh-Oh, the Price of the National Parks Senior Pass is About to Skyrocket

As of October 1, the price of the National Parks Senior Pass will go up. A lot. In fact, there will be an 8-fold increase. That’s right, an 800% rise in the price. The now $10 price for the lifetime pass will go to $80.

That price will still be a bargain, considering that many of the larger and most impressive parks charge up to $30 in entrance fees. So visiting 3 of these parks with the pass means it will have paid for itself and then some. And your savings are locked in until the day you die. Also, you’ll be able to opt to pay $20 for a one year Senior Pass. The next year, you can do the same. Once you’ve purchased four $20 annual Senior Passes, you can convert them to an $80 lifetime pass.

But here’s the age-old question. Why pay more? If you’re a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who is now or will be 62 before October 1, 2017, you can still get that coveted pass for ten bucks—the bargain of a lifetime.

Get Your National Parks Senior Pass NOW

The steep hike in the pass cost was a little-discussed provision of the National Parks Centennial Act, which received bipartisan support in the U.S. House and unanimous consent in the Senate when it was passed in December, 2016. The law was intended to help fund the nearly $12 billion in repairs currently needed to park infrastructure, including deteriorating buildings and unmaintained trails. It will also help fund education programs for young people to learn more about the parks and their unparalleled place in our national history and culture.

Since the price hike goes into effect in October, 2017, there is still plenty of time to get your pass at the current $10 price. And boy, is it worth it!

The Many Benefits of a National Parks Senior Pass

Here’s a look at what that ten bucks gets you:

— Free admission to more than 2000 U.S. federal recreation sites nationwide, including National Parks, National Monuments, National Seashores, National Recreation Areas, National Wildlife Refuges and many National Forest lands.
— Free admission for anyone traveling with a pass holder in a non-commercial vehicle when there is a per-vehicle fee.
— Free admission for up to three accompanying adults, no matter their age, when the admission fee is per person (children under 16 are always admitted free).
— Discounts on many park related fees, including some camping spots. It also gives you discounts of up to 50% on many federal use fees charged for swimming, boat launching, parking, and tours.
— It’s good for the rest of your life—one fee forever.

How to Buy a National Parks Senior Pass

The best way to get your Senior Pass is in person at any national park, national forest, or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office. You’ll be asked to show ID proving your age. Ten dollars later, you’re out the door with your lifetime pass in hand. (Hint: Don’t lose it. It is not replaceable.)

If there is no park or other pass locale near you and you’re not planning to visit one before October 1, 2017, you can buy the the Senior Pass online. It will cost you an extra $10 in processing fees, effectively doubling the price to $20, but it’s still a great bargain. This is a “Senior Perk” you don’t want to miss.

To order your National Parks Senior Pass online, visit the National Parks store here.

Roadtrip Anyone?

So go get out there, Nomad Women (and family and friends). Go “See the USA”—whether in your Chevrolet, Honda, Mercedes or even a Smart Car! Or load up the RV and head on out. The U.S. National Parks have rightly been called “America’s Best Idea.” You need to go experience them. And with the U.S. National Parks Senior Pass, you can go from north to Alaska, to see Denali, or down to the Dry Tortugas off the Florida Keys. You can see the Hawai’i Volcanoes and visit Acadia National Park in Maine. And all those 2000 beautiful, natural, historic places in between.

And once you’ve got that precious pass, you can do it all for free.

A Small Taste of What You Can See….

The deep blue water of Crater Lake, in Oregon's Cascade Mountains.

Crater Lake in the Cascade Mountains of southern Oregon is loved for its round shape–it was created by a collapsed volcano–and its pristine, deep-blue water, caused by its extreme depth.

The red sandstone hoo-doos of Bryce Canyon, in Utah, an outdoor experience like no other.

The red-orange sandstone “hoo-doos” of Bryce Canyon National Park are breathtaking at any season.

A volcano erupts at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park on The Big Island.

Feel the heat at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. Just be careful!

Mesa Verde National Park. Some of the more than 600 preserved cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people of Colorado... who began living here more than 1400 years ago.

At Mesa Verde National Park in Southwestern Colorado, you can visit some of the more than 600 cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people. They lived here for over 700 years, from AD 600 to 1300.

The 19th-century Fort Jefferson is part of the Dry Tortugas National Park, found in the Gulf of Mexico west of Key West, Florida.

The 19th-century Fort Jefferson is part of the Dry Tortugas National Park, found in the Gulf of Mexico west of Key West, Florida.

Snowy egrets are commonly found in Everglades National Park. They are easily spotted by their glowing white color.

Snowy egrets are common in The Everglades. They became extremely endangered in the 19th century, when their filmy feathers became very fashionable for ladies hats. Luckily, we don’t wear hats much anymore.

 

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The cover sketch of Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba gives you an idea of the delights inside.

Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba–an Illustrated Look

In Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba, writer/artist/photographer/
filmmaker and all-around creative whirlpool Jan Baross takes us into the daily life of Cubans. These excerpts from her book will take you with her.

