Lights, Camera, Action at The Palace of Versailles

There’s nothing quite like an afternoon of opulence at the Palace of Versailles.

After a short drive out from Paris, we bypassed the waiting crowds and walked right in.

It was almost as if we belonged in a crib like this… CONTINUE READING >> 

We are proud to be Viator Ambassadors

We are proud to be Viator Ambassadors – big thanks to Viator for providing this enlightening adventure! As always, all opinions are our own.

The Palace of Versailles near Paris, France

With the television series Versailles gaining in popularity, we thought that we would revisit the foremost French château for another look around.

The gates of the Palace of Versailles near Paris, France

Besides, there’s nothing quite like an afternoon of opulence at the Palace of Versailles.

After a short drive out from Paris, we bypassed the waiting crowds and walked right in (see how we pulled that off here).

It was almost as if we belonged in a crib like this… almost.

The Palace of Versailles near Paris, France

The Palace of Versailles from the gardens near Paris, France - GypsyNester.com

Truth is, it was a little before our time.

The Château de Versailles became the royal residence in 1682, when Louis the Fourteenth moved out of the Louvre in favor of the country house and gardens that had served as his father’s hunting lodge since 1624.

If you have watched the show then you know that major renovations were in order. One simply can’t rule properly from a hunting lodge.

The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles near Paris, France - GypsyNester.com

From our point of view it looks as though the redecorating was quite a success! No wonder Louis is known for his furnishings.

We were particularly enthralled by the Hall of Mirrors, and the artwork on the ceilings, but every room made it quite obvious that it was good to be king… that is… until there is a revolution.

The Palace of Versailles near Paris, France

The royal beds at the Palace of Versailles
The royal beds – nice, eh?

Inside the Palace of Versailles near Paris, France

But the rise of the republic did not vanquish the palace, even though many of the furnishings were hauled off by angry mobs — no cake for them — it has been restored to its previous glory.

Versailles continues to play host to political functions by hosting heads of state in the Hall of Mirrors, and housing meetings of the Sénat and the Assemblée whenever revisions or amendments are made to the French Constitution.

The garden at Versailles near Paris, France

Statue of man and lion in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles near Paris, France

Nearly as impressive as the interior, the grounds have to be seen to be believed as well.

After all, what is an emperor’s country château without a garden?

We wouldn’t have to answer that question, because Versailles has the backyard to end all backyards.

Even in late autumn, we were easily engulfed by its lovely, lush repose.

Just have time for one day in Paris? Here’s what to do!

Fountain of horses in the gardens of Versailles near Paris, France - GypsyNester.com

The gardens of the Palace of Versailles near Paris, France

Almost two thousand acres of trees, flowers, fountains, ponds, statues, and perfectly trimmed hedges forming designs and mazes, all with string quartet music perfectly piped throughout.

No kidding, no matter where we walked it always sounded like they were right behind the next tree.

The gardens of the Palace of Versailles near Paris, France

Over time the gardens fell into a state of overgrowth, but now the Petit Parc – Louis XIV’s pleasure garden – is being restored to the same condition that it was in at the end of his reign in 1715.

Statue of La Seine in the gardens of Versailles near Paris, France
La Seine

And these are no made for TV reproductions either, this is the real deal.

Talk bout reality TV.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

DELVE DEEPER:
Just have time for one day in Paris? Here’s what to do!
See where we stayed in Paris
Want to see our full collection of odd art at the Louvre?
Head deep inside the Catacombes de Paris
Take a peek inside the Arc de Triomphe
Check out more about Notre Dame Cathedral
See more of our antics at the Eiffel Tower
Want more Paris? Click here!
Check out all of our adventures in France!

YOUR TURN: Is Paris at the top of your must-see list? Or have you already checked it off? What would be YOUR first stop in Paris?

T’was the Night Before Thanksgiving

T’was the night before Thanksgiving and all through New York everybody was stirring in every apartment and house.

As I rounded a corner on Columbus Avenue what to my wondering eyes should appear
a festively dressed elf, face down sticking up his…. CONTINUE READING >> 

T’was the night before Thanksgiving and all through New York
everybody was stirring in every apartment and house.
As I rounded a corner on Columbus Avenue
what to my wondering eyes should appear
a festively dressed elf, face down sticking up his rear.

macys thanksgiving elf

Certain this odd sight needed more inspection,
I turned on 81st to check out more balloon’s inflation.

macys thanksgiving dino

While there were no tiny reindeer anywhere to be found,
a huge Dino the dinosaur was hanging around.

macys thanksgiving helium truck

With no help from Santa these giants would soon fly,
after being filled with helium from a nearby semi.

macys thanksgiving pumpkin

As the sun began setting in the far western sky,
I thought about turkey, potatoes and pie
for our feast on the ‘morrow after the parade.
We wish all Happy Holidays and a great Thanksgiving day.

David, GypsyNester.com

Talkin’ Turkey: What Travel Taught Us About the First Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is upon us.

Cue the pictures of cheery Pilgrims supping with the friendly natives and images of The Mayflower triumphantly landing at Plymouth Rock.

Ah yes, all of that happy history we were taught as baby boomer children… and none of it is true.

We were not on a quest for truth when we made our pilgrimage to Plymouth, Massachusetts, just taking in a little history, but once… CONTINUE READING >> 

The Mayflower replica in Plymouth, Massachusetts
The Mayflower replica in Plymouth, Massachusetts

Thanksgiving is upon us. Cue the pictures of cheery Pilgrims supping with the friendly natives and images of The Mayflower triumphantly landing at Plymouth Rock.

Ah yes, all of that happy history we were taught as baby boomer children… and almost none of it is true.

We were not on a quest for truth when we made our pilgrimage to Plymouth, Massachusetts, just taking in a little history, but once we were there, a little digging certainly opened our eyes.

The first hint that our 1960s grade school instruction may have been a tad embellished came when we hit the visitor center to ask for directions to Plymouth Rock. “Hope you guys brought a magnifying glass,” snarked the lady behind the desk as she pointed down the road.

The Plymouth Rock monument

Without fully grasping the gist of her statement, we headed across the road toward the monument that houses the famous rock where the first Americans landed. Giddy with the exhilaration that can only come from setting one’s eyes on a truly epic piece of history, we leaned over the rail and peered down into the hole where Plymouth Rock is displayed.

Plymouth Rock - it's TINY!

The thing is tiny. At best one pilgrim could “land” on this pebble.

On closer inspection, turns out almost everything we were taught while we were drawing turkeys using the outlines of our hands was a complete fairy tale. The actual first Americans, the”friendly Indians” from those stories, were simply so emaciated and weak from the smallpox they had contracted from previous European visitors that they had no strength to fight off the Pilgrim invaders who were busy digging up their graves, raiding their food supplies, and commandeering their fishing and hunting grounds.

Wait a minute, previous visitors? Yup, the Pilgrims were no where near the first settlers in America. The Spanish arrived in the South and West over one hundred years earlier, and other Europeans had been tromping around New England stealing food and spreading disease for decades, centuries if you count the Vikings.

So at Plymouth a few leaders of the depleted remnants of the local tribe of Wampanoag people decided to employ the old “if we can’t beat them, join them” strategy in the hopes of surviving. Not quite the gracious “hey, welcome to America, here let us show you how to grow corn and eat turkey” that we were fed as youngsters.

Plaque commemorating the National Day of MourningPlaque commemorating the National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Massachusetts

Furthermore, this was the Mayflower Pilgrims’ second encounter with natives. The first time around wasn’t even remotely friendly. The Mayflower first landed on the tip of Cape Cod, where Provincetown is today. There’s even a huge monument marking the landing.

Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, Massachusetts
Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, Massachusetts

However, these indigenous inhabitants had not been nearly wiped out by viral onslaughts from previous pioneers and were not real big on having their buried food stores dug up and stolen, so they were decidedly unfriendly and sent the Pilgrims packing.

Hold on just a dad-blame second there, what do you mean first landed? Everyone knows the Pilgrims first set foot on North America at Plymouth! We’ve seen the pictures. There they are, stepping out of the boat right onto Plymouth Rock.

Wrong, fact is there wasn’t even such a thing as Plymouth Rock until over a century after the Mayflower’s landing. It wasn’t until 1741, 121 years after the Mayflower, that 94-year-old Thomas Faunce claimed he knew the exact rock that the Pilgrims first trod upon. A few years later, in 1774, the townsfolk decided that the rock should be moved to the town meeting hall.

But for some reason the good people of Plymouth decided that only half of the rock needed to be relocated, so they split it in two. Over the next century, the rock was moved hither and yon, and chunks were hacked off of it for shows and souvenirs. Ultimately in 1880, with only about 1/3 of it remaining, the famous stone was returned to its original spot on the waterfront in Plymouth and the number 1620 carved into it.

Over the years the lore has been woven into the Thanksgiving story until it became more legend than history. But feel free to share this real tale around the holiday table, it’s got to be better than talking about politics.

Bon appétit!

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

Get a Gettysburg Getaway

We steeped ourselves in history!

It may not have been four score and seven years ago, but it has been quite a while since we visited Gettysburg with our three young children in tow, so we were more than ready to refresh our memories with a return getaway.

The history is timeless, that part has not changed, but there are certainly plenty of reasons for another visit, first and foremost… CONTINUE READING >> 

Thanks to Destination Gettysburg for sponsoring this post. As always, all opinions are our own.

It may not have been four score and seven years ago, but it has been quite a while since we visited Gettysburg with our three young children in tow, so we were more than ready to refresh our memories with a return getaway.

The history is timeless, that part has not changed, but there are certainly plenty of reasons for another visit, first and foremost being the National Military Park itself.

Vistors Center at Gettysburg

Graves at Gettysburg

Of course the locations of the largest land battle ever fought in North America remain untouched, but there is a new Museum and Visitor Center since we last passed this way.

As home to the park’s massive collection of Civil War artifacts, and the fully restored Gettysburg Cyclorama, the center is a must for starting any exploration of the historic site.

We especially found the film A New Birth of Freedom, narrated by Morgan Freeman, to be an inspiring send off before heading out into the fields.

A reinactment in Gettysburg

Like most folks, we chose to see the park by car (well, small RV) and follow the many roads that wind throughout the battlefields.

These have plenty of places to pull off and walk around for a closer look too.

For those who don’t feel like driving there are also guided bus tours available, or the more adventurous can explore by riding bikes or horses, or go modern on a Segway.

After an afternoon of experiencing those three turbulent days in July of 1863, we were ready to investigate our options for room and board.

A reinactment in Gettysburg

Back in our younger days we sheltered the troops by bivouacking with the five of us piled into a tent, but those days of sleeping on the ground are well behind us now.

No problem, there are a myriad of accommodation options to choose from, budget to luxurious, modern to historic, and anything in between.

The same can also be said of the gastronomic choices around town. No cooking over a campfire this time.

There is everything from fast food to gourmet, but we couldn’t think of anything more fun than sitting down to sup at an authentic Revolutionary War era roadhouse.

The Dobbin House Tavern lays claim to be Gettysburg’s oldest and most historic home. The main house, which served as a hospital for wounded soldiers from both the North and the South, is now a fine dining restaurant that is accurately appointed with period pieces.

But for us the Springhouse Tavern, hidden away in a basement that was once a station for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad, was a perfect choice. Along with the casual fare in a remarkable setting, the location put us only steps away from the National Cemetery and our evening’s entertainment.

With darkness falling, and the site of Lincoln’s immortalized address at the final resting place for over three thousand Union soldiers right across the street, we were feeling like there may have been some spirits from beyond in the vicinity.

Considering the history, it’s no wonder Gettysburg has an ample supply of ghost tours to choose from. Some focus more on the historic aspects of the town, while others concentrate their attention on the supernatural.

We were happy to have found one with a balance between the two, led by what we could call a happy medium.

Yikes! When I start breaking out the bad puns like that it must be time to wrap things up, so let me just add that for more information check out: DestinationGettysburg.com

David, GypsyNester.com

Thanks to Destination Gettysburg for sponsoring this post. As always, all opinions are our own.

To Helsinki, Finland and Back

Blue skies above the White City of the North!

Explore with your GypsyNesters a church carved inside a gigantic rock, a huge sculpture that proves music is a visual art, lovely domed architecture, and what has to be the most surprisingly elegant Burger King on the planet… CONTINUE READING >> 

A big thanks to Viking Ocean Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure through the Viking Homelands! Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Norway. As always, all opinions are our own.

Helsinki, Finland

We began the day greeted by a rainbow as we enjoyed breakfast on our stateroom balcony while the ship pulled into port of Helsinki, Finland.

With Somewhere Over the Rainbow popping into our heads, we prepared for our trek into the Emerald, no wait, they call this the White City of the North, confident in the belief that there would be no wicked witch encounters awaiting.

The rainbow proved to be a good omen, since the skies cleared just in time for us to head into the city from the docks.

This Church Rocks!

The rock church in Helsinki, Finland

Our first stop was the unique Temppeliaukio Kirkko (Rock Church), which is carved into a block of underground granite and covered by a domed copper roof.

The rock church in Helsinki, Finland

The rock church in Helsinki, Finland

The idea for the church was first proposed in 1939, but the project wasn’t finished until 1969.

The end result was something that definitely came from an imagination out of this world, and it looks to be tornado proof too.

Leaving the temple we came across a more normal landmark with a quick drive by of the Olympic Stadium.

The arena was originally built for the 1940 Olympics, but those games were cancelled due to World War II, so the field became the site of the 1952 Olympics.

The Olympic Stadium in Helsinki, Finland

Music as Art

Our detour from the whimsical didn’t last long though, since our next stop looked as if it could have been right out of Oz.

The Jean Sibelius monument in Helsinki, Finland

The Sibelius Monument, with its conglomeration of six hundred pipes reminiscent of an organ, is dedicated to Finland’s most famous composer Jean Sibelius.

The Jean Sibelius monument in Helsinki, Finland

Oddly, he didn’t play organ, but the twenty-four ton sculpture has been embraced by Fins as a fitting tribute to the man who became a national hero when his music helped to inspire Finland’s fight for freedom from Russia.

The Jean Sibelius monument in Helsinki, Finland

Senate Square

The green domed Cathedral of Helsinki, Finland

We spent the rest of the day exploring the center of the city on foot, beginning at the massive Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral. As we walked toward its gleaming white with gold topped emerald domes, it certainly made us feel as if we might have wandered into the land of Munchkins and flying monkeys.

The stunning church is flanked by matching mirror images of the University of Helsinki and the Government Palace buildings. These form the outline of Senate Square, surrounding a statue of Czar Alexander II.

Statue of Russian Czar Alexander ll in front of Helsinki Cathedral in Finland

The Finnish National Theater in Helsinki, Finland
The Finnish National Theater

The Russian ruler, who became known in Finland as The Good Czar, is credited with building Helsinki into the grand city that it is today after Russia took control in the early eighteen hundreds.

No word on whether he arrived by balloon or ever hid behind a curtain.

The train station in Helsinki, Finland

What has to be the Most Surprisingly Elegant Burger King on the Planet

Working our way out from the square, we were stopped in our tracks by the Helsinki Central railway station.

It’s no wonder that this was chosen as one of the world’s most beautiful railway stations by the BBC.

The most surprizingly elegant Burger King on the planet!

The impressive exterior concealed a curious secret we never expected, a Burger King.

Not that strange you say?

It is to find a fast food joint with such elegance and style.

A huge fresco designed by Eero Järnefelt dominates the wall above the counter.

The most surprizingly elegant Burger King on the planet!

The entire restaurant project was done in cooperation with the National Board of Antiquities, taking special care to protect the artwork from kitchen grease and fumes with powerful air conditioning.

The most surprizingly elegant Burger King on the planet!

The idea was to preserve as much as possible from the original historic building, including no structural changes and incorporating some of the original furniture into the décor.

The magnificent golden-domed Eastern Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki, Finland

Like Dorothy and friends drawn to the wizard we returned to Senate Square, but noticed a magnificent golden domed structure perched on a hill across a small bridge.

We followed the road, sans yellow bricks, and discovered that it was the Eastern Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral.

Built a hundred years ago, this is the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe.

The red bricks, taken from the Bomarsund Fortress after it was destroyed in the Crimean War, provide a striking contrast to the thirteen green and gold onion domes representing Christ and the twelve apostles.

Now we were really starting to think that they should have nicknamed this the emerald…­ and gold, city.

Finnish Street Food!

Below the cathedral on the edge of the harbor we found a big open air market set up in the very aptly named Market Square.

Summer outdoor market in Helsinki, Finland

Since we arrived in the short summer season, fruits and vegetables were the big attraction and the vendors were happy to offer free samples.

We snacked on fresh cherries, strawberries, and peas while strolling through the rows of stands.

Clothing and trinkets were popular too, but food tents seemed to be the big favorites of tourists and locals alike.

