A Family Tradition Continued: Our Christmas Cocktail (with Recipe)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tempo Toddy Christmas Cocktail

For One Christmas Cocktail

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

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

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

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

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Hot cider Christmas Cocktail photo - Pinterest readyPin this image for a recipe of a warming and delicious holiday cocktail, from my family to yours.

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

Sleeping With Ike: The Eisenhower Hotel at Culzean Castle

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


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

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


Feeling At Home in Culzean

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

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

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

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

A Welcome with Afternoon Cream Tea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why the “Eisenhower Hotel”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Comfort of the Ailsa Suite

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

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

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

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

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

Culzean Castle: Romantic as All Get Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food Fine Enough to Match the Setting

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

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

So Much to See and Do at Culzean Castle

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

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

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

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

Culzean Castle: the Perfect Setting for a Hero.

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

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

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

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

So will you.

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

A tour of the castle is included in the price.

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

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

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

Prague Secrets–12 Insiders’ Tips for Traveling to Prague

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

Prague castle lit by the setting sun at dusk.

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

Prague is a New Old City

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

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

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

My Personal Guide to Hidden Prague.

Guenther Krumpak, my personal guide to Prague

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

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

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

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

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

The Hidden Garden of Květnice–a True Prague Secret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choco Cafe U Cervene Zidle

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sculpture Garden of Sternberg Palace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shop for Hedonistic Luxury at Botanicus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find Your Journal at Skoba Bookbinders—or Make Your Own

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Feed the Swans at Vltava Beach

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

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

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

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

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

Have Coffee and Pastry at the Art Nouveau Municipal House Café

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open every day from 7.30 am–11pm

A Discount at Prague Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stolpersteine: Stumbling Across Reminders of the Holocaust

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

Photo of The Week: Stolpersteine

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the Stolpersteine Came to Be

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

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

Personalizing the Holocaust, Bringing the Victims Home

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

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

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

Who Places the Stones?

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

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

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

One observation the artist has made is this:

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

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

Pin it for Later:Stolpersteine, The Holocaust Memorial under your feet in Europe
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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.

An orange-fringed Lion's Tail plant blooms along the arroyo, San Miguel de Allende

Walking in San Miguel-The Arroyo: a Photo Essay

I took a walk today in San Miguel de Allende. Walking in San Miguel is always a joy… as long as you watch your step to avoid a missing cobblestone, or a broken curb. Your walk can take you past 400+-year-old buildings, elegant Colonial churches, houses painted in jewel tones. The sun will more than likely be pouring down from a crystal blue sky. And you’ll pass many an interesting person, both Mexican and foreign, who are all part of the show.

A foot path runs beside the arroyo in San Miguel de Allende

The footpath beside the arroyo in San Miguel de Allende is calm,
an overgrown bit of peace.

But sometimes you want a quiet walk, just for a few minutes, and a bit of nature. And you don’t want to drive or taxi all the way up to El Charco, the town’s Botanical Garden, which is one of its ecological gems.

So when I took my walk today, I headed to the northeast edge of town. There, water comes down from El Charco and gathers in the Presa del Obraje reservoir. It spills over and through the dam into an arroyo. The stream threads its way through the lower part of town before spilling into the Rio Laja. In the rainy season, it pours and races. In dry times it’s barely a trickle. In 1991, when one of the upstream earthen dams burst in heavy rains, it raged, overflowed its banks, and wiped out several houses and part of the market at the bottom.

For much of its length, the arroyo is spotted with trash. As it flows down to meet Calzada Guadalupe, where it edges the San Juan de Dios mercado, it sometimes resembles an open sewer. The city talks a lot about cleaning it up. They’ve been talking about it for years. But so far, that’s mostly all it’s been—talk. One day it will happen. Land along the arroyo will shoot up in value when it becomes a popular and pretty “River Walk.” But not yet.

Beside the upper arroyo is nice for walking in San Miguel de Allende

The upper arroyo that runs through the northeast corner of town is a peaceful spot for walking in San Miguel de Allende.

However, there is one lovely spot for walking in San Miguel, near where the stream first enters the town on the east side. There it is still mostly fresh and cleaner where it first emerges from El Charco and heads down into town. Beginning near Calzada del Obraje, just below Calzada de la Presa, it runs alongside the Jose Vasconcelos School and beyond.Just here, the town has made a footpath, perfect for walking in San Miguel on a brief and peaceful afternoon stroll.

There’s a Path, and Then There’s Wildness

It’s not a long walk, perhaps two or three city blocks, mas o menos. And it is lovely for those who have eyes to see it.

An orange-fringed Lion's Tail plant blooms along the arroyo, San Miguel de Allende

The”Lion’s Heads” are putting out the orange fringe flowers that give them their name

The banks of the arroyo are wildly overgrown here, cluttered with Lions’ Tails, just now flowering their orange fringe. They are really a garden plant but have apparently self-seeded here from somewhere in the city. There are giant castor plants, growing wild like they do all over the countryside. Their clumps of spiny seed pods poke the air like upright grape clusters above large umbrella leaves. There is that particular rushy bamboo that grows everywhere here, and other weeds and grasses I can’t identify.