The cover sketch of Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba gives you an idea of the delights inside.

Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba, as well as several other books by Jan Baross, is available on Amazon.com

When Jan Baross went to Cuba on a literary tour to meet with Cuban writers, she went with a notebook. And a sketchbook. I think she never travels anywhere without both of these indispensable tools. If you’ve seen any of her earlier books, which you can check out here, you’d have known she was going to write about this trip. And draw it. And completely delight you with it.

The result is Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba. The struggles, the joys, the color and music and dancing, these are the experiences Baross uses to paint her word pictures. Then she adds her delightful sketches made along the way. In these short word-and-picture sketches, she takes you behind the scenes of what she saw, heard, tasted, and danced.

Have a brief look inside the book. I think these excerpts will make you want to see more!


Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba

by Jan Baross

“Travel is the best way to stay amazed.”

My dream of Cuba began in 1957 when my parents said, “You can come with us to Cuba or you can go to camp and learn to ride a horse.”

I chose the horse.

They described Cuba as a lush island of spectacular beauty, endless music, and wide open fun. My youthful imagination took it from there.

Then, in 1959, I read about Castro’s revolution. Later, after living through the Cuban missile crisis, I was left with the conflicting impressions of beauty and annihilation. Now, fifty-eight years later, I was going with a troupe of writers to clarify Cuba for myself.

[Continue reading for some excerpts from Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba]


Sketch in Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba - "Mis nietos!"

WiFi Grandma
Hotel Paseo Habana, Vedado, Havana

I join our group on the hotel’s humid veranda where they’re scarfing down free introductory mojitos. I take a sip and nearly choke when an elderly Cuban woman shrieks and clasps her hand to her heart. She stares into a cellphone and shouts.

“Mis nietos! Yo no puedo creer! Te amo!” (“My grandchildren! I can’t believe it! I love you!”)

Apparently Grandma is viewing her grandchildren in the United States for the first time. When they answer on the speakerphone, their little voices yell, “Te amo, abuela!” (I love you, grandma!)

The old woman bursts into tears and then delighted laughter.

[Continue reading for more excerpts from Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba]


Sketch from Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba - Cubans know how to stroll!

Strolling with Cubans
Havana

The early evening air is soft and warm as I amble past my neighbors.

I love how Cuban men and women carry themselves, as if they know how to have a good time, or have recently had one. Their loud, animated exchanges remind me of Italians. They talk exuberantly in the parallel language of hands. As they pass, they smile and say, “Buenas tardes.”

Their “good evening” doesn’t sound like the Mexican Spanish that I am used to hearing. “Buenas tardes,” becomes “Buen tar,” as though someone is holding onto their tongues. It has a softening effect on their words.

[Continue reading for more excerpts from Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba]


Ms Baross goes dancing with a Cuban - rumba!

Dancing at UNEAC
(The National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba)

The band plays a captivating rhythm.

Everyone moves, rocks and sways.

A man with coffee-colored skin and green eyes is sitting at the next table surrounded by three black women with huge smiles. He lunges over and asks me to dance.

I’ve never danced rumba.

He takes me in his arms and begins to move.

The beat is so deeply rooted in his body that it awakens the same rhythm in me. Our legs move weightlessly like soft light between shuddering ferns.

If this is dancing, I haven’t lived.


Ms Baross goes to Cuba - and eats at Los Naranjos

Los Naranjos Restaurant
Calle 17 #715, Paseo & A. Velado, Havana

Our second evening in Havana.

The evening air is so hot that my fellow writers and I decide to take a stroll in search of an elusive Havana breeze.

As we cross the street, a man with a big smile introduces himself as Alex and waves us into his mansion. Naturally we follow the adventure through a small tree-lined garden.

Upstairs is a wonderful restaurant with a colorful bar, a cozy sitting room and a long banquette. This was his family’s mansion that had to be abandoned during the revolution.

Two years ago, Alex returned from the U.S. to open his Los Naranjos Restaurant. The major problem was how to advertise in Cuba.

Just as Alex thought he would be forced to close his business, an American tourist wandered in to dine. The American was so impressed that he posted a rave review on the web. Ever since then, the restaurant has become a dining destination in Havana.

Alex serves us lobster and an amazing salad that has to be one of the high points of my culinary world.

Alex says, “When you Americans come to my restaurant, you are family.”

With such open-hearted people, it’s not hard to get adopted in Cuba.

As we leave, we remind each other to post rave reviews.
[Editor’s Note: They did! So did a lot of other people. You can read reviews for Los Naranjos Restaurant in Havana, Cuba, here.]

[Continue reading for more excerpts from Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba]


And old man discourses with Ms. Baross in Cuba, in Havana's  Central Park

Central Park
Paseo del Prado, Central Havana

I’m catching a bus in Central Park when a young newspaper vendor pursues me, waving a copy of the propaganda rag, Granma

An older gentleman sitting on a park bench raises his finger in the air. “Señora. Fear nothing. Cubans protect strangers.”