The choices ran the gamut of traditional Norse country comfort foods, such as reindeer steaks and sausages, moose (which they are known as elk in these parts), and a wide variety of seafood.

Stirring up muikku vendace, whole fried fish, in an outdoor market in Helsinki, Finland

One curiousity we spied at several booths was a local specialty called muikku, fried whole small fish.

Acting as adventurous as always, we ordered a plate, along with some salmon soup, before bothering to ask exactly what sort of fish they were.

Luckily they were a delicious little fresh water variety known as vendace, a cousin of the salmon, but basically a sardine.

Pan fried and served with garlic sauce, they are considered a summer-time delicacy in Finland, eaten basically like French fries.

Muikku vendace, whole fried fish, and salmon soup in an outdoor market in Helsinki, Finland

With the afternoon slipping away our brains told us that it was time to make our way back to the ship, but our hearts didn’t want to go, so we had to summon our courage to bring ourselves to walk back.

Along the way we comforted ourselves by deciding that we wouldn’t want to stay here forever, but Helsinki certainly challenged the notion that there’s no place like home.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

See all of our adventures in Finland!

A big thanks to Viking Ocean Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure through the Viking Homelands! Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Norway. As always, all opinions are our own.

Living the Life of the Beautiful People in San Sebastián, Spain

We were amongst the Beautiful People!

Seriously beautiful. Luxury at its finest—and we walked every inch of it!

Let us show you an incredible half-moon beach, spectacular sunsets, and some of the most wonderful food and views in the world… CONTINUE READING >> 




A big thank you to VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations for providing this glorious adventure! As always, all opinions are our own. See our full adventure from the beginning here.

San Sebastian, Spain

The beach of San Sebastian, Spain

“I was framed.”

These words would usually be spoken by a guilty party making excuses but, in the case of San Sebastián in Spain, they describe the city to a T.

The twin peaks of Mount Igueldo and Monte Urgull form a perfect frame for the semicircular Concha Bay.

The bay also lends its name to the beach, which our room at the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra directly overlooked.

Our room at Hotel de Londresy de Inglaterra in San Sabastian, Spain

The beautiful sandy stretch has been a playground for Europe’s jet setters since long before anybody had any idea what that meant.

Islands off the coast of San Sebastian, Spain in Basque Country

The hotel was glad to welcome them.

Queen Isabella II hid away here during a revolution in 1868, and a few years later King Amadeus I of Savoy stayed a while.

This was before it officially became the Hotel de Londres in 1902, but since then Henri Marie de Toulouse-Lautrec and the notorious spy Mata Hari have also been guests.

Our room at the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra opens directly onto La Concha Beach in San Sabastian

We’re pretty sure (but can’t be completely certain) that Helen Mirren was one of our fellow guests (who’d ever thought we’d ever say that?). Otherwise, she has an eerie doppelganger. We didn’t have the guts to move in close enough to confirm our sighting.

Checking out the Old Town

The stylish city hall in San Sabastian, Spain

As inviting as the beach was, we figured it could wait, so we walked into the old town for a look around with a first stop at the Ayuntamiento, or City Hall. This stylish building was originally built in 1882 as a casino hall, where Europe’s bourgeoisie and aristocracy came for parties during their summers in San Sebastián.

Rowing revelers in San Sebastian, Spain

As we wandered through the narrow passages of the old town, throngs of fans were busily carousing after the morning’s rowing competition.

It was among these revelers that we got our introduction to pinchos.

Pintxos, as is spelled in Basque, are a typical snack of the Basque Country and are generally made with small slices of bread topped by a mixture of ingredients.

A toothpick holds things together, which is where the name comes from, “pincho”, meaning spike.

Shrimp and ham pintxos in San Sabastian, Spain

pimientos de Padrón in San Sabastian, Spain

One thing we tried was not spiked, but it can sometimes have a kick, was pimientos de Padrón.

These pan fried peppers are to die for.

Most are mild, but every now and then a hot one sneaked up on us.

As an added bonus, they were served with crispy, fried Iberian ham.

Shut my mouth, that’s some good eatin’!

A late afternoon beach visit topped off our day, an almost the perfect way to end a day.

Sunset on the promenade of San Sebastian, Spain

That is until we experienced sunset, THEN it was perfect.

Let the Walking Begin!

The arc of La Concha Beach in San Sabastian, Spain

San Sebastian, Spain

The next day began our official VBT walking tour, and we met our fearless leaders, Txaro and David, as we prepared for the morning’s walk.

The plan was to cover the entire arc of La Concha Beach all the way from Mount Igueldo on one end, to Monte Urgull on the other.

Along the way we passed by the Palacio Miramar, which was the former summer residence of the Spanish monarchy but is now used for summer classes of the Basque University.

Palacio Miramar in San Sabastian, Spain

The palace was built in English style to give a nod to the help that the Brits gave in driving Napoleon out of the region, and the fact that the royal family was summering here helped turn San Sebastián into the popular resort that is today.

There is Art in Nature

At the base of Mount Igueldo in San Sabastian, Spain, is the Peine del Viento, which means the Comb of the Wind.

On the rocks at the base of Mount Igueldo we took a look at a large iron sculpture, the Peine del Viento, which means the Comb of the Wind. The piece was designed by local sculptor Eduardo Chillida to interact with the wind and waves, making sounds from their vibrations.

Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—since it meant we got to stay dry—the seas and breeze were too calm to create any resonances.

Taking the Easy Way up

The old, wooden funicular in San Sabastian, Spain

Moving along we found that the easy way to the top of the mountain is by funicular, so we voted for that.

The old, wooden cable car has been ferrying folks to the summit for over a hundred years.

At that same time an amusement park opened up at the top and it remains one of the oldest in the Basque Country.

The flume boat ride at the top of Mount Igueldo in San Sabastian, Spain

We took a turn on the little flume ride that skirts along the top of the mountain, but the real attraction up here is the panoramic view of Donostia, the Basque name for the city of San Sebastián, that spread out before us with the Pyrenees Mountains as a backdrop.

The arc of La Concha Beach in San Sabastian, Spain

Refueling

Shrimp and seafood pintxos in San Sabastian, Spain

The return walk took us back past our hotel and into la parte vieja, the old city, where we eagerly anticipated the reward of some pintxos.

Txaro led us into Bernardo Etxea and introduced us to the first of many great Basque meals.

Tapas are called pintxos in Basque Country of Spain

Tapas are called pintxos in Basque Country of Spain

We begin with typical pintxos, made with several varieties of seafood on bread, followed by salad and an assortment of vegetables prepared to perfection with garlic, shaved almonds, and our new must-have ingredient of the trip, jamón Ibérico, Iberian ham.

Climbing the “Other” Mountain

Sagrado Corazón, or Sacred Heart, a giant Jesus atop Monte Urgull in San Sebastian, Spain

Feeling fortified enough to make the climb up to the fortifications at the top of Monte Urgull, we set out again.

La Mota Castle dates back nearly nine hundred years to when it was built by King Sancho the Wise of Navarre, the founder of San Sebastián.

Along with its surrounding battlements, the fortress played a major role in defeating Napoleon’s troops, so its place in history is held in high regard.

Incredible dinner at Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra in San Sebastian, Spain
Our hearty, well deserved, dinner back at

Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra

In 1950, in an effort to seize some of that good will, Generalissimo Francisco Franco commissioned a giant sculpture of the Sagrado Corazón, or Sacred Heart, to stand atop the ancient citadel.

This has led to some mixed feelings among the residents, due to the overwhelming dislike of the deceased dictator in these parts, but the appreciation of the Christ statue overseeing the city.

On the way back down the mountain we got to see San Sebastián framed once again.

San Sebastian, Spain

This time looking at the picture perfect city from the outside looking in.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

See all of our adventures in Spain!

A big thank you to VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations for providing this glorious adventure! As always, all opinions are our own. See our full adventure from the beginning here.


An Ode to the Home of Vidalia Onions

To paraphrase Shakespeare, would an onion by any other name taste as sweet?

We think not, since most onions are hardly sweet at all. So what’s in a name? Vidalia, Vidalia, wherefore art thou Vidalia?

The only way to know for sure was to go directly to the… CONTINUE READING >> 

David and Yumion, the Vidalia Onion Mascot. High five in Georgia

To paraphrase Shakespeare, would an onion by any other name taste as sweet? We think not, since most onions are hardly sweet at all. So what’s in a name? Vidalia, Vidalia, wherefore art thou Vidalia?

The only way to know for sure was to go directly to the source. We headed to southeast Georgia, halfway between Macon and Savannah to find out.

Vidalia Georgia

Vidalia Georgia Onion Water Town

There was no mistaking our destination, all of the town’s water towers are decorated with giant onions. In fact, onions dominate almost every aspect of the city of just over ten thousand. We mounted up on our trusty bikes and cruised around on a quest to find out just how many layers of onion we could find.

We found signs, slogans and even a mascot, Yumion, prominently displayed throughout the town. Of course there were also several eating establishments proudly proclaiming the fame of their onion rings, but how could we know which of these were truly ring royalty? We asked around.

Vidalia Onion Rings in Vidalia, Georgia

The consensus winner seemed to be Steeplechase Grill & Tavern, and it must be good because folks around Vidalia do not take their rings lightly. But the breading was light — and crispy, and plain old delicious. Served up with a sweet onion dipping sauce, yessiree, these were some mighty fine rings.

Yumion's story in books!

Having been steered right by the townsfolk so far, we decided to take some more advice and check out The Vidalia Onion Museum.

Everyone said not to miss it, and once again they were absolutely correct.

Vidalia Onion princesses

We learned the entire onion saga through the little museum’s displays and videos, from the accidental beginnings, right up to the modern marketing that has sent Vidalias to every corner of the globe. Turns out that the world-famous onion came about completely by luck.

Shrek loves Vidalia Onions!

Area farmers were struggling to get by raising cotton and tobacco during the depression. Then Mose Coleman decided to try his hand at growing onions. His onions turned out sweeter and milder than any anybody had ever tasted before. Soon several other farmers also switched over, and their onions were uncommonly sweet too.

Just so happens that the soil around Vidalia has very little sulphur, and that makes for a one-of-a-kind onion. Soon tourists were stopping through and asking for the sweet onions that became known by the town’s name.

Sweet Vidalia Onions Baby!

But it still took one more bit of good fortune to make the Vidalias truly famous. The Piggly Wiggly chain of grocery stores are headquartered in Vidalia and when they began stocking the unique onions word soon spread.

Their fame grew until the name Vidalia Onion had to be legally defined and protected. Only onions grown within a specific area near the town can bear the name. Then, in 1986, the State of Georgia proclaimed Vidalia Onions as the official state vegetable.

Vidalia Onion Art

In addition to all of the great history we found at the museum, we also learned that we could take a tour of an actual onion farm and packing plant.

We knew where our next stop was going to be, Vidalia Valley.

Vidalia Onion fields and Georgia Pines
Vidalia Onion fields and Georgia Pines

Vidalia Valley onion farm and packing plant

They do a lot more than just grow and box up onions at the Valley, as we learned when our gracious guide, Lauren, led us into the processing area. As soon as we opened the door we were nearly knocked back by the overwhelming aroma of onions being chopped — and this was the slow season.

Lauren explained that during the peak of the harvest the chopping goes 24/7 and the smell is so strong that her hair will smell like onion for months — her stylist refuses to cut it! Wow, just think if these weren’t the mild variety.

Vidalia Valley onion factory

But no one at the plant is shedding a tear, because all of that chopping is done to supply the fastest growing part of Vidalia Valley’s business, creating and distributing all sorts of onion products.

They make relishes, salsas, salad dressings, BBQ sauce, hot sauce, and even jams and jellies, all prominently featuring Vidalia onions as a main ingredient.

Vidalia Police Supply

In fact, the versatile Vidalia is so sweet and mild that many people claim to eat them raw, like apples. We weren’t sure if we were quite ready for that, leaving us with a dilemma.

To bite, or not to bite, that was the question.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

The Joys of Bathing

Traveling the world you may not always get the benefits and comfort of home.

But regardless of where you are taking the time to relax and enjoy a leisurely soak in the tub is something that anyone at any age would relish… CONTINUE READING >> 


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Mermaids, Hippies, and the Spires of Copenhagen, Denmark

A truly colorful town!

Race around Copenhagen with your GypsyNesters as we check out her art and architecture, her quirks and colors, and successfully dodge a contact high in a real live hippie colony (and though we don’t partake, we used it as an excuse to satisfy our munchies anyway)… CONTINUE READING >> 

A big thanks to Viking Ocean Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure through the Viking Homelands! Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Norway. As always, all opinions are our own.

Colorful Nyhavn - Hans Christian Anderson lived in this neighborhood in Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

It certainly seemed fitting to sail into Copenhagen from the water, aboard a Viking ship no less.

The city exists because of the harbor, which is basically its name, København, from the original Køpmannæhafn, meaning merchants’ harbor.

The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, Denmark

Before that, over a thousand years ago, Vikings used the port and established a fishing village.

It’s hard to imagine what the hard-charging Vikings would think pulling into the port now, being greeted by a serene statue of The Little Mermaid.

The bronze tribute to Danish author Hans Christian Andersen by Edvard Eriksen has become a symbol for the city as she sits wistfully on a rock.

She’s completely unViking-like, but very welcoming to us modern-day Viking cruisers.

The Gefion Fountain in Copenhagen, Denmark
Near the harbor, the huge Gefion Fountain depicts the Norse goddess Gefjun and her four sons-turned-oxen pulling the island of Zealand out of Sweden to form Copenhagen.

Did our Guide Just Say the King was a “Short, Fat, Alcoholic?”

Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen, Denmark

From the port, the easiest place to begin our exploration was at Amalienborg Palace, which is actually four identical palaces surrounding an octagonal courtyard.

The royal family has been living on this site for about four hundred years, including the current monarch, Queen Margrethe II.

Our guide pointed out an equestrian statue of King Frederick V in the center of the square and cheekily explained how, even though this whole complex was his baby, it doesn’t really look like him. It seems he wanted to be depicted as a god-like Roman emperor, when in the words of our guide, “the artist must have had quite the time of it; Frederick was a short, fat, alcoholic.”

Got to love hilarious honesty in a tour guide!

A soldier of Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen, Denmark

Much like Buckingham Palace, Amalienborg is guarded day and night by Royal Life Guards.

No, they aren’t keeping an eye on the swimming pool, these sentries are from an elite infantry regiment of the Danish Army, founded in 1658 by King Frederik III, and are much more than ceremonial.

When they are not wearing funny hats, they serve in a front-line combat unit.

Fredrick's Church, known as the Marble Church in Copenhagen, Denmark

King Roman god want-to-be also wanted a church built in his honor, so Frederik’s Church construction began in 1749.

Soon money got tight and the church was left incomplete and stood basically as a ruin for almost a century and a half.

When the church finally opened in 1894 it became known as The Marble Church.

So much for his big monument.

Going deeper into town we came to the Rådhuspladsen, or City Hall Square.

Normally this is a central gathering place for the city in the shadow of the impressive Palace Hotel and City Hall; unfortunately a massive reconstruction project had most of it hidden.

Checking the Weather

The Weather Girls in Copenhagen, Denmark - statues the tell the weather!

But it wasn’t a total bust, we did get to see one of Copenhagen’s quirky charms, The Weather Girls, perched on top of the Richs building in one corner of the square.

On nice days a sculpture of a girl with her bicycle rotates to the front, but when rain moves in another sculpture appears of her with an umbrella walking her dog.

Not exactly Accuweather, but fun nonetheless.

Government and a Sad Bear

The Christianborg Palace in Copenhagen, Denmark

Since we had missed one landmark due to renovations, we high-tailed it to another one nearby, the Christiansborg Palace.

This spot has been the seat of Denmark’s government since 1167, when the first castle went up.

Two more castles and a couple of palaces later, and we were looking at the home of the Danish Parliament, as well as the Prime Minister’s Office and the Supreme Court.

A rare sight indeed, since this is the only building in the world that houses all three of a country’s branches of government.

Unbearable statue - an impaled bear by Jens Galshiot in Copenhagen, Denmark

That’s a whole lot of history for just one spot, but it was a new addition to the courtyard that caught our eye, a work of art entitled Unbearable.

In the somewhat disturbing piece, an iron pipe portrays the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide sky-rocketing into the belly of a polar bear like a spear.

The impact of the sculpture by Jens Galschiøt was immediate and unsettling.

It certainly made us want to investigate the work and what it was saying.

No doubt that was the idea when it was created in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund.

There are Hippies in Copenhagen? Yes, Serious Ones.

Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark

With our thinking being pushed a little outside of the box, we broke off from our tour group to check out an area of Copenhagen that is not a part of the usual tourist programs, Christiania.

This uniquely odd community began back in 1971 when a group of oh… for lack of a better term, let’s call them hippies, moved into an abandoned military facility.