A clump of the spiny seed pods of a large castor plant is silhouetted against the San Miguel sky

A clump of the spiny seed pods of a large castor plant is silhouetted against the San Miguel sky

Nopal cactus, succulents and grasses grow wild along the arroyo banks.

Nopal cactus, succulents and grasses grow wild along the arroyo banks.

Down below me, where the water still runs, the banks are carpeted with a confetti of wild marigolds, the dependable gift of the rainy season’s end. Their golden prettiness softens the scene.

San Miguel is not a particularly quiet city, with its traffic and its roof dogs and its endless fireworks celebrating who knows what at any time. Sometimes walking in San Miguel can mean dodging cars, and almost always stopping to chat with a friend encountered along the way. But here along this little path, it is quiet. I seldom see other people on this walk, although today a schoolgirl passed me with a cheerful “Buenas tardes.” Her backpack full of books looked heavy.

This path was teeming with life today. A brown squirrel scampered across the path and over the rocks, heading down to the water. He was too quick and too shy for my camera to catch. Ferns and grasses waved in the light breeze, painting the banks with a palette of every shade of green. The water inched slowly by.

Water pools and runs at the bottom of the arroyo, past ferns and cactus and wild marigolds.

Water pools and runs at the bottom of the arroyo, past ferns and cactus and wild marigolds.

I counted half-a-dozen butterflies. There were small, flittering buttercup ones, like yellow hearts against the green growth. Another was black and gold, like a Monarch, but that makes no sense. They are well away int he far north now, storing up summer energy for their long flight back to Central Mexico come winter. I watched it a long time for a better look. I hoped it was not a stray somehow left behind or lost. I watched and waited for it to alight on a leaf, so I could study it further and maybe even snap a quick photo. It did not oblige and eventually headed off for whatever it was in search of.

I walked past many giant agaves, some solid blue-green and others playfully striped with yellow. I love how the unfurling fronds leave their imprint on the ones beneath. For so long, they were so tightly curled together at their birth that they can never now be truly apart. They will always carry the mark of those that opened to the world before them. They are a whole family in a single plant.

A green and yellow striped agave

Some agaves are blue-green in color. Others, like this one, are a gaily striped green and yellow.

It's easy to see the impression left by one agave leaf on the one below it, where it was tightly furled before opening.

The impression left by the outer agave leaf onto the one below it is clear, from being tightly furled before opening.

When Walking in San Miguel, You See Both New and Old

A tiny young plant, its leaves no bigger than a penny and its green juicy new, grew low at the base of an enormous tree. The tree is a pirule, a Mexican pepper tree. Planted on the other side of the fence, its thick main branch has leaned over the top, as if reaching for the water far below. It is old, gnarly and slowly being overtaken by ball moss, the gray-green air plants that clog its outer branches and hang down like moss. Unless someone climbs up and pulls them down—an unlikely thought—they could eventually cover the whole tree, choking off its air and light. But that will be the work of many years—probably many decades—and in the meantime, the tree offers its hosting for free.

A think branch of a pepper tree leans over toward the arroyo.

A pirule, or Mexican pepper tree, leans over the fence, offering its branches as a home for air plants.

Near the end of the path, almost to the Fabrica Aurora Art & Design Center parking lot, the path is edged by a chain-link fence. Beyond that fence is the Fabrica’s duck pond. Today the white ducks busily paddled about, pecked about or serenely floated about. A pair of them had climbed up onto the pond’s center islet, tucked their yellow beaks under one wing, and were enjoying a siesta in the shade.

A white duck paddles by on the Duck Pond at the Fabrica Aurora in San Miguel de Allende.

The duck pond at the Fabrica Aurora Arts & Design Center is always full of life… and quacking.

My phone dinged as I watched the ducks, a signal telling me I’d stepped back into WiFi range from the nearby café. The overgrown world of the arroyo path was behind me, and I returned to my more organized and human-made one. I was back in the controlled world.

I headed to Geek & Coffee, the café in the white building overlooking the duck pond, which was my intended destination all along. I sat there eating quiche stuffed with rich goat’s cheese and whole cherry tomatoes so plump they popped in my mouth when I bit into them. I drank a café latte. I opened my journal and began to write about walking in San Miguel de Allende, strolling along the quiet and overgrown arroyo.

The easiest way to enjoy a walk along the upper arroyo is to begin at the Fabrica Aurora, where my walk ended. Go to the far end of the parking lot, away from the entrance, and take the path to the right of the duck pond. It’s easy to walk along for a short distance, enjoying the wildness and the quiet, then turn around and walk back to the Fabrica Aurora again and a good cafe latte.

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

POTW: Restos: The Cemetery in San Miguel de Allende

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Grass… but Ahhh… Life Among the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Music in the Air of the Cemetery in San Miguel

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

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

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

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

Make Mine Mexican

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

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

Remembrance Day in the Netherlands: The Power of Silence

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

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

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

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

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

Remembrance Day in the Netherlands Comes First

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

Remembering My Remembering

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

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

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

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

People at a terrace cafe in the sun in Amsterdam

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

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

And the World Stopped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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