My protector wears a torn, short-sleeve yellow shirt and his eyes are cataract gray.

Like most Cubans I meet, he talks loudly and with ferocious passion. He speaks like the best lecturers on the good and evil of his country.

When I run for my bus, he surprises me by struggling to his feet and running alongside with his hand out. I give him money, of course, because I now realize the old gentleman’s trade is discourse. His intelligent tirade is the way he supplements his unlivable government pension. My CUCs are his next hot meal.

I hop on this bus, watching as he returns to his bench.

[Continue reading for more excerpts from Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba]


Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba and sees street art in Callejon de Hamel

Callejon de Hamel, Havana
From Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba

A friendly transvestite tours me through the tiny Callejon de Hamel street, named after a wealthy French-German arms dealer who lived here. It’s more of an alley, barely 200 meters long, but it attracts hundreds of tourists because of the colorful street murals and wild sculptures created by Salvador Gonzales Escalona

As a self-taught artist living on Hamel Street, Salvador began painting murals on his neighbors’ walls in the ’90s.

He is still adding images to three-story high apartment buildings. Salvador describes his work as surrealism, cubism, and a little art-naive.

Tourists fill the tiny coffee shop, a small art gallery and a colorful canopied area where Santeria priests dance to rumba every Sunday to evoke the spirits of Orishas.

On the way out, I notice a gray-bearded man sitting on a painted bench, with one bare foot in the lap of a young girl. She’s in the process of giving him a pedicure.

My transvestite friend tells me the bearded man is the famous artist, Salvador Gonzales Escalona.


Ms Baross in in Cuba meets artist José Fuster.

Fusterlandia
Jaimanitas, Cuba

José Fuster’s installations remind me of Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Fuster is a well-known Cuban artist, painter, sculptor with his most visible contribution being the public art in his home town, the fishing village of Jaimanitas, outside of Havana.

In the last ten years, Fuster has decorated over 80 of his neighbors’ homes so that the small town itself has become a unique work of art. It’s reminiscent of Hamel Street in Havana but on a much grander scale.

I follow children running through shining archways and past giant tiled figures. All surfaces are covered in bold murals and decorative design. It’s truly amazing.

The inclusive Artists’ Wall is composed of tiles by other Cuban artists.

Fuster has installed a theater and public swimming pools which he sponsors with the sale of his paintings and ceramics.

Fuster says, “I keep working every day to do something more spectacular.”


I hope you enjoyed this small taste of Jan Baross’ views and insights in Cuba. You can purchase your own copy of Ms. Baross Goes to Cuba on Amazon. Many of the sketches in this book have also been included in her Cuba coloring book. You can also see the whole range of Baross’ books, including her wonderful magical realism novel, Jose Builds a Woman, also available on Amazon.

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Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links. If you click on one of the links and make a purchase, I will earn a small commission. This helps cover the costs of running the site and it costs you nothing extra at all. And I never recommend anything I don’t use or love myself. I loved this book! Thanks for considering it.

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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The entrance gate that leads into the almost-hidden Květnice Garden on Petřín hill.

8 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 Insiders’ Tips, 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 still 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 to do those things and enjoy them.

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 Insiders’ Tips for traveling to Prague I was looking for when I first visited this gorgeous city.

My Personal Guide for Insider Tips for Traveling to Prague.

Guenther Krumpak, my personal guide to Prague

Guenther, my guide for traveling to 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 Insiders’ Tips to visiting 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 Insiders Tips for traveling to Prague that 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.”

1. The Hidden Garden of Květnice

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.

2. Černý’s Upside-Down Horse and Lucerna Gallery

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.

3. 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). For more pictures, visit their web page. (in Czech).

4. 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 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.

5. A Discount at Prague Castle

While we’re in the area of the Castle—which you WILL want to visit when traveling to Prague—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.

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 there’s a lot to see. And don’t miss Golden Lane!

6. 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

7. Feed the Swans at Vltava Beach

There is a small, man-made sandy “beach” on the banks of the Vltava 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.

8. 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


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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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

Visiting Amsterdam’s IJ-Hallen: Europe’s Largest Flea Market

Amsterdam’s IJ-Hallen—it’s where the savvy Dutch go to find inexpensive Amsterdam Hip, Shabby Chic, Boho, Mid-Century Modern, still-serviceable clothes, and just plain used stuff. It’s a genuine flea market, the largest in Europe, and here’s why you really need to go.

Stalking Bargains, Treasures and Trash

I’m a bargain junkie. Always have been; probably always will be. Flea markets, swap meets, rummage sales…I’m in my element. Garage sales? Let me at ’em. I’m even pretty good at dumpster diving. With the goodies I’ve discovered, I’ve furnished homes and clothed bodies, and sometimes made a living. I’ve run stalls in antique markets, sold vintage goods on eBay.