Christiana in Copenhagen, Denmark

The counter-culture squatters declared themselves to be an autonomous entity known as Freetown Christiania.

It didn’t take long for a thriving cannabis trade to develop, and the business was generally tolerated and overlooked by the authorities for years.

The attitude among civil authorities became one of begrudging tolerance, deciding that keeping things confined to this area might not be a bad idea.

Christiana in Copenhagen, Denmark

Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark

But in 2004 they decided to crackdown, and after that the dealings went undercover, but didn’t stop.

Now things have relaxed again, but with some odd twists, one that we encountered as we approached Pusher Street in what is known as the Green Light District.

Booths are openly selling pot and hash, but the proprietors are all wearing ski masks or scarves to hide their identities and a no photos policy is strictly enforced.

Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark

Other than that somewhat dark underground feel of this small section we found Christiania to be mostly groovy, with folks enjoying the good vibes of a beautiful day while getting baked in a lovely setting.

Having dug the scene, we decided to split before we developed a serious contact high.

But we figured we’d check out some places nearby where folks go to satisfy their munchies anyway.

The City of Spires

The Spires of Copenhagen, Denmark

Vor Frelsers Kirke has an outside staircase in Copenhagen, Denmark

A very cool landmark had been guiding our path since we set out to find Christiania from across the bridge, the distinctive spire of the Vor Frelsers Kirke.

Copenhagen is sometimes called the City of Spires because of all of the towers on its churches and castles.

But of all of them, this one on the Church of Our Saviour had been intriguing us all day with its external spiral stairway climbing all the way to the top.

Talk about getting high!

Uberfancy Sandwiches

Having found both the commune and the tower, we were ready to reward ourselves with a Scandinavian lunch treat, smørrebrød.

These are open-faced sandwiches meant to be eaten with a knife and fork. Toppings are artistically arraigned on brown bread to create an edible work of art.

We went with chicken salad and shrimp on avocado, two classics.

Shrimp and chicken smorrebrod in Copenhagen, Denmark

Coffee truck in Copenhagen, Denmark
How do we get our hands on one of these little coffee trucks?

Once again we found ourselves wondering what a Viking might think.

It’s hard to imagine one of the burly warriors accepting these dainty delicacies as a meal, but then we’d venture a guess that we might be less than enthusiastic about eating most of their fare too.

With that in mind we headed back to our ship content with our place in history… just as we suspect those Vikings of old were with theirs.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A big thanks to Viking Ocean Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure through the Viking Homelands! Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Norway. As always, all opinions are our own.

YOUR TURN:

How Many Islands Make a Thousand Islands?

We got a taste of the 1000 Islands—and it’s sooooo much more than the salad dressing!

We wanted to see every fabulous nook and wonderful cranny of the islands. Join us as we soar overhead in a helicopter, take in Millionaire’s Row by boat, and find out what it takes to be an island these days… CONTINUE READING >> 




A big thanks to Ontario Travel for providing this beautiful adventure! As always, all opinions are our own.  

The 1000 Islands of Ontario, Canada


We wanted to check out every nook and cranny!

We got a taste of the 1000 Islands while visiting Kingston, but that was only an appetizer—or perhaps a salad.

Because the true entryway to Canada’s side of the archipelago in the St. Lawrence River is the town of Gananoque, Ontario, known as the Gateway to the Thousand Islands.

Getting ready to head out on a 1000 Islands Helicopter Tour! GypsyNester.com

Since the day was just about perfect, we took the opportunity to see them by both air and water.

In case an afternoon shower might pop up, air got to be first on our itinerary.

An early morning stop at 1000 Islands Helicopter Tours turned out to be the ideal way to start our day.

A Seagull’s Eye View!

Getting ready to head out on a 1000 Islands Helicopter Tour! GypsyNester.com

Once airborne, we could see for miles and miles—all the way back to the good ole USA.

We headed out across the water along the coast of the largest of the islands, Wolf Island, looking down at the eighty-six windmills—or more accurately turbines—that occupy the western end of the island.

We suppose that if we were inclined to try to verify that there are at least one thousand islands, this would be a good time to try for a count.

Watch:


Flying above the 1000 Islands of Ontario, Canada in a helicopter!

Instead, our pilot, Eric, informed us that there are actually 1,864 islands, which begged the question: “What officially constitutes an island?”

Captain Eric’s answer, and he certainly seemed to know his stuff, was that an island must be a minimum of one square meter above the water and have at least two living trees.

But it seemed that almost everyone we spoke to in the area had their own variation.

Of the several different definitions we heard, all were similar, but various amounts of square feet that were all close to one square meter, and sometimes only one tree, were common deviations.

Some of the smallest of the 1000 Islands of Ontario, Canada

No one addressed the possibility of dying trees.

By these rules, we worried that the total number of islands could be constantly changing.

Like poor Pluto, could an island be downgraded?


Enough of that, we were just happy to be soaring over them on a morning when it seemed as if we might be able to see them all.

The time flew right along with us, and before we knew it we were gently setting the chopper back down after an incredible flight.

Gorgeous Gananoque

Coffee at the Socialist Pig Coffeehouse in Gananoque, Ontario, Canada

With our feet on the ground, we took a spin through Gananoque and a quick caffeine fix at the Socialist Pig Coffee House (with a name like that, we had no discipline to resist!).

A quick walk through the park across the street and we had just about covered the town and made way for the waterfront.

The beach at Gananoque, Ontario, Canada

Though Gananoque is really not much more than a village, she has a hoppin’ harbor where private pleasure craft and sightseeing excursion boats are constantly setting sail out to the one thousand eight hundred and sixty-FIVE islands.

In a matter of an hour, they seem to have found one more!

How are we supposed to keep up with that?

How a 1000 Islander Lives

Having seen them from above, by boat looked to be our obvious next choice.

We booked the Shipwreck Cruise on The Gananoque Boat Line, which struck us as a little strange since all of the unfortunate vessels were well under the surface.

Underwater cameras revealed each of the sunken wrecks as we passed over them.

Boldt Castle in the 1000 Islands

Cool as that was, for us the main attraction of the voyage was to see Boldt Castle.

 This six story stone structure was designed by George Boldt, creator and manager of the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, as a gift for his wife.

Tragically, she passed away before he could finish and the project was abandoned.

In 1977, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the Island for one dollar—with the stipulation that all of the revenue from the castle’s operation would go towards restoration.  Now, fifteen million dollars later, it looks better than ever.

Millionaire's Row in the 1000 Islands
The homes surrounding the castle aren’t too shabby either,

our boat floated down what’s been nicknamed Millionaire’s Row

Boldt is also said to be responsible for bringing Thousand Island salad dressing to the attention of the world.

Once again there are variations to the story, but the most common tale is that a fishing guide’s wife, Sophia LaLonde, made the dressing for her husband George’s dinners. A client, actress May Irwin—famous for the first screen kiss in cinematic history—loved it and asked for the recipe.

She passed it along to Boldt, who then added it his hotel’s menu in 1894.

The Pirates of the St. Lawrence River

A statue of St. Lawrence looks out over the St. Lawrence River in the 1000 Islands
St. Lawrence looks out over the goings-on of his river

The St. Lawrence River is a thoroughfare for shipping traffic, and has been since French trappers first began floating furs down the river, but we also learned about some of the less than legit boaters along the waterway over the years.

Early on, pirates preyed on shippers because the islands offered so many good hiding places.

For the same reason, bootleggers and smugglers had a heyday during prohibition.

The only man made 1000 Island. Regulations now restrict this practice.
The one and only man made 1000 Island. Regulations now

restrict this practice, so there will be no more of those

shenanigans!

With much more lax liquor laws in Canada, rum-running became a thriving business, often hiding the contraband on an island for pick up later.

Legend has it that some of the contraband is still hidden away on a few particularly secluded islands, or maybe on some of those dots that aren’t even counted, since the smugglers would tend to forget where they put things every now and then.

We found ourselves fantasizing about stumbling upon one of those treasure maps where X marks the spot.

The smallest international bridge in the world is in the 1000 Islands

Our captain expertly picked his path through the myriad of islets as we turned toward home and we passed the smallest international bridge in the world between two of them.

Somehow the house on Zavikon Island is in Canada, while the tiny Little Zavikon Island just next to it is in the USA.

The owner built a tiny bridge, but not a customs office, which on closer inspection turned out not to be necessary since new technology has set the border barely below the southern tip of the little outcrop.

Hope they counted both of them.

The bridge that connects the US and Canada in the 1000 Islands
Most folks use this bridge to cross between the neighboring countries.

Soooooo, How Many Islands Again?

A seagull in the 1000 Islands of Ontario, Canada

In fact, that got us thinking, so we checked online at National Geographic. Certainly they would have the definitive number.

Quite the opposite, they decided to go the vague route saying only that the chain is made up of “some eighteen-hundred islands.”

This home in the 1000 Islands was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, once past here fleeing slaves crossed into Canada.
This island home was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, once past here fleeing slaves crossed into Canada.

Okay, we give up!

The Glen House Resort in the 1000 Islands of Ontario, Canada

It was plain to see that we weren’t going to solve our dilemma, and this action-packed day called for a relaxing evening.

The Glen House Resort proved to be just the spot.

Originally a collection of quaint Victorian era-homesteads and boathouses, the resort has managed to modernize without losing any of the charm it had when Trudy and Ed Seal purchased the property in the fall of 1962.

The Glen House Resort in the 1000 Islands of Ontario, Canada

It helps that the view of the river and the surrounding islands has changed very little since then, and in the lounge they have maintained the feel of a North Woods fishing cabin.

The result is a perfect place to slow down, kick back, unwind, and forget all about counting.

After all, what difference does it make exactly how many islands there are in a thousand islands when they all look so good?

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A big thanks to Ontario Travel for providing this beautiful adventure! As always, all opinions are our own.  


Livin’ the Good Life at Hotel Ambassador Bibione, Italy

We have spent a lot of time in Italy. It was practically a second home throughout the nineties while working all over the country, but in all of our travels we never came across Bibione… CONTINUE READING >>

Thanks to the Hotel Ambassador for providing inspiration and compensation for this story. As always, all opinions are our own.

View from the balcony at Hotel Ambassador in Bibione, Italy

We have spent a lot of time in Italy. It was practically a second home throughout the nineties while working all over the country, but in all of our travels we never came across Bibione.

The beach at at Hotel Ambassador in Bibione, Italy

So when the Hotel Ambassador contacted us to write about their 4-star hotel, we were excited to learn about a new little corner of the country.

First and foremost Bibione is a beach town, and the Ambassador is just a few steps from the sand and sea.

From their own private area on the shore, complete with umbrellas and sunbeds, to rooms with charming balconies facing out on the water, this is a perfect spot to enjoy all the Adriatic has to offer.

The hot tub at Hotel Ambassador in Bibione, Italy

The beach even has WI-FI, never seen that before. Not only that, but it has received the Blue Flag Award for its clean waters and protected environment for twenty one straight years.

No worries if the weather turns un-beachy, there is always the Bibione Thermal Baths just down the road for year round indoor and outdoor thermal pools.

We love bikes, so we were thrilled to find that the Passaggiata Adriatico runs right by the hotel and continues along the shoreline past the entire beach.

In fact, the Ambassador is a member of the Bibione Bike Hotels Club, which means they offer free bike rentals, guided group tours, and special deals with local shops.

The cycling doesn’t have to stop at the beach either; there are tons of well-marked bike paths throughout the area that are suitable for every level of rider, from just-took-off-the-training-wheels to just-finished-the-Tour-de-France.

The next thing we noticed about Bibione is that it is so close to so much cool stuff, Roman ruins, organic vineyards, the outstanding wetlands of Valgrande, and especially Venice.

The Ambassador is a great place to use as a homebase to visit the canals while avoiding the expense and hassle of staying in Venice.

There are trains, busses, and boats, as well as guided tours going every day, but for us, we can’t think of any better way to approach Venice than from the water, arriving directly into St. Mark’s Square.

Of course, no stay in Italy is complete without going crazy on the food.

Hotel Ambassador believes in embracing local cuisine, offering a wide variety of traditional dishes from the Veneto region enjoyed with a panorama view from the terrace.

From impressive breakfast-brunch and dinner buffets, to seafood right out of the Mediterranean, or maybe some of the white asparagus that Bibione is renowned for, mangia, mangia, mangia will be the order of the day.

David, GypsyNester.com

See all of our adventures in Italy!

Gallivanting Across Generations in Galveston, Texas


The wild and windblown story of Galveston began as a haven for pirates, just the kind of past that caught our attention!

A great way to merge a little history in with all of the water-soaked fun they we can stand.

Arrrgh mateys, I declare me-self king!.. CONTINUE READING >> 




Thanks to Galveston.com for sponsoring this post. As always, all opinions are our own. 

Galveston, Texas

When we were recently asked about ideas for planning a family multi-generational vacation we remembered Galveston. Even though our visit a few years ago was an empty nest getaway, we recalled that it might just be the perfect place to accomplish the kid’s version of combining business with pleasure.  A great way to merge a little history in with all of the water-soaked fun they can stand.

The wild and windblown story of Galveston began as a haven for pirates, just the kind of past that catches the attention of any kid. After helping Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans in The War of 1812, the pirate Jean Lafitte set up shop on Galveston Island and proclaimed himself the head of the government of his new pirate kingdom, Campeche. Arrrgh mateys, I declare me-self king!

Galveston, Texas

But in 1821, the United States Navy ran Lafitte off and the Port of Galveston grew into one of America’s busiest ports. In fact it has become America’s forth most popular place to set out on a cruise with ships headed throughout the Caribbean and Central America.

A booming town sprouted up around the harbor, and the area known as The Strand became the city’s main business center. This National Historic Landmark District filled with Victorian era buildings is home to all of the restaurants and shops that any kid, parent, or grandparent could ever want.

We loved the nearby East End Historic District on our trip to the island, as we leisurely rode our bikes through row after row of incredibly ornate turn of the century homes.

Returning with kids in tow might require reducing that to a quick pass to see the Bishop’s Palace and the Moody Mansion on the way to the beach, unless the kids get enthralled by the Galveston Children’s Museum in the basement of the Moody house.


Still, the island really is all about the beach, thirty-two miles of it to be exact, and part of that sandy shore is lined by a Seawall that forms the longest continuous sidewalk in the world. Even if the wall’s real job is to protect the island from the fierce storms that sometimes blow ashore, the result is a gorgeous promenade along the Gulf of Mexico. Hey, there’s another example of combining function with fun.

Speaking of fun, the Historic Galveston Pleasure Pier has reopened after being damaged by a couple of those storms. What began as a recreational facility for the United States military during World War II has become a spot for waterfront fun and entertainment like no other along the Gulf Coast.

Galveston Texas

If the rides at the pier aren’t quite exciting enough, the Schlitterbahn Waterpark has just opened the tallest watercoaster in the world. That alone is enough to inspire the fearless kids in our GypsyNester hearts.

If we want to sneak a little more learning in with the fun, Moody Gardens is right next door with a fantastic aquarium and the Rainforest Pyramid. Both feature exotic wildlife from around the world with a focus on education, conservation, and possibly future breeding rare and endangered animals.

Galvestion Texas

Never fear though, it is certainly not all work and no play at the gardens, they also feature a five level Sky Trail Ropes Course towering over eighty feet high, and a five-hundred foot zip line.

So even though the younger generations won’t know they are learning, or have any idea what the Glen Campbell song we keep singing is, they will always remember Galveston.


David, GypsyNester.com

 


You Can Gdańsk If You Want To In Poland

A city that rose from the ashes of World War II to become glorious again. That’s Gdansk.

We love a story of strength, of overcoming odds, of finding one’s way back from overwhelming circumstances.

If a city can personify these traits, we saw it in Gdansk… CONTINUE READING >> 

A big thanks to Viking Ocean Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure through the Viking Homelands! Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Norway. As always, all opinions are our own.

Gdansk, Poland

Knock, knock. Who’s there? Gdańsk. Gdańsk who? Gdańsk, Poland, and that’s no joke.

Low humor at its worst.

We’re not sure why the people of Poland were so commonly the butt of cruel jokes back when we were kids, but it likely colored our expectations a little before visiting the country.

Our Viking Cruise of Northern Europe docked at the port of Gdynia, about fifteen miles north of Gdansk, our destination, and—in the back of my mind—I heard something along the lines of “How many Poles does it take to dock a ship…”

Gdansk, Poland

I told the devil-on-my-shoulder’s voice to shut up—we have docked further on the outskirts of cities in many countries.

A Jaw-dropping Organ

The Oliwa organ in Gdynia at the Archcathedral in Poland

So what if we would be bussing it down to the city, the ride gave us a chance to see a bit of the Polish countryside.

Right outside of town we stopped at the Gdańsk Oliwa Archcathedral, and the church itself was not remarkable.

Again the bad comic in my head started up; however, once we stepped inside we (including my personal Don Rickles) were blown away.

The famous great Oliwa organ, with over five thousand pipes, was impressive enough, but the woodwork around the pipes is an even more awe inspiring piece of art.

It’s Rebuilt and it’s Spectacular!

Entering Gdansk, Poland through the city gate

Abandoning our bus outside of the historic old city of Gdańsk, we walked over a bridge and through the Green Gate.

The portal in the ancient walls opens up on to the Long Market, a pedestrian only area that is the heart of the rebuilt town, and by rebuilt, we really mean rebuilt.

This city was completely devastated by World War II.

In fact, Gdańsk is right where the war began when Germany decided to take what was then known as the Free City of Danzig on September 1st, 1939.

Within a few weeks the Soviet Union had invaded Poland too, and after a couple of months the country was completely occupied by the opposing powers.

Gdansk, Poland

The fact that they were completely outnumbered, and their enemies had vastly superior weapons, may have been the source of some of the insults that came to bear on the Poles, but the situation in Poland was most assuredly no laughing matter.

Gdansk, Poland

By the end of the war, Poland was devastated and Gdańsk was destroyed. Almost every structure in the city was damaged, so what we found now has all been reconstructed. Recreated or not, the Long Market has an almost magical quality about it.

Rising From the Ashes

The Golden Gate of Gdansk, Poland

There are photos of the devastation on display inside the Golden Gate on the opposite side of the market, and seeing them made it hard to believe that the city ever survived.

The phoenix-like rise from the ashes is quite a testament to the Polish people.

A fine example of this is the surprisingly ornate Armory Building, just off of the huge main square, which rivals most of the palaces that we have seen across Europe.

The Armory Building in Gdansk, Poland

The city is centered around St. Mary’s Basilica, which has stood as a symbol of the city since 1379.

Known as the largest brick church in Europe and third largest in the world, the interior can hold an astonishing 25,000 people.

Even though bombing nearly reduced it to rubble, not rebuilding was simply out of the question.

The biggest landmarks, especially the church, were restored as accurately as possible.

Gdansk, Poland

The same cannot be said for most of the houses that line the sides of Long Market.

It seems that when reconstructing after the war folks didn’t want to rebuild in the original German style, having suffered so much under them that they went with Dutch and Italian motifs instead.

Many of the fronts are actually clever facades, which have been embellished to various degrees, placed over communist era buildings that were hastily built in very basic, functional style.

Neptune's fountain in Gdansk, Poland is one of the few things that survived World War ll

One icon that did survive intact was the Neptune Fountain.

In large part, its fame now stems from the fact that this nearly five hundred year old statue miraculously came through the bombings essentially untouched.

Guess the god of the sea got the last laugh.

Don’t Want to Meet up with These Ladies in the Dark!

Going back through the Green Gate along the waterfront pier, we got stopped in our tracks by a row of baba pruska—Prussian hags.

Baby pruska—Prussian Hags lined us in Gdansk, Poland

These odd, early medieval anthropomorphic figures carved in granitoid were used to mark boundaries by the peoples of the Old Prussian culture.

Dang, we’d hate to be harnessed by a hag while accidentally wandering onto the neighbor’s farm after dark. That wouldn’t even be funny.

The Human Hamster Wheel

The human driven crane in Gdansk, Poland

Our goal was to check out a huge crane, an intriguing artifact on the river bank going back to when Gdańsk was a bustling port within the Hanseatic League.

This 14th-century device operated on human-power, as treadwheels transferred the energy of walking workers to load and unload cargo from the Motlawa River.

The human driven crane in Gdansk, Poland

We had seen pictures of the mechanics, but by seeing the giant wheels in person the ingenious machinery made sense to us.

Think people walking in a wheel, like hamsters.

The turning moves a rope through pulleys that transfer energy so that thousands of pounds can be lifted by simply striding.

Seems that it didn’t take very many Poles to lift thousands of pounds, but that doesn’t make for much of a punch line.

As we climbed higher and higher up the crane’s tower we were astonished by the clever design, and found ourselves happy that our walking skills weren’t needed to keep the ships below us stocked anymore.

The human driven crane in Gdansk, Poland

Still, it might’ve been fun to give the wheels a whirl, if only for a minute or two of rodent-like fun.

Lech Walesa’s Movement

The monument to Lech Walesa and the Solidarity Trade Union Movement at the shipyard in Gdansk, Poland

A much more recent event in the city’s long history of shipping and ship building took place nearby.

On our way out of town, we passed the Gdańsk Shipyard, where Lech Wałęsa shook the world by leading the Solidarity Trade Union Movement.

That opposition to the communist regime led to the downfall of the party in 1989, which in turn played a huge part in the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The monument that stands at the entrance to the yard is in honor of protesters killed in 1970, and was erected as one of Solidarity’s early demands in 1980.

Wałęsa described its significance to bringing down communist rule as “A harpoon driven through the body of a whale.”

Come to think of it, Mr. Walesa may have driven a stake through more than a whale. It was about that same time in history that we, thankfully, stopped hearing those awful Polish jokes.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A big thanks to Viking Ocean Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure through the Viking Homelands! Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Norway. As always, all opinions are our own.

YOUR TURN:

Walking the Basque Country of Spain (and a Wee Bit of France)—Live

Man, can the folks in the Basque Country throw a party!

Our live-blog continues along the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James).

See how we stumble into one of the most unique festivals we’ve ever seen, learn to cook like a Basqueman, and dip our toes into the French side of things… CONTINUE READING

A big thank you to VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations for providing this adventure where we can tour AND eat all the delicious food we want without worrying about the calorie count! As always, all opinions are our own.

Click here for part two of this adventure!

Where We’re Headed and What We’ll be Doing

Map of the Basque Country of Spain

After our successful bike tour of Sicily with VBT last year, we were itchin’ to give a walking tour a go.

One of the finer aspects of an active tour like this is the ability to sample and eat incredible food without worrying (too much) about stepping on the scale when arriving back home.

We looked long and hard for the perfect pairing of spectacular scenery and incredible edibles—and believe we’ve found it!

A walking tour of the Basque Country of Spain (and a teeny bit of France) fit the bill. Seriously, melding Spanish and French cuisine—come on!
A walking tour of the Basque Country of Spain with VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations

Chase us as we eat massive amounts of tapas (they’re called pintxos here),  make a pilgrimage along the Way of St. James, sleep in a palace, storm a castle, pig out at a txoko (no apologies for the amount of eating we’ll be doing!), hit the beach, visit the Sun King’s crib and roam around Madrid!

DAY ONE: Walking Madrid

For a city of over three million people, Madrid is surprisingly walkable. That’s good for us since we’re considering our two days here to be a warm up for our walking tour of the Basque country.

NH Paseo del Prado in Madrid

Also good, the hotel that VBT has chosen for our extension, the NH Paseo del Prado, is right in the heart of the best that the city has to offer.

The famous Prado Museum is directly across the street, and just beyond that the Parque de El Ritiro.

We begin our jet lag fueled first day explorations in the park, wandering the tree lined paths until we come upon the Palacio de Cristal.

The Palacio de Cristal, the Glass Palace in Madrid, Spain

Just as the name sounds, this is a glass palace.

It was originally a greenhouse in this former royal retreat, but now plays host to an avant-garde art exhibit that includes a sinking Titanic and upside down Empire State Building.

Avant guard art in the Glass Palace in Madrid, Spain

Palacio de Cibeles, home of Madrid, Spain's city hall

The Plaza Cibeles is dominated by what must be the most spectacular city hall anywhere in the world.

Built as the headquarters for the postal service in 1919, the Palacio de Cibeles now hosts the city council in high style.

Hope those guys appreciate their digs.

From here the main thoroughfare leads us to the city’s two main squares, Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor but first we take a slight detour down Gran Via, which Earnest Hemingway pronounces as a cross called Broadway and Fifth Avenue combined.

Gran Via in Madrid, Spain

This is the high end shopping and entertainment strip and lives up to its name the Great Way.

The bear and madrono tree, the symbol of Madrid, Spain

Plaza del Sol is truly the center of town, actually for all of Spain, since it is where the mile markers begin for all roads in across the country.

It is also known for its statue of a bear and madrono tree, which has been a symbol of Madrid for at least seven centuries.

Churros in Madrid, Spain

Just off the square we notice a churreria and recall our daughter, Decibel, describing the phenominal churros she had found on her trip to Madrid several years ago.

That was more than enough motivation for us.

Unlike the ultra-sweet donut–like versions we are used to, these are lightly fried crispy bread with almost no sugar.

A cup of melted semisweet chocolate comes for dipping and the result is subtle—yet out of this world.

Some rustic tapas in Madrid, Spain

With a little more walking under our belts, we decide to take a low-key tapas break on our way back to the hotel.

We have noticed that many places have water misting over their outside seating areas and it feels heavenly to escape the hot Spanish sun.

We opt for a combination plate of five tapas and take our chances as to what might show up. Classic Iberian ham, fish with garlic, crab, salmon, and some ridiculously strong blue cheese arrive and we are thrilled.

Well, maybe not so much with the blue cheese—perhaps our palates aren’t quite Spain-adjusted yet!

Oh, and we almost forgot, some of the best olives ever.

Time to sleep off the jet lag so we are ready to rock manaña!

DAY TWO: Following Hemingway’s Footsteps in Madrid

Our big plan for today is to make like Ernest Hemingway and have lunch at Sobrino de Botín In addition to being mentioned in his novel, The Sun Also Rises, the restaurant is certified by Guinness as the oldest continually operating restaurant in the world. They haven’t missed a meal since 1725.

The Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, Spain

To get ourselves in the mood for some serious eating we stop at the Mercado de San Miguel to browse the mouthwatering offerings.

This classic, covered market is over one-hundred years old and is a favorite gathering place for both locals and visitors alike.

It is all we can do to save ourselves and fight back to urge to try every tapa we see in the vast array of meats, cheeses, olives, breads, and seafood.

Sobrino de Botín, where Hemingway ate suckling pig in Madrid, Spain

Quick, we better get to Botín! It is imperative that we have their signature dish, cochinillo asado—roast suckling pig.

After all, that’s what Papa ate and wrote about.

Another specialty is sopa de ajo, a garlic soup laced with sherry and with an egg poached in the broth, and both are more than worthy of their fame and accolades.

For good measure, we also add some artichoke hearts with Iberian ham… unbelievable.

They must not have had this dish back in Hemingway’s day or it would have deserved a whole chapter.

The Cathedral de la Almudena in Madrid, Spain

After an easy walk from the restaurant—we are here for a walking tour after all—brings us to the Cathedral de la Almudena.

This massive cathedral was built directly across from the royal palace in order to bring seat of the Church in line with the government but it took some time.

Even though the capital of Spain was moved from Toledo to Madrid in 156, it took until well into the eighteen hundreds to get started on the church.

It seems that the monarchs were too busy with their vast overseas empire to get around to allocating the funds until then.

Looking across the huge courtyard, it sure doesn’t look as though they had any trouble finding the dough to build quite the house for themselves.

The Royal Palace of Madrid, Spain

The Palacio Real is one of the biggest palaces in Europe and, even though it is the official residence of the Royal Family, they live outside of town and the palace is used for ceremonial functions.

As far as we are concerned, considering the afternoon sun and the stretch in our bellies, siesta back at the hotel is the only ceremonial function we are very interested right now.

The Bullfighting Museum in Madrid, Spain

But we did suck it up to peek at the Bullfighting Museum—only because Hemingway loved the sport. We abstain from it every chance we get.

Refreshed after siesta—so civilized—we head next door to the Palace Hotel, another of Don Ernesto’s favorite haunts, and toast to Hemingway with a refreshing cava!

David toasts Hemingway with cava at the Palace Hotel in Madrid, Spain

DAY THREE: We’re Among the Beautiful People of San Sebastián

We leave Madrid this morning to fly to Bilbao, and then drive on to the seaside resort of San Sebastián. We’ve made it to Basque Country.

Our room at Hotel de Londresy de Inglaterra in San Sabastian, Spain

Our room at the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra  opens directly onto La Concha Beach…

…making for a view that is tough to beat anywhere in the world.
Our room at the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra opens directly onto La Concha Beach in San Sabastian

Figuring the beach can wait, we walk into the old town for a look around. First stop, the Ayuntamiento, or City Hall.

The stylish city hall in San Sabastian, Spain

This stylish building was originally built in 1882 as a casino hall, where Europe’s bourgeoisie and aristocracy came for parties during their summers in San Sebastián.

Rowing revelers in San Sebastian, Spain

As we wander through the narrow passages of the old town throngs of fans are busy carousing after the morning’s rowing competition.

It is among these revelers that we get our introduction to pinchos.

Pintxos, as is spelled in Basque, are a typical snack of the Basque Country and are generally made with small slices of bread topped with a mixture of ingredients.

A toothpick holds things together, which is where the name comes from, “pincho”, meaning spike.

Shrimp and ham pintxos in San Sabastian, Spain

pimientos de Padrón in San Sabastian, Spain

One thing we try is not spiked, but it can have a kick, pimientos de Padrón.

These pan fried peppers are to die for, and most are mild, but every now and then a hot one sneaks up on us.

As an added bonus, these are served with crispy, fried Iberian ham. Shut my mouth that’s some good eatin’!

A late afternoon beach visit tops off our day, and it is almost the perfect way to end a day.

Until we experienced sunset, THEN it was perfect.

Sunset on the promenade of San Sebastian, Spain

We feel like we are definitely rested and ready to begin our walking tour tomorrow.

See more of fabulous San Sebastian!

DAY FOUR: Hoofin’ it Though San Sebastián

Today begins our official VBT walking tour, and we meet our leaders, Txaro and David, as we prepare for the morning’s walk.

The arc of La Concha Beach in San Sabastian, Spain

The plan is to cover the entire arc of La Concha Beach as we go from Mount Igueldo on one end, to Monte Urgull on the other.

Along the way we pass by the Palacio Miramar, which is the former summer residence of the Spanish monarchy but now is used for summer classes of the Basque University.

Palacio Miramar in San Sabastian, Spain

The palace was built in English style to give a nod to the help that the Brits gave in driving Napoleon out of the region, and the fact that the royal family was summering here helped turn San Sebastián into the popular resort that is today.

On the rocks at the base of Mount Igueldo we take a look at the Peine del Viento, which means the Comb of the Wind.

At the base of Mount Igueldo in San Sabastian, Spain, is the Peine del Viento, which means the Comb of the Wind.

The piece was designed by local sculptor Eduardo Chillida to interact with the wind and waves, making sounds from their vibrations. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—since it means we get to stay dry, the seas and breeze are too calm to create any resonances.

The old, wooden funicular in San Sabastian, Spain

The easy way to the top of the mountain is by funicular, so we vote for that.

The old, wooden cable car has been ferrying folks to the summit for over a hundred years.

At that same time an amusement park opened up there and it remains one of the oldest in the Basque Country.

The flume boat ride at the top of Mount Igueldo in San Sabastian, Spain

We take a turn on the little flume ride that skirts the top of the mountain, but the real attraction up here is the panoramic view of Donostia, the Basque name for the city of San Sebastián, spread before us with the Pyrenees as a backdrop.

The arc of La Concha Beach in San Sabastian, Spain

Shrimp and seafood pintxos in San Sabastian, Spain

The return walk takes us past our hotel and into la parte vieja, the old city, where we seek the reward of some pintxos.

Txaro leads us into Bernardo Etxea and introduces us to the first of what we expect to be many great Basque meals.

We begin with typical pintxos, made with several varieties of seafood on bread, and are off to a fantastic start.

This is followed by salad, and then an assortment of vegetables that are prepared to perfection with garlic, shaved almonds, and the new must-have ingredient of our trip, jamón Ibérico, Iberian ham.

Sagrado Corazón, or Sacred Heart, a giant Jesus atop Monte Urgull in San Sebastian, Spain

Feeling fortified enough to make the climb to the fortifications at the top of Monte Urgull, we set out again.

La Mota Castle dates back nearly nine hundred years to when it was built by King Sancho the Wise of Navarre, the founder of San Sebastián.

Along with its surrounding battlements, the fortress played a major role in defeating Napoleon’s troops, so its place in history is held in high regard.

In 1950, in an effort to seize some of that good will, Generalissimo Francisco Franco commissioned a giant sculpture of the Sagrado Corazón, or Sacred Heart, to stand atop the ancient citadel. This has led to some mixed feelings among the residents, due to the overwhelming dislike of the deceased dictator in these parts, but the appreciation of the Christ statue overseeing the city.

Incredible dinner at Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra in San Sebastian, Spain

This evening we truly kick the tour off with a welcome reception and dinner at our amazing accommodations, The Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra and learn a bit about its storied past.