So picture me in heaven walking around the largest genuine flea market in Europe. IJ-Hallen, the Amsterdam Vlooienmarkt, is housed in a couple of monster industrial buildings on Amsterdam’s hip north side. For one weekend every 3-4 weeks, the treasure hunt is on and those huge, high-ceiling buildings buzz with goods and greats, intense bargaining, food and fun. And they are a great way to see the Dutch in their own element. Hippie and hipster alike come to IJ-Hallen, along with young moms on a budget, eclectic collectors, college students, and dealers with shopping carts looking for great merchandise for their more upscale stores. You’ll get a wonderful overview of Dutch society.

Vendors and eclectic goods at Amsterdam's IJ-Hallen flea market.

These people are like me–flea markets make them happy.
And the Amsterdam IJ-Hallen flea market is Europe’s largest and one of its best.


About the Buildings

The buildings themselves are part of the show. They used to be giant ship-building and repair structures for the NDSM (Nederlandse Droogdok en Scheepsbouw Maatschappij—Netherlands Drydock and Shipbuilding Company). Ships were built and outfitted here for more than a hundred years until the company went bankrupt in 1984.

After the buildings were abandoned, they became perfect fodder for the long Amsterdam tradition of “squatting” by artists and other creative and free-thinking types. And where artists go, so goes the crowd, and the fun. The whole neighborhood of Noord (North) has become a creative destination, mostly playing off the old industrial look. You can find galleries and artists’ lofts, buildings made of shipping containers, graffiti walls, performance venues and good food and drink. A flea market made the perfect shopping experience for such a neighborhood. The attitude is visible on the very walls of the IJ-Hallen warehouse—Make Art, Not €.

Sign on the entrance of the IJ-Hallen flea market-"Make Art Not €"

The entrance to the IJ-Hallen flea market expresses perfectly the attitude of this hip an artsy neighborhood:
Make Art, Not € [Euros].

Iron seams and gaps in the concrete floor make it important to watch where you are stepping at IJ-Hallen

Watch where you step. These old industrial floors can catch you unaware.

These buildings were designed for ships, big ones, and everything that went with them. This hard and heavy industrial past is clear in the buildings’ bones. The ceiling stretches up to forever, with high windows to let in the light. The visible structural bones are raw and gritty. The floors are criss-crossed with iron rails and bumps in the concrete, making it important to watch your step carefully. Since heating such an enormous space would be impossible, be sure to wear something warm if you are hitting it on one of the winter markets.

There is an entrance fee of 5€, or 2€ for children. Consider it the price of a half-day’s entertainment. When you pay the fee, you’re given a yellow plastic poker-chip-sized token, so you can leave and re-enter. You’ll find toilets near the entrance, for which you will be asked to pay a small fee.

What You’ll Find at Amsterdam’s IJ-Hallen Flea Market

There’s a pretty short list of what you can’t find at IJ-Hallen, though it’s heavy on used clothing and light on furniture and true antiques. With 500 inside stalls, and another 250 or so outside when the weather allows, you’re bound to find something you need and can stuff into your suitcase.

I saw several tables dealing is vinyl records, lots of kitchen gadgetry, glassware, ceramics. There were tchotchkes galore, from wall hangings to tennis rackets made into mirrors, to vintage marbles, to beer steins, to Delft tiles to combat boots, to tools, to… well, you get the idea. It’s nothing if not eclectic, with random trash and treasures in every corner. No new or wholesaled merchandise is allowed at the IJ-Hallen flea market, which makes the hunt all the richer.

Racks of used clothing are lined up in the cavernous building of IJ-Hallen

The IJ-Hallen flea market is heavy on used clothes. I saw tables of items for 5€ each.

Like with any true flea market, you need to arrive early for the best items and stay late for the best prices. I was there in the afternoon, and just before closing many things were practically being given away. I bought two pretty scarves for one Euro total, and the owner threw in a third for free. Bargaining is allowed and expected. And do bring cash. Most sellers are not set up to take credit cards.

Rather than tell you more about what you might find on any given trip to IJ-Hallen, why don’t I just show you. Here’s just some of what I saw:

A Beatles tapestry, a large carved advertising head and a Snow White figurines share a display at IJ-Hallen.

The mix of merchandise at IJ-Hallen is nothing if not eclectic! And a lot of fun.

A vintage black rotary phone at IJ-Hallen

I hate it when things I have used for more than half my life are now “vintage”–or worse still, antiques.

A metal chocolate bar mold shares a table with a ceramic cat.

A mold for making chocolate bars and a ceramic cat seem to enjoy each others’ company.


A mix of books, shoes, dishes and other merchandise

Books, shoes, dishware, and tchotchkes are just some of what you find at IJ-Hallen

Blue-and-white Delft tiles and black wooden shoes sit on a table.

Classic blue-and-white Delft tiles sit beside iconic wooden shoes. What could be more Dutch?


Blue-and-white Delft-style coffee service and cobalt blue glass bowls on a table.