Queen Isabella II hid away here during a revolution in 1868, and a few years later King Amadeus I of Savoy stayed a while.

This was before it officially became the Hotel de Londres in 1902, but since then Henri Marie de Toulouse-Lautrec and the notorious spy Mata Hari have also been guests.

We’re pretty sure (but can’t be completely certain!) that Helen Mirren is one of our fellow guests (who’d ever thought we’d ever say that?). Otherwise, she has a eerie doppelganger. More sneaky stalking is necessary to confirm our sighting.

See more of fabulous San Sebastian!

DAY FIVE: From the Pig’s Ear to the Horse’s Mouth in the Basque Countryside

Sunrise over San Sabastian, Spain
The sun rises over San Sebastian

Catching the train in San Sabastian, Spain

This morning we are up and at ‘em to get to the train station for a ride up into the mountains to Tolosa.

A typical commuter train takes us the half-an-hour trip to the town that once was the capital of Gipuzkoa, one of the three Basque Provinces in Spain.

This honor is now held by the much larger Donostia, or San Sebastián, that we just left.

Covered market in Tolosa, Spain

Our walk through Tolosa reveals an historic old quarter of wonderfully preserved buildings lining narrow passages, until everything opens up along the bank of Oria Ibaia.

We follow the river for a while, looking back often for incredible views of the town behind us.

Tolosa, Spain

From the edge of Tolosa, we drive even higher into the Pyrenees.

The Basque country of Spain

A pig barn in the Basque Country of Spain

Here we begin our journey up to a farm where the methods for raising pigs has remained the same for centuries.

These very special pigs, Euskal Txerria, are only found in the Basque region and the family we are visiting is integral in keeping tradition alive. And the pigs too, the other two indigenous pig breeds are now extinct.

Basque piglets, Euskal Txerria

Basque pigs nursing in the Spanish Basque Country

These are free range pigs, allowed to graze at will. That’s right, graze.

Left alone, pigs will happily graze on grass and they especially dig the nuts and acorns that fall from the trees.

One of the farm’s owners, Maite, meets us at the barn and, through David’s translation, she explains the entire process from piglet to pork products.  (We mean our group leader David translating, otherwise the interpretation might have been complete nonsense.)

Veronica falls in love with a Basque piglet. GypsyNester.com

While we listen, Veronica has basically adopted one of the piglets as her own. It’s hard to argue with the fact that these two-month old guys are ridiculously cute.

From the barn we head inside the five hundred year old farm house for lunch.

Naturally pork is the star of the show, beginning with ham and two types of sausage.

Sausage and ham from the Basque Country of Spain

Once again Maite describes the process, this time about the five years involved in producing the ham.

After a salad, a tray of pig’s ear pintxos is thrust upon us.

Pig's ear pintxos in the Basque Country of Spain

Known as oreja a la plancha, literally grilled ear, this is a specialty across Spain, with the Basque version being a bit spicier than others.

Rather than serving it alone, this ear was allowed to join forces with peppers and anchovies on toasted bread, which was music to our ears.

The landscape of the Basque Country of Spain

Post lunch, we walk back down the hill to our lodging for the next two nights, the Iriarte Jauregia Hotel, just outside of the tiny village of Bidania.

We meet up with the proprietor, Iban Munoa, and hear the story of the hotel from the horse’s mouth.

Iriarte Jauregia Hotel in the Basque Country of Spain

His family had been very influential in the area until all of their property was seized by the Franco regime and they had to flee to the French side of Basque country.

Once Franco was gone they could return, but without any of their previous possessions.

The family finally found this large manor house and moved in, and later Iban and his wife refurbished the old stone structure into the unique and elegant inn that we unexpectedly find today.

DAY SIX: The Day of Eating We Were Dreaming of

San Bartolomé Church in Bidania of the Basque Region of Spain

Our first order of business today is to meet Iban at the small parish church of Bidania.

It was built by his family before the civil war when they fled and at the same time, back in the late eighteen hundreds, his ancestors also built the first school that taught in the Basque language.

A man exercises his oxen in Bidania of the Basque Region of Spain

A man exercises his oxen in Bidania of the Basque Region of Spain

As a bonus, when we round the corner into the square we see a well-known and barefoot townsman, Miguel, exercising his oxen in front of the church.

He is keeping them in shape for an idi probak, which is Basque for oxen tests, a popular one of several Basque dragging games which are common throughout the region.

Veronica attempts to pull a idi probak stone in Bidania of the Basque Region of Spain

The game involves a team of oxen dragging an enormous chunk of rock from one side of a square to the other.

One of the stones is also in the square, however, this is a small one meant for a group of six or eight men to drag.

Entering San Bartolomé Church we are astounded, the humble exterior gives no indication of the elaborate interior we encounter.

The ornate alter is floor-to-ceiling covered in gold leaf and nearly knocks us off our feet.

The alter at San Bartolomé Church in Bidania of the Basque Region of Spain is completely covered in gold

The choir loft in San Bartolomé Church in Bidania of the Basque Region of Spain

Iban takes us through the entire church; even the behind the scenes areas such as the sacristy that lay people like us seldom if ever get to see.

We finish in the choir loft, which is unlike most in that it is designed for priests, or monks, to sit in a semi-circle to perform their chants, as opposed to a full choir singing to the congregation.

Hiking through the woods of Basque Country in Spain

The time has come to walk again, and today we are excited to be heading even more off-the-beaten path and into the woods.

The trail takes us through the forest while our guide, David, regales us with Basque mythology.

First he tells us about Mari, the Earth Mother and creation force of Basque legend, but as the woods thicken we hear the tale of Jentil.

Jentil, a giant rock throwing beast, is said to haunt the woods of the Basque Region of Spain

Jentil is a bit more disturbing beast—giant in size and covered with hair.

He lives in these mountains and likes to throw huge boulders to block men’s paths, but is seldom seen by humans.

The woods are kind of creepy here and we are glad to report no monster sightings.

Having safely passed through the land of Jentil, we are ready for some lunch.

The Basque Country of Spain

Tolosa beans in the Basque region of Spain

Today that means two of the Basque country’s most iconic foods, Tolosa beans and sidra.

The beans, known as tolosako babarruna in Basque, are only grown in this area, and have been protected by the Spanish Denominación de Origen.

They are black, but turn purple when cooked, and are traditionally served with spicy ibarrako piparrak, pickled peppers from the neighboring town of Ibarra.

Sidra, Basque apple cider

Sidra is more of an apple wine than our idea of cider.

In fact, that would be a pretty accurate translation of the name, sagardoa.

The pour is of utmost importance, it must be from high up and allowed to splash into the glass.

This gives the sidra a chance to aerate and bring out the fresh flavor.

The proper way to pour Basque sidra, pour the cider from as high up as you can!

Our walk today planted our feet on the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James (more on this tomorrow)…

Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in the Basque Country of Spain

… our hands on more furry friends…

Donkeys along Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in the Basque Country of Spain

… and our eyes on incredible vistas.

Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in the Basque Country of Spain

Duck tacos at Bailara Restaurant at Hotel Iriarte Jauregia in Bidania, Spain

In what is turning out to be a day of food experiences, dinner tonight is specially prepared for us at the award winning Bailara Restaurant at our hotel, Iriarte Jauregia.

Their goal is to use local products from nearby orchards and farms as much as possible and combine Basque tradition with innovative new ideas.

Seared tuna on a bed of amaranth with honey and mustard at Bailara Restaurant at Hotel Iriarte Jauregia in Bidania, Spain

The appetizers are phenomenal, seared tuna on a bed of amaranth with honey and mustard, duck tacos, and shrimp cookies served with avocado cream.

Shrimp cookies served with avocado cream at Bailara Restaurant at Hotel Iriarte Jauregia in Bidania, Spain

Our entrées of hake with Basque green sauce and Iberian pork cheek with oyster sauce and smoked shinkinbushi were outstanding as well.

Pork cheeks and hake at Bailara Restaurant at Hotel Iriarte Jauregia in Bidania, Spain

But as we seem to be learning here in Spain, the small bites are often the best.

Basque French toast at Bailara Restaurant at Hotel Iriarte Jauregia in Bidania, Spain

Continue here for part two of this adventure!

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A big thank you to VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations for providing this adventure where we can tour AND eat all the delicious food we want without worrying about the calorie count! As always, all opinions are our own.

Basking in the Basque Country of Spain, A Live Blog

One of the finer aspects of a walking tour is the ability to partake in incredible food without worrying (too much) about stepping on the scale when arriving back home.

We looked long and hard for the perfect pairing of spectacular scenery and incredible edibles—and believe we’ve found it!

Chase us as we eat massive amounts of tapas (they’re called pintxos here), roam around Madrid, make a pilgrimage along the Way of St. James, sleep in a palace, storm a castle, hit the beach… CONTINUE READING

A big thank you to VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations for providing this adventure where we can tour AND eat all the delicious food we want without worrying about the calorie count! As always, all opinions are our own.

Click here for part two of this adventure!

Where We’re Headed and What We’ll be Doing

Map of the Basque Country of Spain

After our successful bike tour of Sicily with VBT last year, we were itchin’ to give a walking tour a go.

One of the finer aspects of an active tour like this is the ability to sample and eat incredible food without worrying (too much) about stepping on the scale when arriving back home.

We looked long and hard for the perfect pairing of spectacular scenery and incredible edibles—and believe we’ve found it!

A walking tour of the Basque Country of Spain (and a teeny bit of France) fit the bill. Seriously, melding Spanish and French cuisine—come on!
A walking tour of the Basque Country of Spain with VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations

Chase us as we eat massive amounts of tapas (they’re called pintxos here),  make a pilgrimage along the Way of St. James, sleep in a palace, storm a castle, pig out at a txoko (no apologies for the amount of eating we’ll be doing!), hit the beach, visit the Sun King’s crib and roam around Madrid!

DAY ONE: Walking Madrid

For a city of over three million people, Madrid is surprisingly walkable. That’s good for us since we’re considering our two days here to be a warm up for our walking tour of the Basque country.

NH Paseo del Prado in Madrid

Also good, the hotel that VBT has chosen for our extension, the NH Paseo del Prado, is right in the heart of the best that the city has to offer.

The famous Prado Museum is directly across the street, and just beyond that the Parque de El Ritiro.

We begin our jet lag fueled first day explorations in the park, wandering the tree lined paths until we come upon the Palacio de Cristal.

The Palacio de Cristal, the Glass Palace in Madrid, Spain

Just as the name sounds, this is a glass palace.

It was originally a greenhouse in this former royal retreat, but now plays host to an avant-garde art exhibit that includes a sinking Titanic and upside down Empire State Building.

Avant guard art in the Glass Palace in Madrid, Spain

Palacio de Cibeles, home of Madrid, Spain's city hall

The Plaza Cibeles is dominated by what must be the most spectacular city hall anywhere in the world.

Built as the headquarters for the postal service in 1919, the Palacio de Cibeles now hosts the city council in high style.

Hope those guys appreciate their digs.

From here the main thoroughfare leads us to the city’s two main squares, Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor but first we take a slight detour down Gran Via, which Earnest Hemingway pronounces as a cross called Broadway and Fifth Avenue combined.

Gran Via in Madrid, Spain

This is the high end shopping and entertainment strip and lives up to its name the Great Way.

The bear and madrono tree, the symbol of Madrid, Spain

Plaza del Sol is truly the center of town, actually for all of Spain, since it is where the mile markers begin for all roads in across the country.

It is also known for its statue of a bear and madrono tree, which has been a symbol of Madrid for at least seven centuries.

Churros in Madrid, Spain

Just off the square we notice a churreria and recall our daughter, Decibel, describing the phenominal churros she had found on her trip to Madrid several years ago.

That was more than enough motivation for us.

Unlike the ultra-sweet donut–like versions we are used to, these are lightly fried crispy bread with almost no sugar.

A cup of melted semisweet chocolate comes for dipping and the result is subtle—yet out of this world.

Some rustic tapas in Madrid, Spain

With a little more walking under our belts, we decide to take a low-key tapas break on our way back to the hotel.

We have noticed that many places have water misting over their outside seating areas and it feels heavenly to escape the hot Spanish sun.

We opt for a combination plate of five tapas and take our chances as to what might show up. Classic Iberian ham, fish with garlic, crab, salmon, and some ridiculously strong blue cheese arrive and we are thrilled.

Well, maybe not so much with the blue cheese—perhaps our palates aren’t quite Spain-adjusted yet!

Oh, and we almost forgot, some of the best olives ever.

Time to sleep off the jet lag so we are ready to rock manaña!

DAY TWO: Following Hemingway’s Footsteps in Madrid

Our big plan for today is to make like Ernest Hemingway and have lunch at Sobrino de Botín In addition to being mentioned in his novel, The Sun Also Rises, the restaurant is certified by Guinness as the oldest continually operating restaurant in the world. They haven’t missed a meal since 1725.

The Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, Spain

To get ourselves in the mood for some serious eating we stop at the Mercado de San Miguel to browse the mouthwatering offerings.

This classic, covered market is over one-hundred years old and is a favorite gathering place for both locals and visitors alike.

It is all we can do to save ourselves and fight back to urge to try every tapa we see in the vast array of meats, cheeses, olives, breads, and seafood.

Sobrino de Botín, where Hemingway ate suckling pig in Madrid, Spain

Quick, we better get to Botín! It is imperative that we have their signature dish, cochinillo asado—roast suckling pig.

After all, that’s what Papa ate and wrote about.

Another specialty is sopa de ajo, a garlic soup laced with sherry and with an egg poached in the broth, and both are more than worthy of their fame and accolades.

For good measure, we also add some artichoke hearts with Iberian ham… unbelievable.

They must not have had this dish back in Hemingway’s day or it would have deserved a whole chapter.

The Cathedral de la Almudena in Madrid, Spain

After an easy walk from the restaurant—we are here for a walking tour after all—brings us to the Cathedral de la Almudena.

This massive cathedral was built directly across from the royal palace in order to bring seat of the Church in line with the government but it took some time.

Even though the capital of Spain was moved from Toledo to Madrid in 156, it took until well into the eighteen hundreds to get started on the church.

It seems that the monarchs were too busy with their vast overseas empire to get around to allocating the funds until then.

Looking across the huge courtyard, it sure doesn’t look as though they had any trouble finding the dough to build quite the house for themselves.

The Royal Palace of Madrid, Spain

The Palacio Real is one of the biggest palaces in Europe and, even though it is the official residence of the Royal Family, they live outside of town and the palace is used for ceremonial functions.

As far as we are concerned, considering the afternoon sun and the stretch in our bellies, siesta back at the hotel is the only ceremonial function we are very interested right now.

The Bullfighting Museum in Madrid, Spain

But we did suck it up to peek at the Bullfighting Museum—only because Hemingway loved the sport. We abstain from it every chance we get.

Refreshed after siesta—so civilized—we head next door to the Palace Hotel, another of Don Ernesto’s favorite haunts, and toast to Hemingway with a refreshing cava!

David toasts Hemingway with cava at the Palace Hotel in Madrid, Spain

DAY THREE: We’re Among the Beautiful People of San Sebastián

We leave Madrid this morning to fly to Bilbao, and then drive on to the seaside resort of San Sebastián. We’ve made it to Basque Country.

Our room at Hotel de Londresy de Inglaterra in San Sabastian, Spain

Our room at the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra  opens directly onto La Concha Beach…

…making for a view that is tough to beat anywhere in the world.
Our room at the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra opens directly onto La Concha Beach in San Sabastian

Figuring the beach can wait, we walk into the old town for a look around. First stop, the Ayuntamiento, or City Hall.

The stylish city hall in San Sabastian, Spain

This stylish building was originally built in 1882 as a casino hall, where Europe’s bourgeoisie and aristocracy came for parties during their summers in San Sebastián.

Rowing revelers in San Sebastian, Spain

As we wander through the narrow passages of the old town throngs of fans are busy carousing after the morning’s rowing competition.

It is among these revelers that we get our introduction to pinchos.

Pintxos, as is spelled in Basque, are a typical snack of the Basque Country and are generally made with small slices of bread topped with a mixture of ingredients.

A toothpick holds things together, which is where the name comes from, “pincho”, meaning spike.

Shrimp and ham pintxos in San Sabastian, Spain

pimientos de Padrón in San Sabastian, Spain

One thing we try is not spiked, but it can have a kick, pimientos de Padrón.

These pan fried peppers are to die for, and most are mild, but every now and then a hot one sneaks up on us.

As an added bonus, these are served with crispy, fried Iberian ham. Shut my mouth that’s some good eatin’!

A late afternoon beach visit tops off our day, and it is almost the perfect way to end a day.

Until we experienced sunset, THEN it was perfect.

Sunset on the promenade of San Sebastian, Spain

We feel like we are definitely rested and ready to begin our walking tour tomorrow.

See more of fabulous San Sebastian!