Blue-and-white Delft ware goes well with cobalt glass. I would buy those bowls!

Brightly multi-colored ceramic cows stand beside other goods.

Bright ceramic cows line up for inspection beside enamel plates and a wooden shoe bottle opener.


A rack of scarves on sale for half a Euro.

Towards the end of the day, merchants drop prices drastically! I got 3 of these scarves for 1€.

Persian-style carpets on a table at IJ-Hallen.

These Asian carpets are popular in Amsterdam, due to the country’s long occupation of Indonesia.


Taking the Hunger Edge Off

All those hours of wandering the aisles, wondering if you can get such treasures home, and trying on used shirts over your clothes can work up an appetite. Not a problem. There are food stands for snacks and hot drinks. Try a Dutch specialty like saucijzenbroodjes (sausage rolls), frites (French fries), or my very favorite, poffertjes, which are small, pillowy pancakes smothered in melted butter and powdered sugar.

Getting There is Half the Fun

It’s not hard to get to IJ-Hallen and Amsterdam Noord. And it’s fun because you have to cross the water. The efficient Dutch have taken care of that with free ferries that cross the IJ regularly.

Go to Central Station and walk all the way straight through the station and out the rear to the north side. You’ll be facing the River IJ, where the free ferries dock. The one you want is to the left as you emerge from the station. Look for ferry #906 going to “NDSM-werf.” It is not at all hard to find.

The free ferries run every 30 minutes on weekends and the crossing takes about 15 minutes. On the way, you’ll get a wonderful view of the futuristic building of the Eye Film Institute and Museum. The IJ-Hallen flea market is a 5-minute walk from the ferry landing. Just follow the crowds.

The flea market used to be held on the first weekend of every month, but that seems to have changed to a more erratic schedule. It’s important to check their calendar to be sure of the dates. You can find it in English at http://ijhallen.nl/en/ It is open on specified Saturdays and Sundays from 9 am to 4:30 pm.

The downhill car of the Heidelberg Funicular--the Bergbahn--descends into the station at Kornmarkt.

The Heidelberg Funicular to the Castle: Riding with my Grandfather

The ride up the Heidelberg Funicular to the city’s famous castle is smooth, quiet, shiny. It wasn’t always that way. Did my grandfather know it then?

Photo of the Week: The Heidelberg Funicular

The downhill car of the Heidelberg Funicular--the Bergbahn--descends into the station at Kornmarkt.

The downhill car of the Heidelberg Funicular–the Bergbahn–descends into the station at Kornmarkt, in the city’s Old Town.



The Heidelberger Bergbahn (the Mountain Railway) is famous. Everyone wants to visit the glorious ruin of Heidelberg Castle, perched atop a high hill above the city’s Old Town. And no one much wants to walk up that steep hill. I certainly didn’t. It was summer, and hot. I’d already been on a walking tour of Old Town earlier that day. And even a sweet sit-down at an outdoor café with a magically good piece of apple tart and milky coffee didn’t mean I was ready to climb up so far to see the “Schloss.”

I did take a look at the route. Perhaps I just wanted to know what I was avoiding. I saw that I had a couple of choices for hoofing it. I could walk up a steep, winding path. Or I could climb a staircase—a very long staircase, with 315 steps. And just so you don’t forget how far you still have to go, the steps are numbered for you. That apple tart was sitting heavier in my stomach as I contemplated that staircase.

So no, I had no urge to climb that day. Off I went to examine option two, the famous Heidelberg funicular. Much better!

I love funiculars. Something about the steep ascent and the oddly canted cars speaks to me, I suppose. And besides that, I had purchased a Heidelberg Card, the pass that gets you significant discounts on city attractions plus free rides on the public transportation system. Included with my card was a combination ticket for entrance to the castle grounds and a round-trip funicular ride to get you up there and back.

While waiting the few minutes for the funicular car to descend to us, I checked out the fascinating photo exhibit about the history of the Heidelberg funicular. And that is when it became just a bit magical for me.

The funicular first opened in 1890, when my grandfather was a 10-year-old boy growing up in this beautiful city. Unfortunately, I never knew him; he died when my own father was a very small child. But now, in his city of birth, I felt like I was starting to learn him, just a bit. As I’d wandered the narrow lanes of Old Town, I felt him walking beside me, gently touching my elbow now and then to whisper, “Look over there, girl. I used to know the owner of that shop. He gave me sweets after school. And there, that corner, we must turn there and I will show you something wonderful.”

Some History….

From the photo exhibit, I learned how the original Heidelberg funicular operated, and I thought it ingenious.

There are two cars—one to go up while the other is coming down. Originally, each car was fitted with a tank that could hold eight cubic meters of water. At the top, the water tank of the car heading down was filled. That much water is heavy, and once the brake was released, the extra weight caused the car to descend. As it dropped, it pulled the cables that caused the bottom car to rise. At the bottom, the water was drained out and pumped back up to the top again through a steam-powered pumping system.