DAY FOUR: Hoofin’ it Though San Sebastián

Today begins our official VBT walking tour, and we meet our leaders, Txaro and David, as we prepare for the morning’s walk.

The arc of La Concha Beach in San Sabastian, Spain

The plan is to cover the entire arc of La Concha Beach as we go from Mount Igueldo on one end, to Monte Urgull on the other.

Along the way we pass by the Palacio Miramar, which is the former summer residence of the Spanish monarchy but now is used for summer classes of the Basque University.

Palacio Miramar in San Sabastian, Spain

The palace was built in English style to give a nod to the help that the Brits gave in driving Napoleon out of the region, and the fact that the royal family was summering here helped turn San Sebastián into the popular resort that is today.

On the rocks at the base of Mount Igueldo we take a look at the Peine del Viento, which means the Comb of the Wind.

At the base of Mount Igueldo in San Sabastian, Spain, is the Peine del Viento, which means the Comb of the Wind.

The piece was designed by local sculptor Eduardo Chillida to interact with the wind and waves, making sounds from their vibrations. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—since it means we get to stay dry, the seas and breeze are too calm to create any resonances.

The old, wooden funicular in San Sabastian, Spain

The easy way to the top of the mountain is by funicular, so we vote for that.

The old, wooden cable car has been ferrying folks to the summit for over a hundred years.

At that same time an amusement park opened up there and it remains one of the oldest in the Basque Country.

The flume boat ride at the top of Mount Igueldo in San Sabastian, Spain

We take a turn on the little flume ride that skirts the top of the mountain, but the real attraction up here is the panoramic view of Donostia, the Basque name for the city of San Sebastián, spread before us with the Pyrenees as a backdrop.

The arc of La Concha Beach in San Sabastian, Spain

Shrimp and seafood pintxos in San Sabastian, Spain

The return walk takes us past our hotel and into la parte vieja, the old city, where we seek the reward of some pintxos.

Txaro leads us into Bernardo Etxea and introduces us to the first of what we expect to be many great Basque meals.

We begin with typical pintxos, made with several varieties of seafood on bread, and are off to a fantastic start.

This is followed by salad, and then an assortment of vegetables that are prepared to perfection with garlic, shaved almonds, and the new must-have ingredient of our trip, jamón Ibérico, Iberian ham.

Sagrado Corazón, or Sacred Heart, a giant Jesus atop Monte Urgull in San Sebastian, Spain

Feeling fortified enough to make the climb to the fortifications at the top of Monte Urgull, we set out again.

La Mota Castle dates back nearly nine hundred years to when it was built by King Sancho the Wise of Navarre, the founder of San Sebastián.

Along with its surrounding battlements, the fortress played a major role in defeating Napoleon’s troops, so its place in history is held in high regard.

In 1950, in an effort to seize some of that good will, Generalissimo Francisco Franco commissioned a giant sculpture of the Sagrado Corazón, or Sacred Heart, to stand atop the ancient citadel. This has led to some mixed feelings among the residents, due to the overwhelming dislike of the deceased dictator in these parts, but the appreciation of the Christ statue overseeing the city.

Incredible dinner at Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra in San Sebastian, Spain

This evening we truly kick the tour off with a welcome reception and dinner at our amazing accommodations, The Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra and learn a bit about its storied past.

Queen Isabella II hid away here during a revolution in 1868, and a few years later King Amadeus I of Savoy stayed a while.

This was before it officially became the Hotel de Londres in 1902, but since then Henri Marie de Toulouse-Lautrec and the notorious spy Mata Hari have also been guests.

We’re pretty sure (but can’t be completely certain!) that Helen Mirren is one of our fellow guests (who’d ever thought we’d ever say that?). Otherwise, she has a eerie doppelganger. More sneaky stalking is necessary to confirm our sighting.

See more of fabulous San Sebastian!

DAY FIVE: From the Pig’s Ear to the Horse’s Mouth in the Basque Countryside

Sunrise over San Sabastian, Spain
The sun rises over San Sebastian

Catching the train in San Sabastian, Spain

This morning we are up and at ‘em to get to the train station for a ride up into the mountains to Tolosa.

A typical commuter train takes us the half-an-hour trip to the town that once was the capital of Gipuzkoa, one of the three Basque Provinces in Spain.

This honor is now held by the much larger Donostia, or San Sebastián, that we just left.

Covered market in Tolosa, Spain

Our walk through Tolosa reveals an historic old quarter of wonderfully preserved buildings lining narrow passages, until everything opens up along the bank of Oria Ibaia.

We follow the river for a while, looking back often for incredible views of the town behind us.

Tolosa, Spain

From the edge of Tolosa, we drive even higher into the Pyrenees.

The Basque country of Spain

A pig barn in the Basque Country of Spain

Here we begin our journey up to a farm where the methods for raising pigs has remained the same for centuries.

These very special pigs, Euskal Txerria, are only found in the Basque region and the family we are visiting is integral in keeping tradition alive. And the pigs too, the other two indigenous pig breeds are now extinct.

Basque piglets, Euskal Txerria

Basque pigs nursing in the Spanish Basque Country

These are free range pigs, allowed to graze at will. That’s right, graze.

Left alone, pigs will happily graze on grass and they especially dig the nuts and acorns that fall from the trees.

One of the farm’s owners, Maite, meets us at the barn and, through David’s translation, she explains the entire process from piglet to pork products.  (We mean our group leader David translating, otherwise the interpretation might have been complete nonsense.)

Veronica falls in love with a Basque piglet. GypsyNester.com

While we listen, Veronica has basically adopted one of the piglets as her own. It’s hard to argue with the fact that these two-month old guys are ridiculously cute.

From the barn we head inside the five hundred year old farm house for lunch.

Naturally pork is the star of the show, beginning with ham and two types of sausage.

Sausage and ham from the Basque Country of Spain

Once again Maite describes the process, this time about the five years involved in producing the ham.

After a salad, a tray of pig’s ear pintxos is thrust upon us.

Pig's ear pintxos in the Basque Country of Spain

Known as oreja a la plancha, literally grilled ear, this is a specialty across Spain, with the Basque version being a bit spicier than others.

Rather than serving it alone, this ear was allowed to join forces with peppers and anchovies on toasted bread, which was music to our ears.

The landscape of the Basque Country of Spain

Post lunch, we walk back down the hill to our lodging for the next two nights, the Iriarte Jauregia Hotel, just outside of the tiny village of Bidania.

We meet up with the proprietor, Iban Munoa, and hear the story of the hotel from the horse’s mouth.

Iriarte Jauregia Hotel in the Basque Country of Spain

His family had been very influential in the area until all of their property was seized by the Franco regime and they had to flee to the French side of Basque country.

Once Franco was gone they could return, but without any of their previous possessions.

The family finally found this large manor house and moved in, and later Iban and his wife refurbished the old stone structure into the unique and elegant inn that we unexpectedly find today.

DAY SIX: The Day of Eating We Were Dreaming of

San Bartolomé Church in Bidania of the Basque Region of Spain

Our first order of business today is to meet Iban at the small parish church of Bidania.

It was built by his family before the civil war when they fled and at the same time, back in the late eighteen hundreds, his ancestors also built the first school that taught in the Basque language.

A man exercises his oxen in Bidania of the Basque Region of Spain

A man exercises his oxen in Bidania of the Basque Region of Spain

As a bonus, when we round the corner into the square we see a well-known and barefoot townsman, Miguel, exercising his oxen in front of the church.

He is keeping them in shape for an idi probak, which is Basque for oxen tests, a popular one of several Basque dragging games which are common throughout the region.

Veronica attempts to pull a idi probak stone in Bidania of the Basque Region of Spain

The game involves a team of oxen dragging an enormous chunk of rock from one side of a square to the other.

One of the stones is also in the square, however, this is a small one meant for a group of six or eight men to drag.

Entering San Bartolomé Church we are astounded, the humble exterior gives no indication of the elaborate interior we encounter.

The ornate alter is floor-to-ceiling covered in gold leaf and nearly knocks us off our feet.

The alter at San Bartolomé Church in Bidania of the Basque Region of Spain is completely covered in gold

The choir loft in San Bartolomé Church in Bidania of the Basque Region of Spain

Iban takes us through the entire church; even the behind the scenes areas such as the sacristy that lay people like us seldom if ever get to see.

We finish in the choir loft, which is unlike most in that it is designed for priests, or monks, to sit in a semi-circle to perform their chants, as opposed to a full choir singing to the congregation.

Hiking through the woods of Basque Country in Spain

The time has come to walk again, and today we are excited to be heading even more off-the-beaten path and into the woods.

The trail takes us through the forest while our guide, David, regales us with Basque mythology.

First he tells us about Mari, the Earth Mother and creation force of Basque legend, but as the woods thicken we hear the tale of Jentil.

Jentil, a giant rock throwing beast, is said to haunt the woods of the Basque Region of Spain

Jentil is a bit more disturbing beast—giant in size and covered with hair.

He lives in these mountains and likes to throw huge boulders to block men’s paths, but is seldom seen by humans.

The woods are kind of creepy here and we are glad to report no monster sightings.

Having safely passed through the land of Jentil, we are ready for some lunch.

The Basque Country of Spain

Tolosa beans in the Basque region of Spain

Today that means two of the Basque country’s most iconic foods, Tolosa beans and sidra.

The beans, known as tolosako babarruna in Basque, are only grown in this area, and have been protected by the Spanish Denominación de Origen.

They are black, but turn purple when cooked, and are traditionally served with spicy ibarrako piparrak, pickled peppers from the neighboring town of Ibarra.

Sidra, Basque apple cider

Sidra is more of an apple wine than our idea of cider.

In fact, that would be a pretty accurate translation of the name, sagardoa.

The pour is of utmost importance, it must be from high up and allowed to splash into the glass.

This gives the sidra a chance to aerate and bring out the fresh flavor.

The proper way to pour Basque sidra, pour the cider from as high up as you can!

Our walk today planted our feet on the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James (more on this tomorrow)…

Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in the Basque Country of Spain

… our hands on more furry friends…

Donkeys along Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in the Basque Country of Spain

… and our eyes on incredible vistas.

Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in the Basque Country of Spain

Duck tacos at Bailara Restaurant at Hotel Iriarte Jauregia in Bidania, Spain

In what is turning out to be a day of food experiences, dinner tonight is specially prepared for us at the award winning Bailara Restaurant at our hotel, Iriarte Jauregia.

Their goal is to use local products from nearby orchards and farms as much as possible and combine Basque tradition with innovative new ideas.

Seared tuna on a bed of amaranth with honey and mustard at Bailara Restaurant at Hotel Iriarte Jauregia in Bidania, Spain

The appetizers are phenomenal, seared tuna on a bed of amaranth with honey and mustard, duck tacos, and shrimp cookies served with avocado cream.

Shrimp cookies served with avocado cream at Bailara Restaurant at Hotel Iriarte Jauregia in Bidania, Spain

Our entrées of hake with Basque green sauce and Iberian pork cheek with oyster sauce and smoked shinkinbushi were outstanding as well.

Pork cheeks and hake at Bailara Restaurant at Hotel Iriarte Jauregia in Bidania, Spain

But as we seem to be learning here in Spain, the small bites are often the best.

Basque French toast at Bailara Restaurant at Hotel Iriarte Jauregia in Bidania, Spain

Continue here for part two of this adventure!

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A big thank you to VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations for providing this adventure where we can tour AND eat all the delicious food we want without worrying about the calorie count! As always, all opinions are our own.

Whoa. We’re in the Chicago Tribune!

Okay, we’re not sure who the people are in the photos—but we’re uber-excited to be in the text!.. CHECK US OUT!

Pretty cool to be featured in one of America’s greatest newspapers, The Chicago Tribune! Okay, so we’re not sure who the people are in the photos—but we’re uber-excited to be in the text.

Click image to enlarge
The GypsyNesters in the Chicago Tribune

Click image to enlargeThe GypsyNesters in the Chicago Tribune!

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A Town Truly Fit for a King—Kingston, Ontario

While exploring Kingston, Ontario (the gateway to the 1000 Islands, yep, of salad dressing fame), we discovered that history, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder.  

Follow us as we gallivant through the coolest fort we’ve ever seen, eat at the safest restaurant in the world, unlearn what we learned in history class, and partake in a romantic, sunset dinner cruise through the 1000 Islands… CONTINUE READING

A big thanks to Ontario Travel and Visit Kingston for providing this historic adventure! As always, all opinions are our own.

Kingston, Ontario, Canada

While exploring Kingston, Ontario (the gateway to the 1000 Islands, yep, of the salad dressing fame), we discovered that history, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder.

We also found that historic perspective can change drastically just by stepping across a border.
In general, our culture shock is minimal when visiting Canada—sure they might add an “eh?” at the end of a sentence—but we certainly don’t feel like strangers in a strange land.

While that was again true on our recent journey and, as always, the people of Canada were overwhelmingly welcoming, there was a revelation or two that reminded us we were indeed foreigners.

Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Kingston began as a French trading post called Cataraqui, but was taken by the British in 1758 during the Seven Years’ War—or what we Americans from south of the border call the French and Indian War.

The Brits renamed Catarqui The King’s Town or King’s Town, in honor of King George III, then over time the name was shortened and the words melded together.

During the American Revolution, the settlement became a refuge for British Loyalists fleeing north and grew into an important military stronghold as a base for the Great Lakes British naval fleet.

Kingston, Ontario, Canada

By the war of 1812, the crown considered Kingston to be of prime military importance and built one of the most impressive fortresses we have ever seen, Fort Henry.

This is where we began to find that the Canadian version of events didn’t quite jibe with our memories from history class. During this war, the British (Canada was still British territory at that time) were concerned about protection of the St. Lawrence River and hastily built protection where the river met Lake Ontario.

After defeating the Americans, they replaced the cobbled-together fortifications with a formidable stone version to ward off any future attacks.

Sunset in the 1000 Islands

Wait, what? Defeated the Americans? Yup, we lost the war of 1812, but nobody told us in school.

At least that’s the Canadian take on things.

Actually, both perspectives can be correct. It can be argued that Canada won, in that they held off an attempt by the Americans to wrestle them away from the British and have them join the Union.

Or it can be said that the United States won, in that they defeated the British and remained independent.

It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

The Most Impressive Fort We’ve Ever Seen!

Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Our neighbors to the north remained pretty paranoid for the first part of the eighteen-hundreds, at least judging by the defenses built at Fort Henry (and we certainly understand why).

Fort Henry's mascot, David. In Kingston, Ontario, Canada
Meet David, Fort Henry’s official mascot! There have been oodlesof Davids over the years, but we are assured that THIS David is

the best ambassador yet. And he keeps the grass trimmed!

A moat and two huge walls, specially designed to allow strategically placed cannons in each corner to send scatter shot shrapnel ricocheting through the open area between them, protected the troops inside.

Hundreds of additional cannons covered every inch of water from six different locations along the coast and on the surrounding islands.

Fortification tours dot the islands surrounding Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Our guide, fully decked out in authentic lieutenant’s regalia from the period, was rightfully proud of the fort’s history of never being attacked.

America was never crazy enough to try. It also helped that relations quickly improved over the latter half of the century.

David got thrown in the brig at Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, Canada
David got thrown in the brig—with bats!

Several-greats grandfathers of our guide had served in the British army at the base, and asking around we found that many of the employees had long family ties to the fort.

We followed our lieutenant (pronounced leff-tenant in these parts) inside for a look at what day-to-day life was like.

Surprisingly, many of the soldiers were married, and their wives and children lived with them inside the fort.

Fort life had all the hallmarks of a full community.

Soldier life at Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, Canada

The vintage men's latrine at Fort Henry had no seats - so the soldiers didn't lallygag in there (reading the paper? playing games on their phones?) Bet it worked!
The vintage men’s latrine at Fort Henry had no seats – so thesoldiers
didn’t lallygag in there (reading the paper?

Playing games on their phones?) Bet it worked!

The accommodations were Spartan to say the least, unless of course one had the good fortune of being an officer.

And we do mean good fortune, as our lieutenant explained. The one and only way to become an officer was to buy your rank. No merit system involved.

The outpost was completely self-contained—it had to be, should a siege take place—so all of the necessities of fort life were handled in-house in a number of kitchens, bakeries, and workshops, all segregated by rank, of course.

For a farewell salute a fully bedecked artillery team rolled a ten-pounder into the parade ground in the center of the fort.

Firing of the cannons at Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, Canada

They loaded the cannon up, but only with one of the ten pounds of black powder she was designed to hold, and let her rip, not once, but twice!

Firing of the cannons at Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Looking around at the gathered crowd, we had to come to the conclusion that the display was not only in honor of us, but first-rate none the less.

The Safest Restaurant on the Planet

The Battery Bistro, he safest place to eat in Kingston, Ontario, Canada!
The safest place to eat in Kingston, under the cannons of the Battery Bistro!