Today, the trains are electrified. There are two distinct stages of the funicular, lower and upper. The first stage delivers you to the entrance to the majestic ruined castle. It’s all shiny and new now, with smooth lines in stainless steel outlining the modern rolling stock. The cars are less than a dozen years old with five comfortable passenger compartments that can carry 100 people at a time. There are large panoramic windows so you can get the whole benefit of the view. They are even heated for winter trips.

The second stage, opened in 1907, did not exist when my grandfather might have been here. It is not so shiny new. In fact, it uses the original wooden cars, though completely refurbished and very charming.

I took those Victorian-era cars as my mental model on the ride up to the castle. And on that ride, I began to wonder….

Remembering the Unknown

Had my grandfather ridden up this steep, 41% gradient in a wooden car as a child, some 125 years ago? Did my great-grandfather perhaps bring the whole family here on a Sunday outing, after church of course, to see this modern marvel?

Or maybe a few years later…. When he was 16, did my grandfather, Michael Meyer, ride up the steep hill in this very place, maybe with his sister Clara beside him? Or perhaps even with a sweetheart? Did that almost-a-man teenage boy feel the need to visit the castle and, more importantly, look down on the beautiful city and the gently curving Neckar River below? Did he count the arches in the ancient stone bridge crossing the river? Did he memorize the line of the trees on the other side?

Did my grandfather need to go up there that day to say good-bye to the city of his birth, knowing he would never see her again, before he got on a boat to America?
I rode up, I looked at the city below, at the river and the bridge and the line of trees. And I wondered….


A combined ticket for a round-trip ride on the Heidelberg funicular and entrance to the castle grounds, the pharmacy museum and the giant wine barrel, cost 7€ in summer of 2016. If you purchase a Heidelberg Card, these tickets are included, as is a pass for unlimited use of the city’s public transit system. The Heidelberg Card is available at the Tourist Information Office directly in front of the central train station. The summer 2016 price was 15€ for a one-day card or 17€ for two days.

To get to the Kornmarkt funicular station, take a #33 bus from the central train station or the Bismarkplatz and get off at the “Rathhaus/Bergbahn” stop. You will be directly in front of the new and modern funicular station on your right. Funicular trains run every 10 minutes.

Catalan Christmas Tradition of the Caga Tio or Poop Log

Two Dozen Christmas Traditions Around the World

Wherein we learn that Christmas traditions around the world are not always what we think they are going to be…because people are not always the same everywhere. That’s why we travel. To learn the differences!

You probably take the Christmas traditions of your family and your country pretty much for granted. I know I always did… before I started to travel internationally. Once I spent my first Christmas away from home, I realized that the Santa Claus of the Coca-Cola ads, turkey and ham on the table, and stockings by the fireplace were neither the universal nor the only ways to celebrate the holiday around the world.

When I lived in London in 1970, I learned about Father Christmas, stirring the Christmas pudding and Boxing Day. In Amsterdam, I learned about Sinterklaas and Zwaarte Piet and giving gifts to children on December 5th. When I moved to Mexico, the importance of the posadas was a new lesson, and then I learned about Three Kings Day on January 6th. All these new and different Christmas traditions enriched my life.

The celebrations of the holiday are rich and varied, and Christmas traditions around the world run a very wide gamut of food, fun and the frankly odd. Traveling is one of the best ways to experience them. But you can read about them too. Here is a round two dozen you may not have heard about:

1 – A Spicy Drink with a Funny Name in Chile

Cola de Mono, or Monkey's Tail, a delicious drink that is a Christmas tradition in Chile

“Cola de Mono” or Monkey’s Tail, is a spicy coffee drink that’s a Christmas tradition in Chile. Photo by Gloria Apara Paillas.

The most traditional and very popular Christmas drink in Chile is a smooth and creamy concoction called Cola de Mono, or Monkey’s Tail, and not even the locals seem to know where it got its name. It is made with coffee, milk, sugar, spices and aguardiente. Egg yolks are sometimes added. You can buy it pre-made in supermarkets all over Chile at this time of year, just like you can buy eggnog in U.S. supermarkets, but it’s easy to make from scratch at home. Cola de Mono is often drunk with Pan de Pascua, a special holiday fruitcake. You can find a recipe to make your own Cola de Mono on my friend Gloria’s blog, The Nomadic Chica.

2 – Fried Chicken in Japan

Ever since the mid-’70s, fried chicken from KFC has been THE traditional Christmas Eve meal in Japan. The chain’s holiday “Kentucky for Christmas” TV commercials feature pop stars and smiling kids in Santa hats dancing with full boxes and buckets of the holiday treat. The company does so much business on this one day that company execs have to leave their desks to help keep the lines moving in the stores. Many people reserve their buckets of fried chicken months in advance to avoid the waits of up to two hours in line.

3 – A Christmas Tradition of Books and Respect for Reading in the Icy North

In Iceland, it’s a wonderful holiday tradition to give gifts of books on Christmas Eve. And then of course you want to get right into them, so you stay up all night reading them. Of all these Christmas traditions, this one might be my favorite!

4 – Girls’ Luck for the Year Ahead?

The Czech people have a tradition or superstition related to Christmas: A young unmarried women will throw a shoe over her shoulder on Christmas Day. If it lands with the toe pointing towards the door, she will soon be married. If not, she is destined to remain a spinster for another year…. which I don’t actually see as a piece of bad luck myself!

5 – What a Web They Weave

In the Ukraine, the most common decorations for the Christmas tree are spiders and spider webs. This comes from a folk tale about a family too poor to afford any decorations for their tree so they had to go to bed on Christmas Eve with its branches bare. The spiders living in the house felt so bad for them that they worked through the night spinning their webs around the tree. When the children awoke on Christmas morning, the tree was covered with filmy webs, which then turned to gold and silver, assuring the family’s fortunes forever more. These kinds of feel-good Christmas traditions show up all over the world.

A Ukrainian spiderweb Christmas tree decoration.

In Ukraine, it is a Christmas tradition to decorate the tree with spiders and spider webs.

6- Heather and Driftwood in the Arctic

And speaking of Christmas trees…. In Greenland, Christmas trees have become popular, just like in so much of the rest of the world, but every single one of them has to be imported. No trees will grow this far north! Instead of imported trees, many Greenlanders decorate a driftwood “tree” with heather.

7- Home of the US Trees

And still speaking of Christmas trees…. In the U.S., the largest number of Christmas trees are grown in the state of Oregon. Of those, some 80% come from the Willamette Valley, south of Portland… which is also where most of the state’s best wines come from!

Christmas traditions mean Christmas trees. Here is an Oregon Christmas tree farm in front of a snow-covered Mt. Hood

An Oregon Christmas tree farm in Clackamas County with Mt. Hood in the background.
Photo Courtesy of www.MtHoodTerritory.com

8- Keeping the Goblins Away

In Greece, one of the oldest Christmas traditions is to keep a fire burning in the house for the entire 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany (January 6th). This is meant to keep away the killantzaroi or bad spirits. These little bad guys creep in through the chimney, only at this time of year, to wreak such havoc as making the milk spoil and putting the fires out!

9 – Apples for Love

In Croatia, it is a very old tradition for young men to give beautifully decorated apples to their girlfriends on Christmas Day.

10 – Mass and Hockey

In Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas, called Ganna, on January 7th. The people dress all in white, usually in a traditional toga-like garment called a shamma. The people begin arriving early for the Ganna mass, which starts at 4:00 am and can go on for hours. After mass, the men play a hockey-like game, still in their long white shammas.

11 – Unique Transportation

In Caracas, Venezuela, the normally busy streets take on a unique look early on Christmas Day. They are closed off to traffic before 8 am so people can roller skate to early mass! Yep, people don roller blades to glide through the streets to church by the thousands.

12 – Pooping Presents!

Sometimes Christmas traditions are downright silly and even a bit gross. In Catalonia, in the northeastern part of Spain, there is an ancient and popular tradition called Caga Tió, which translates as the “Poop Log” (and yes, it means just what you think it does). It’s a log, traditionally hollowed out, with a happy face on one end and wearing a bright red Catalan hat. Beginning December 8th, the log is pampered by the children and draped with a blanket to keep it warm. On Christmas Eve, they hit it with a stick while singing a special song instructing it to “poop presents” for them. Then the blanket is removed to reveal presents (stealthily placed by mom and dad) of candy, tourrón nougat and small gifts.

Catalan Christmas Traditions include the Caga Tio or Poop Log

In the Catalan Christmas Tradition of the “Caga Tió” or Poop Log, the log is pampered by the children until Christmas Eve then beaten with sticks and ordered to “poop presents.” Photo by Slastic

13 – Burning the Dirt Devils

Guatemalans want their homes really clean for Christmas. They also want to be very sure the devil is not allowed inside. So one of their main Christmas traditions is to sweep the houses very clean just before Christmas, pile up all the dirt and dust and bring it to a communal pile in the neighborhood. Then they add an ugly devil’s head to the top of the pile and burn that sucker up. Ah, the neighborhood is not only clean but safe for another year!

14 – Christmas Specials in a Muslim Land

Indonesia is 80% Muslim, but there are still 20 million Christians in the country and the spirit of Christmas has taken hold throughout the land. Santa Claus, called Sinterklaas, is a holdover from the days when the country was a Dutch colony, and all the kids quite expect him to bring them presents on Christmas Day. Oddly, Christmas music is broadcast on most Indonesian TV stations, and the state-owned channel always shows a big Christmas celebration put on by the Indonesian Government.