Veronica gets her mitts on poutine in Canada —a gloriously unhealthy dish consisting of french fries, gravy, and cheese curds GypsyNester.com

After grabbing a bite at the Fort Henry’s Battery Bistro, which was without a doubt the safest we’ve ever felt while eating lunch…

(we feel like we’re not officially in Canada until we’d had poutine—a gloriously unhealthy dish consisting of french fries, gravy, and cheese curds),

…we took a quick spin through the campus of the Royal Military College of Canada.

A 1000 Islands salad - with the proper dressing of course! At Battery Bistro in Kingston, Ontario, Canada
We knew about 1000 Islands dressing (soooo much better than what we get in the States!) but had to order the 1000 Islands salad

The Royal West Point

Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario

As an offshoot of the fort, the college was founded in 1876.

This so-called West Point of Canada trains cadets for all branches of the military and is the only academy of its kind in the country.

Though our visit was in the dead of summer, we were regaled with tales of the college’s ice hockey team and their annual match with the United States Military Academy Black Knights in the annual West Point Weekend.

This series is the longest-running annual international sporting event in the world, going back to when General Douglas MacArthur suggested a game between the two schools in 1923.

Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario

Army may currently lead the Series by ten games, mostly on the strength of recent victories, but the spirits of the Paladins remain high.

So Much History!

The city hall building in Kinston, Ontario, Canada

Crossing the St. Lawrence into Kingston itself, we were drawn to the focal point of the city, the Historic City Hall.

Since Kingston was the capital of the new Province of Canada when construction began in 1841, the structure was designed to reflect the city’s prominence.

Unfortunately by the time it was completed in 1844, the government had moved to Montreal. Still, the building holds the honor of being designated a National Historic Site of Canada.

Kingston, Ontario, Canada

The Spirit of Sir John A train in Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Directly across the street from the hall, Confederation Park seemed to be the hub of the town’s activity.

A former Kingston and Pembroke Railway station serves as the visitor information center, with the giant locomotive the Spirit of Sir John A standing alongside.

There’s even a replica for the kiddies!

Good Ol’ Sir John A

The Kingston Trolley heads to all the hotspots of Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Sir John A McDonald's house in Kingston, Ontario, Canada

We would be hearing a lot more about Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, as our day went on—and as our journey across Ontario continued —beginning right away when we caught the hop on hop off Kingston Trolley Tour in front of the old steam engine.

Statue of Sir John A MacDonald in Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Sir John A's church in Kingston, Ontario, Canada

The route took us past a couple of more Sir John A related sites, including his one-time home, the Bellevue House, hidden behind a grove of apple trees, and the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church that he attended.

John A’s stay in Kingston may have been brief, but he certainly left his mark before moving on to lead the effort to create the Canada that we know and love today.

His spirit of tolerance and democracy certainly lives on.

Sunset Dinner on the Water

The Island Star Dinner Cruise of the 1000 Islands in Kingston, Ontario, Canada

After passing through the campus of Queen’s University, established by a royal charter from Queen Victoria, and Kingston’s hopping shopping and entertainment district along Princess Street, we headed back to the waterfront and Confederation Park.

The park sits on the harbor, serving as the boarding spot for numerous ferries and tour boats, which worked out great for us since we were set to sail on the Island Star for their sunset dinner cruise.

We did our best to ignore the ominous sound of the description as a three-hour tour and boarded anyway.

Some of the homes in the 1000 Islands take up every inch of the island!
Some of the islands are completely taken up with house!

The Island Star Dinner Cruise of the 1000 Islands in Kingston, Ontario, Canada

After all, they didn’t repeat the phrase like the song it invoked—and the ship was not named the Minnow—so the possibility of getting stranded on an uncharted desert isle seemed more than reasonably remote.

This mansion on one of the 1000 Islands was built by the inventor of the scented pine trees that hang on the rear view mirror of your car! That's a LOT of little scented cardboard trees!
Mansion built by the inventor of the scented pine trees that hang on the rear view mirror of your car! That’s a LOT of little scented cardboard trees!

The criteria to be an island in the 1000 Islands is to have at least two trees, be above water year 'round, and no less than a square meter. Whew! This guy barely squeaks by!
The criteria to be an island in the 1000 Islands is to have atleast two trees, be above water year ’round, and no less than

a square meter. Whew! This guy barely squeaks by!

None were uncharted, or desert for that matter, but we did get our first look at the chain of islands in the St. Lawrence River known as the 1000 Islands.

We wound our way through what seemed to be at least a 100 of the 1000 with the setting sun glinting off the water while munching of salmon and roast beef… and dessert.

Dinner on the cruise of the 1000 Islands on the Island Star in Kingston, Ontario, Canada

The Residence Inn, Water's Edge in Kingston, Ontario, Canada

As twilight faded, we pulled back into Kingston and walked along the waterfront to our room at the Residence Inn Water’s Edge, happy to have been introduced to a new friend in the North.

Even if we don’t see our history eye-to-eye, eh?

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

See all of our adventures in Canada!

P.S. Here’s the view from our room in the morning:
The view from our room at the Residence Inn Water’s Edge in Kingston, Ontario, Canada

A big thanks to Ontario Travel and Visit Kingston for providing this historic adventure! As always, all opinions are our own.

Taking on Tallinn, Estonia

While we can’t say that Estonia occupied a spot on our bucket list, we sure are glad that we checked it off anyway! 

You’ve GOT to love a country that sang its way to freedom, serves food you didn’t even know was edible and (in the past), used some freaky remedies to cure what ails ya… CONTINUE READING

A big thanks to Viking Ocean Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure through the Viking Homelands! Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Norway. As always, all opinions are our own.

Tallinn, Estonia

A festival in Tallinn, Estonia

While we can’t say that Estonia occupied a spot on our bucket list, we sure are glad that we checked it off anyway.

Starting with a drive through the modern business district of its newly-crowned European capital of Tallinn, we were immediately impressed.

The city has embraced this role and risen to the occasion as the center of one of the continent’s fastest growing economies.

The young country became independent a mere twenty-five years ago, yet it has jumped to the forefront with one of the world’s highest literacy rates and best access to the Internet.

Peter and Catherine’s Crib

The Kadriorg Palace in Tallinn, Estonia

Passing through downtown, we made way to our first stop and stepped back into Estonia’s past as a Russian territory.

Peter the Great liked this spot on the Baltic Sea enough to build a small—by czar standards—palace for his wife, Catherine I, in 1718.

The Kadriorg Palace was used as a summer residence for the royalty, but now it serves as a museum and focal point of the beautiful Kadriorg Park.

How to Sing Yourself to Freedom

The Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn, Estonia
David waits for the show with Gustav Ernesaks,
“Father of the Song”

From the palace, a short trip through the woods led to the Song Festival Grounds where every five years a huge singing extravaganza is held with choral groups from across the country.

The tradition of the Estonian Song Festival goes back to 1869, but has played an even more important role in history.

Believe it or not, songs helped to set Estonia free from Soviet control in what became known as the Singing Revolution.

Beginning in the nineteen-eighties, peaceful demonstrations—where thousands of citizens would defiantly sing banned songs—sprang up across the Baltic States.

David waits for the show with Gustav Ernesaks at The Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn, Estonia

After several years of these protests, the USSR gave in and Estonia declared independence on August 20, 1991.

One of the biggest musical gatherings of the movement took place on the Festival Grounds where hundreds of thousands of voices defiantly sang for freedom in an inspiring story of nonviolent rebellion.

The Singing Revolution in Estonia started at the Song Festival grounds

The venue’s fame has also has attracted some of the world’s biggest stars like The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, and Paul McCartney to perform concerts.

The Domiest Church in Tallinn

Church of St. Alexander Nevsky in Tallinn, Estonia

Leaving the middle aged rockers behind us, we moved on to the Middle Ages and stormed our way through the old city walls.

Beginning at the top, on Toompea, or Dome Hill, we stopped at the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky which put the dome in the name.

While St Alex’s may be the domiest, it is not the oldest church in Tallinn.

St. Mary's Cathedral in Tallinn, Estonia is decorated with family coats of arms

That honor goes to nearby St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Originally built as a Catholic church in 1229, it became Lutheran in 1561 and has been renovated and expanded many times through the centuries.

The old church is often referred to as the “tomb church,” because so many of the early parishioners are buried beneath the floor inside.

St. Mary's Cathedral in Tallinn, Estonia is decorated with family coats of arms

Lutheran churches are normally stark when it comes to decor. The odd St. Mary’s is coated with the entombed families’ coats of arms.

The View from the Top

Tallin, Estonia

Tallinn, Estonia

Viewed from the hill, there are three prominent pinnacles that form the medieval skyline in the town below.

One of those spires doesn’t belong to a church, but rather to the Raekoda, or Town Hall dating all the way back to 1371.

Though it no longer serves as the seat of city, the structure still dominates the main square.

City Hall in Tallinn, Estonia

We headed down to the plaza, which is lined with restaurants, cafes, and bars, and looked for a spot to grab a bite of lunch.

Leave it to Your GypsyNesters to Ferret out the “Weird” Regional Food!

Estonian restaurants are known for offering interesting, perhaps even exotic, game on the menu and were not disappointed.

Tallin, Estonia

Among the many choices of oddities involving animals we have never dreamt of eating, we opted for bear dumplings and smoked beaver.

Neither is a new favorite, but also nowhere near the worst thing we have ever eaten and, on the bright side, we could count them as unexpected checks off the old bucket list.

The bear came wrapped in little ravioli-type dumplings swimming in broth. This helped to cover the strong flavor and kept it from being over bear-ing (ba-dum-CHING).

Bear dumplings in Tallin, Estonia

There were some unknown—albeit delicious—red berries and a dish of sour cream served alongside, which the waiter instructed us to use “as you wish,” so we did, in every possible combination.

Going all in with the condiments seemed to be the best way to take a bit of the growl out of the bear.

Smoked beaver in Tallin, Estonia

The beaver arrived on a wooden board (sans teeth marks as far as we could tell) served with a stout garlic sauce and a hearty black rye bread.

It took several bites of the dam builder to come up with a description, a sort of dense meat yet tender, and very smoky.

Luckily the garlic, which Tallinn is also known for, won the flavor battle hands down.

Here’s to Your (Relative) Health

The old circa 1415 pharmacy in Tallin, Estonia

Tucked away in one corner of the square we found an old pharmacy, the Raeapteek.

No one knows the exact date, but it is thought to have opened in 1415, which makes it one of the oldest continuously running pharmacies in Europe.

It even stayed in business through the communist years, when it was nationalized.

In addition to the modern pharmacy, there is a small museum on the first floor.

Just past the modern medicines we found medieval treatments like scorched hedgehog, mummy fragments, stallion hooves, and unicorn horn powder.

Crazy medicine in the pharmacy in Tallin, Estonia, like scorched hedgehog, mummy fragments, stallion hooves

As time went on, dried deer penis, earthworms in oil, and wood louse infusion came onto the scene and became the medications of choice.

Crazy medicine in the pharmacy in Tallin, Estonia, like dried deer penis, and wood louse infusion

We decided not to ask about remedies for our bear breath or beaver fever.

Headed up again

Ancient tombstones line Katarina Kaik, St. Catherine's Passage in Tallinn, Estonia

Just off the square we duck into the medieval Katarina Käik, St. Catherine’s passage, leading to the ruins of St. Catherine’s Church that give the passage its name.

Along the wall there are several large, ancient tombstones that were moved from inside of the sanctuary.

The city wall in Tallinn, Estonia

The city wall in Tallinn, Estonia

Just as when we visited the amazing old wall around Rothenburg in Germany, of course we had to climb.

For a small fee, we were allowed to ascend the dark, steep, and head-banging steps up to the top for a walk along the ancient rampart.

The steep stairs up the wall tower in Tallinn, Estonia

The steeple of Tallinn, Estonia's St. Olaf's church was once the tallest building in the world

There were also two defensive towers open for even higher climbing and stunning views across both the old and new sections of the city.

It was here that the skull really got to know the stone personally, but it was worth it for the view of St. Olaf’s Church.

Back between 1549 and 1625 it was thought to have been the tallest building in the world, but records were somewhat less than exact back then.

No matter, even after the steeple had to be rebuilt after at least ten lightning strikes it still tops out at over four-hundred feet high.

Blackheads? Heh.

The distinctive door of The Brotherhood of Blackheads in Tallinn, Estonia

The distinctive door of The Brotherhood of Blackheads in Tallinn, Estonia

From the wall, we went in search of the distinctive door of The Brotherhood of Blackheads.

After walking right by it a couple of times because it was open, we figured things out and a guy with a film crew that was using the building let us in for a look around.

Founded as a military organization, the Brotherhood became an association for unmarried merchants and ship owners.

It was a sort of minor league for the Great Guild, where if you did well in business, and got married, you could move up to the big team.

The insignia for the Brotherhood of the Blackheads in Tallinn, Estonia

A Stout Lady Guards the City

The time had come to make our way back to the good ship Viking Star.

Fat Margaret in Tallinn, Estonia

On the way we passed through the walls at the Great Coastal Gate and found it guarded by the whimsically named Fat Margaret fortification.

The five-hundred year old tower was meant to keep invaders at bay, but also to impress any visitors arriving by sea.

Going up the gangplank, we were struck by how our day had been filled with new experiences that we never expected.

Who knew a bucket list could contain all sorts of items we didn’t even know existed?

Tallinn was definitely one of those.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A big thanks to Viking Ocean Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure through the Viking Homelands! Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Norway. As always, all opinions are our own.

YOUR TURN: Were you in the dark about Estonia like us? Is it now on your bucket list? How about those bear dumplings?

Look for Your GypsyNesters in Your Favorite Magazine this Month!

So excited about this opportunity!

We’ve teamed up Humana with tips on kicking YOUR Generation Encore into high, healthy gear!

See our tips and tricks for staying healthy out on the road, what we carry with us to avoid disaster, and what we tote along onto airplanes to avoid eating junk food (and much more!).

Check out the SEVEN magazines you can catch us in… CONTINUE READING

We’ve teamed up Humana with tips on kicking YOUR Generation Encore into high, healthy gear with full page advertorial appearing in the August/September 2016 issues Real Simple, Cooking Light, Southern Living, Sunset, Coastal Living, Golf, and Money magazines! We were paid to appear and, as always, all opinions are our own.

My beloved Grandpa used to love the saying “health is wealth.”

As his caretaker while in my thirties, I was familiar with the phrase but never thought much about it.

Even when Grandpa would sweetly explain to me what the phrase meant to him and why I should take it to heart, I didn’t.

Sorry Grandpa, but I just didn’t get it.

I was young, energetic, and happily busy chasing three kids around. On top of running my own business and traveling to California as much as I could to help my stepdad care for my beautiful, dying mother.

Looking back at that time of my life, I’m not sure how I did it. David was out on the road for long, brutal stretches and the juggling got intense—it felt at times like there was not enough of me to go around.

I should have counted my blessings more. And my health was one of those blessings I rarely counted.

Now that I’m older and, hopefully, wiser (though I doubt I’ll ever reach Grandpa wise), I take eating right, staying active, and getting a good night’s sleep more seriously.

David hiking in Machu Picchu. GypsyNester.com
Hiking at Machu Picchu

It’s simply impossible to keep up with the pace of my chosen lifestyle otherwise. Gone are those glory days of endless energy, and I’ve finally learned the importance of taking care of myself. I’m worthless to others otherwise.

Health IS wealth.

So, when Humana asked us to team up to help get the word out to Generation Encore (of which we are proud, card-carrying members—okay, there’s no card, but we’d carry one if there was!), we said HECK YEAH!

What an honor it is to share our story and tips in top magazines:

Click image to enlarge
How to stay healthy as you age!Click image to enlarge

Look for us when you pick up your copy of Real Simple, Cooking Light, Southern Living, Sunset, Coastal Living, Golf, and Money magazines this month!

Click image to enlarge
How to stay healthy as you age!
Click image to enlarge

Stay healthy, my friends, so you can have encore adventures like this in Sicily:

Or this in Arizona:

Or this in Australia:

This is YOUR time. Get up, get active, and have some fun!

Veronica, GypsyNester.com

YOUR TURN: How important is staying healthy as you navigate your encore years? Have we missed any important tips? Please share yours in the comment section!

Roadtrippin’ Canada this Week! Follow along with us Live!



We’ll be storming Ontario, Canada on a riproarin’ roadtrip! No stone will be unturned—we’ll be exploring by road, raft,  boat, trolley, helicopter and even a 1930s biplane (gulp!).

Don’t miss a thing and follow us LIVE all week on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!



We’ll be storming Ontario, Canada on a riproarin’ roadtrip! No stone will be unturned—we’ll be exploring by road, raft,  boat, trolley, helicopter and even a 1930s biplane (gulp!).