15 – Fancy Bread in Hungary

The main Christmas meal in Hungary is eaten on Christmas Eve. It’s a hearty meal of fish and cabbage and also features a special Christmas poppy seed bread/cake called beigli. Another very traditional Hungarian Christmas treat is gingerbread, often wrapped in brightly colored paper and decorated with Christmas scenes and figures.

16 – A Cleanse to Prepare

In Estonia, Christmas Eve is the big event, and it begins with a trip to the sauna! It is important to both relax and cleanse oneself for the celebrations ahead. Whole families will often go together. This is one of the Christmas traditions around the world I think I could really get into. After the sauna, you’re ready for Christmas Eve mass… for which the children will usually receive new clothes and shoes.

A group indulges in the Christmas traditions of saunas before Christmas Eve Mass in Estonia.

In Estonia, it is a long-time Christmas tradition to go to the sauna for a cleanse before going
to Christmas Eve Mass. ©Jorge Royan via Wikimedia Commons

17 – Beach Party Holiday

In Australia, Christmas falls in early summer. The only chance for a “White Christmas” is on a white sand beach! And so on Christmas Day, many Sydneysiders do what they do so well… they head to Bondi Beach for the Sunburnt Christmas Festival. About 4000 party-goers will show up for a day of DJs and dancing, surfing, bikini contests and lunch from the barbie.

18 – The Rooster Mass

Most people in Brazil will go to a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve or Missa do Galo (Mass of the Rooster). It’s named for the bird because the rooster announces the coming of day and the mass doesn’t usually finish until 1.00 am. After the Rooster Mass, there are usually big fireworks displays in the larger towns and cities. Since it is summertime, and usually quite hot on Christmas Day, the best of all Christmas traditions often means a trip to the beach!

19 – Christmas Witches on Brooms

In Italy, the big day for presents is Epiphany (January 6th) and it’s a witch who brings them! La Befana, complete with hooked nose and long black shawl, rides around on a broom. On the eve of Epiphany, she slides down chimneys to leave candies and gifts in the stockings of good children and lumps of coal for the naughty ones. She will also often use her means of transportation to sweep the floor while she’s at it!

20 – Weird Radishes

In the city of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, December 23rd is known as the Night of the Radishes. For more than 100 years, the city has held this huge festival and competition, where artisans carve scenes and tableaux from giant radishes! The tradition started in 1897 as a way to attract customers to the city’s Christmas Market, held in the zócalo, the town’s main square. Now, the one-day event draws over 100 contestants and thousands of visitors every year and is one of the most popular Christmas traditions in Mexico.

Grand prize winner at Oaxaca's Night of the Radishes, one of the most popular Christmas traditions in Mexico

“Dulces Tradicionales Oaxaqueños” was the grand prize winner in the 2014 Christmas festival
Night of the Radishes in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Alejandro Linares Garcia, CC license.

21 – Christmas Traditions for the Dead

Christmas Eve dinner in Portugal is the night to invite the whole family—including those who have passed on. Yes, inviting the ghosts of loved ones lost is a tradition there. Extra places are set at the table for these missing loved ones and some crumbs from dinner are also spread across the hearth to honor them.

22 – Eating Emperors???

A traditional part of the Christmas feast in South Africa is deep-fried caterpillars of the Emperor Moth. Since this is the season for harvesting the bug, which is preserved to eat throughout the winter, there is an abundant fresh supply at Christmas time. The caterpillars have three times as much protein, by weight, as beef! Munching on them is a beloved Christmas tradition. Well…to each his own, I guess.

23 – Lucky Santa

Although you may have grown up leaving milk and cookies out as a treat for Santa—and perhaps as a bribe so he will leave you lots of goodies, even if you’ve been naughty—in Ireland, the traditional Santa snack is mince pies and Guinness Ale. I’d say that was a pretty fine bribe!

Christmas traditions of mince pies to be left for Santa.

In Ireland, Christmas traditions include mince pies. They are left for Santa with a bottle of Guinness.
Photo by Christmas Stocking Images

24- Kissing Bough Christmas Traditions

The tradition of hanging mistletoe in the house figures in many Christmas traditions around the world. It also goes back many centuries, at least to the time of the Druids and the ancient Greeks. It has always been considered a sacred plant and was often believed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. It has also been associated with fertility, since it remains green all year long. Kissing under the mistletoe may have come from the old Norse belief that it is a symbol of Peace and enemies can safely lay down their arms if they meet beneath it. Today, many countries maintain the custom of kissing beneath the mistletoe for luck and romance.

I hoped you’ve learned a couple of new things about Christmas Traditions Around the World. Have you got other Christmas traditions and stories to share? I’d love to hear them, especially things you’ve learned on your travels throughout the world. Leave them in the comments below and we can all learn more about how the world celebrates this magical holiday. The more we know about each other, the more we understand… and the more we are able to share, to care, to love. And then perhaps the world will know peace.

Merry Christmas!

Remembering Joy in San Miguel de Allende:
The Conchero Dancers

How the Conchero Dancers—or Aztec Dancers—of San Miguel de Allende, and all the 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.