Don’t miss a thing and follow us LIVE all week on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

There’s No Denying Denali is Da Bomb! Alaska’s Beauty at its Best

Scenery that’s just too spectacular to be real!

There’s no place like it on earth. We skirted precariously along cliffs, hiked among magnificent mountains, and learned how to react when we came upon a grizzly in the wild (this goes against every human fight-or-flight instinct!).

Oh, and there’s that bit about the town that has a cat for a mayor… CONTINUE READING

There’s No Denying Denali is Da Bomb! Alaska’s Beauty at its Best

The GypsyNesters in Denali National Park in Alaska

In what may be becoming an regular trek up to Alaska to see The Boy again this summer (we haven’t summoned the fortitude to venture up in the winter yet), and decided to take in some of the state’s boundless beauty with a visit to North America’s highest peak, Denali, and the National Park that surrounds it.

View from Flat Top Mountain in Anchorage, Alaska
Right before things went terribly awry on Flat Top Mountain,

so climbing Denali is probably NOT the best idea!

Seeing it from afar last year when we climbed Flat Top Mountain only whet our appetites, we felt that if we were to do the massive mountain justice we should get an up close and personal introduction.

From Anchorage, our homebase, we headed toward Wasilla (a different path from our previous travels down the fabulous Seward Highway and our visit to the extremely remote Native Villages in the tundra).

Setting out in the evening, after The Boy and his lovely girlfriend finished work, we stop for an overnight in the town of Talkeetna. This quirky-quaint little outpost is used as a base camp for climbers, since it is the nearest civilization to the southern route up Denali’s summit.

Talkeetna, Alaska

Several air taxi services shuttle mountaineers to base camps, and take sightseers on flybys or glacier landings, in fact the tiny town has two airports.

Since we’d learned our limitations whilst climbing Flat Top, we weren’t interested in getting into further trouble climbing the ginormous peak. Enjoying the the frontier atmosphere of the village was more our speed.

A local watering hole in Talkeetna, Alaska

Talkeetna’s downtown area is so darn quaint, and authentic, that it is classified as a National Historic Site.

Though it was getting a little late, we wandered Main Street and stopped into a couple of the local watering holes.

Summer solstice in full swing—and being so close to the Arctic Circle—meant that it was not going to get dark that night.

Just to be certain, we waited for twelve o’clock and a dose of midnight sun.

Nagley's General Store, home of the cat mayor, Stubbs, in Talkeetna, Alaska

The next morning, which looked pretty much the same as the night that preceded it, we set out for Nagley’s General Store to pay a call on Mayor Stubbs.

The Honorable Mayor Stubbs - he's a cat - of Talkeetna, Alaska
The Honorable Mayor Stubbs has his own swag.

We were hoping to be able to give him a little scratch behind the ears, oh, wait, perhaps we should explain that Stubbs is a cat.

Full discloser: he is also only the honorary mayor.

The town has no real mayor, so there is no truth to the legend that Stubbs won a write-in campaign, but he has been holding forth with huge approval ratings since 1997.

That’s almost twenty years!

He started out as barely more than a kitten but, obviously, he’s getting a little long in the tooth, and wasn’t feeling up to greeting his citizens (or his legions of fans) that day.

Luckily, Nagley’s is a landmark in its own right; over one hundred years ago this was one of the original buildings in Talkeetna and more than a store, it served as the Post Office and District Territorial Headquarters too.

Talkeetna Alaska's famous spinach bread!

Feeling sad that we missed the mayor, we soothed ourselves with some of Talkeetna’s famous spinach bread (cheesy, garlicky, gooey goodness) and took a walk down to the Susitna River to hopefully get a peek at the mighty mountain that was shrouded in clouds the day before.

Unfortunately, Denali is so large that it creates its own weather, so it is hidden from view at least two thirds of the time.

This morning fell into that majority.

Mountain view from Talkeetna, Alaska

We did end up with a fantastic view of Mount Foraker, the third highest peak in North America, but looking out across the rushing water only the bottom half of big Denali was visible to the right of Foraker.

Loading up the car and hoping for a break in the clouds, we drove north to Denali National Park.

The drive to Denali National Park, Alaska

Along the way we played peek-a-boo, catching passing glimpses, but never a clear view of the entire mountain.

The road to Denali National Park, Alaska - stunning!
We were more than happy to take in the “regular-sized” humongous mountains on the endless range. Each one more stunning than the next.

As we traveled on, it was surprising to find that we had passed the summit completely and ended up on Denali’s north side where the entrance awaited us.

We settled into our cabin in Denali Village and drifted off to sleep with dreams of a clear day ahead.

Instructions on how to survive a grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

Up for a bright-and-early morning, our first stop was a quick trip to the visitor center.

It was there that we learned how to handle grizzlies.

Memorizing what goes against everything our fight-or-flight human tendencies warned us, we vowed to give it a shot were we so (un)lucky to find ourselves near a grizzly bear.

The bus through Denali National Park

There is only one road through the park, so for safety and traffic control it is restricted to park vehicles only.

That means the only way to get into the interior of the park is to take a bus.

Our driver, a vivacious woman who couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds dripping wet, drove on paths so narrow that much of the time we could only see a sheer drop while we peered aghast from our windows.

The crazy road through Denali National Park, Alaska

We went deep into countryside that normally could never be seen without days of hiking under heavy backpacks.

The crazy cliff-clinging road through Denali National Park, Alaska

Snow on the mountains in Denali National Park, Alaska

As we went along our driver regaled the history of the park, which in turn explained why we were not going to see the summit, even if the clouds broke.

The concept of the park came from conservationist Charles Alexander Sheldon, who pushed for National Park protection of the region from 1906, until 1917 when Woodrow Wilson signed the bill creating Mount McKinley National Park.

Signs in Denali National Park in Alaska are fitted with spikes so the bears refrain from scratching themselves and knocking them over
Signs are fitted with spikes to deter bears from scratching
their backs on them and knocking them over.

Sheldon’s idea was never focused on the big mountain, which he called Denali even back then, but on preserving the incredible wildlife and beauty of the entire area.

In fact, the summit of the peak wasn’t even within the original park boundaries.

The rest of the mountain wasn’t officially protected until President Jimmy Carter named it Denali National Monument in 1978.

Two years later the Monument was added into the Park, and the Alaska State Board of Geographic Names officially changed the name of the mountain to Denali.

The sheer cliffs off the road through Denali National Park in Alaska are crazy!

The name had been a source of controversy from the beginning, and even with that change the federal government continued to consider the official name Mount McKinley.

The situation of different state and federal names lasted until 2015, when President Barack Obama directed Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to rename the mountain Denali, which means “the high one” in the native Koyukon language.

Denali National Park, Alaska

Now that we had the notion of seeing that one particular mountain out of our heads, we were freed up to stop looking, and enjoy all of the other amazing mountains that were surrounding us.

We could also beginning to focus on spotting some of the vast array of wildlife that calls the park home.

Dall sheep frolick in Denali National Park, Alaska

Our first encounter didn’t take much effort to spot, as a herd of Dall sheep ran right across the road.

Coming to quick, sharp stop, freaking out our driver because in her twenty years here she had never seen them so up close.

They are normally quite shy and stay high up on the hillsides.

Not much farther along we got a good sense of what she meant, and just how good at spotting animals she was, when she pointed out several caribou up in a snowfield high on a ridge.

Without her guidance we never would have seen them, or known that they were rolling in the snow to get rid of pesky insects.

Polychrome Pass in Denali National Park in Alaska - where the mountains explode with color!

As we climbed up the aptly named Polychrome Pass, the colors of the rocks exploded into a rainbow of earth toned hues.

This is due to the localized volcanic events, in contrast to the vast majority of the mountains which rise from tectonic activity as the Pacific Plate slowly crashes into the North American plate.

It’s actually a part of the same fault system that created the San Andreas Fault thousands of miles to the south.

While riding through this spectacular scenery was incredible, we really wanted to get out in it, so we asked to get off at the next stop.

The buses make numerous stops along the road just for this purpose, as hikers and campers make their way in and out of the wilderness.

Black bear warning sign in Denali National Park, Alaska
According to our driver and the warning at the vistor center, black bears behave quite differently—we frantically double checked that we knew the difference.

We weren’t going to get too crazy, just wanted to take in the wide open expanse of the Toklat River Valley and maybe hike over a ridge or two. After strongly warning us to beware of bears, the driver pulled away in a cloud of dust.

Hiking through Denali National Park in Alaska

For the next couple of hours we bashed through the brush and squished our way through the spongy tundra.

Good thing we didn’t plan on going very far because it is pretty tough terrain.

Bet we didn’t cover more than a couple of miles the whole time.

Hiking through Denali National Park in Alaska

Not that we could notice from the amount of daylight, but it was starting to get a little late so we hightailed it back to the road to flag down one of the last few buses headed out of the park.

We certainly didn’t have any desire to make a survivalist camp for the night… even if it wouldn’t get dark.

A grizzly bear in Denali National Park, Alaska

A grizzly bear eating in Denali National Park, Alaska

Just after getting back on the bus our driver slowed to a stop to give us a good long look at a grizzly feeding just a few feet from the road.

Two things came to mind.

First, how lucky were we to get this amazing chance to see this deadly combination of teeth and claws in his native habitat?

Second, O. M. Geeeee—how close was this guy when we were out rambling around?

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

See all of our adventures in Alaska!

YOUR TURN: Are you as happy as we are that we didn’t get eaten by a bear? Isn’t Denali stunning?

Fear Conquering & Eating Silkworms

I am no longer an eating-a-bug virgin.

I love sampling new food – the more authentic the better. But, from time to time we are faced with delicacies which may be too authentic.

Find out which of us tried it and who chickened out… CONTINUE READING and watch the video >> 

We ate silkworms! Yes, silkworms are edible, sort of.

I am no longer an eating-a-bug virgin.

I love sampling new foods – the more authentic the better. But, from time to time we are faced with delicacies which may be too authentic.

As we explored the city of Dalian, China we found many exotic and exciting foods, quite a few that were displayed in the restaurants alive.

Restaurant serving silkworms in Dalian, China

These lively, moving menus worked well for the point-and-eat method we’ve developed when exploring areas where we don’t have a language in common with the residents.

The food is alive in restaurants in Dalian China!

Restaurant serving silk worms in Dalian China

After window shopping the fare in several establishments, David and I settled on one and sat down.

In no time, I was pointing to a plate of wiggling silkworms and there was no turning back.

We had been taunting each other ever since we found out in Beijing that people actually ate the buggers.

We ate silkworms! Yes, silkworms are edible, sort of.

When the dish arrived, the smell alone brought about extended stall tactics.

The incredibly unpleasant aroma led me to trying the garnish first, asking every member of the staff how to go about ingesting the worms, bringing one right up to my lips and chickening out (by the way, they most decidedly do not taste like chicken), and utilizing every other excuse I could come up with to delay the inevitable.

Seriously, a medal for bravery might have been in order.

David had announced, as soon as he got a whiff of the bugs, that he was having none of it. But the gauntlet was down; there was no way I was letting him getting away with not trying the delicacy. I mocked him until he finally relented.

As soon as his teeth cracked the bug-like shell…

WATCH: I was shocked at the panic I saw in my eyes when I was editing this video! ONE of us actually ate a silkworm — and the other is a wuss.

Thanks to the incredible staff – even though they laughed at me – they were amazingly wonderful and the rest of the food we sampled was SO delicious.

As we bid farewall, their many hugs almost relieved the slightly queasy feeling I had in the pit of my stomach.

Veronica, GypsyNester.com

Click here to see more about our day in Dalian

See more of our adventures in China!

YOUR TURN: Would YOU try a silkworm? Or have I finally gone too far?

That Time I was Smote by God

On a blustery New York City morning, I executed my first face plant.

The sun had just peeked out after a torrential rain and began to form those bands of brilliant, glorious Jesus Rays streaming through the clouds.

Next thing I knew, I lay prostrated before a church in that special kind of pain that only landing square on one’s schnozz can bring, surrounded by scattered partyware glistening in the sun like a golden calf.

But I probably deserved it… CONTINUE READING

A big thank you to Rhea Footwear for providing shoes that help me avoid future smitings! As always, all opinions are our own.

On a blustery New York City pre-Christmas morning, I executed my first face plant.

That time Veronica was smote by God. The GypsyNesters
I landed right on my nose.
(This is the cleaned up, in-the-doctor’s-office version.
I wouldn’t subject anyone to the gory pics!)

Decibel and I had just finished up shopping for The Piglet’s engagement party, arms laden with huge, but light shopping bags full of bulky supplies.

Champagne flutes, serving trays, three-tiered food displays, and assorted cutlery (all fashioned in the finest high-end plastic of course, we were planning a soiree, not a chintzy affair!) rattled around us like huge bouquets of balloons.

The sun had just peeked out after a torrential rain and began to form those bands of brilliant, glorious Jesus Rays streaming through the clouds.

Though we had a few more blocks to trek than what was comfortable, we felt our mole-people skins needed a dose of vitamin D therapy and decided to forgo a cab.

A quick jaunt to a doctor’s appointment and then a fun day of mommy/daughter time stretched out before us.

Walking past the main Salvation Army, I was surprised to see the organization had a theater. A marquee featured a movie-type poster with a bell-ringer’s bell loving laid upon a bed of holly.

My pun-lovin’ brain went into overdrive as I turned to point out the sign to Decibel, but before I could get out the words, “I bet it’s about a jolly ol’ elf with a heart of gold,” the ground met my face.

FACE PLANT. I’d been smote for making fun of the Salvation Army, maybe not aloud, but definitely in my heart. I was struck down lest I commit a greater sin.

There I lay, prostrated before the church in that special kind of pain that only landing square on one’s schnozz can bring, surrounded by scattered partyware glistening in the sun like a golden calf.

I sat up, chin down, hair hanging over my face; fully chastised. Reaching to the point of my great suffering (my nose), I realized I had been blinded. My hand came away covered in blood and, alas, my glasses were gooey with the stuff.

Decibel had knelt before me, her tongue only able to utter, “MOM!”

Unable to lift my face toward the heavens, I handed my glasses to Decibel. The blindness lifted from mine eyes and I saw that a crowd had assembled—as only a crowded holiday NYC street can produce—when I peered through my hair at legions of unwashed, puddle-splattered boots.

“Make them leave,” I beseeched of Decibel.

We don’t call her Decibel for nothing—verily, the girl’s voice carries for furlongs, “She’s okay, but she needs some space. Please go away,” she told the crowd firmly. Then to me, “Mom, let me see.”

I lifted my face. There was an audible gasp from the disobedient masses.

GO THE EFF AWAY!” Except she didn’t say “eff.” Like Moses parting the Red Sea, the masses dispersed. Just one of the multitudes of reasons I cherish my New Yorker daughter.

A Good Samaritan from the crowd remained behind; she had been gathering tissues rather than rubbernecking. As she bequeathed them unto Decibel, she suggested that I sue the Salvation Army for sidewalk negligence—um, no thanks.

I’d been smote enough for one day, thank you very much.

Using our glorious party napkins for an unexpected task, we smeared the blood around enough to find that the bridge of my nose was the source of the gushing—and it was bad.

Luckily, the aforementioned doctor’s appointment was my Botox doctor (don’t judge me until you read this) who is, thankfully, also a plastic surgeon. He sweetly cleaned me up and gave me some of those newfangled “glue stitches.”

I will never mock the Salvation Army again. Truly, I say unto you, God means business.

This entire episode got me to thinking about how klutzy I’d become lately, and I began looking for solutions. And lo—and behold—Rhea Footware contacted us about their shoes with Never Slip Technology.

Great, I thought, the time has come for clunky old lady shoes.

I took a deep breath and clicked on their website and found their shoes to be neither clunky nor old lady. I decided to give them a go on our latest adventures.

And…

Wearing my Rhea Footware in the fjords of Norway!

I never fell on my face while cruising the fjords of Norway

Wearing my Rhea Footware in the canals of St. Petersburg

… or while playing footsie in the canals of St. Petersburg, Russia (David loves his too!).

Wearing my Rhea Footware in Denali National Park!

David even did some hiking in his across mushy tundra at Denali National Park in Alaska and never once ended up on his posterior (I just slipped put mine on to enjoy the views!). He proclaimed the boots perfectly comfortable even though they were brand new.

No need for an extended breaking-in period, in fact he even wore them on the long flights to both Alaska and Europe.

As a matter of fact, we love our Rheas so much we asked the company if they’d like to offer a 20% discount to our peeps so they may try them out too!

Use our exclusive Rhea Footwear discount coupon code by clicking here, and using GYPSYNESTER at check out.

Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A big thank you to Rhea Footwear for providing shoes that help me avoid future smiting! As always, all opinions are our own.

YOUR TURN: Did I deserve my smiting? Have YOU ever taken an epic fall? Tell us YOUR story!