Train-ing Day

With the summer travel season fast approaching, once again we would like to sing the praises of riding the rails. Enjoying the scenery passing by our window, without the hassles of airports or worries of the road, makes train travel our favorite way of getting from here to there. CONTINUE READING >> 

With the summer travel season fast approaching, once again we would like to sing the praises of riding the rails.

Enjoying the scenery passing by our window, without the hassles of airports or worries of the road, makes train travel our favorite way of getting from here to there.

As a bonus, sometimes we find views that can only be seen from the railroad as the tracks pass through countryside far from the nearest roads.

Our globetrotting Gypsynester wanderings have afforded us the opportunity to explore by rail all over the world.

In Asia, we discovered that sometimes the train doesn’t really ride on rails at all, as is the case with the fastest train in the world.

The Maglev, in Shanghai, travels suspended on a magnetic field at speeds up to 300 miles per hour.

Read more about the fastest train in the world.

In Peru, we rode through the incredible Sacred Valley of the Incas aboard the famed Expedition Train.

The narrow gauge route along the Urubamba River travels on the second highest railroad in the world.

After passing  through spectacular Andes mountain scenery, we arrived at Aguas Calientes, the town that serves as the basecamp for Machu Picchu.

For those of us past our backpacking prime, it sure beat four days of hiking on the Inca Trail.

Read more about the Expedition Train to Machu Picchu. 

Across Europe trains are our first choice for getting from here to there at ground level.

The famous Flåm railway, a scenic and engineering marvel.

We have seen sunny Spain, all the way to above the Arctic Circle, pass by as we relaxed aboard some of the finest trains anywhere in the world.

Read all about our journey from Amsterdam to the Arctic with Eurail.

Many times the routes have taken us to amazing destinations that are only reachable by rail.

Funicular railway a thousand feet above Bergen, Norway.

Norway may have been best for this as we were delivered to the top of a ski jump by cog railway, and a mountain top with the assistance of a cable funicular.

These specially designed trains can climb incredibly steep grades that no other mode of transportation could possibly handle.

In the good ole U.S. of A. we have been from coast to coast in spacious style aboard some of Amtrak‘s iconic long distance routes.

The Southwest Chief, Coast Starlight, and California Zephyr were all part of a fifteen day excursion we made from Chicago to the west coast and back several years ago.

That wild adventure had a huge impact on us, helping to give us the wanderlust, and the guts, to take on our life as Gypsynester vagabonds.

Read about our crazy two-week adventure across America.

One of our favorite things about train travel is the ability to enjoy real food.

Meals are prepared made to order, and served on real china with real silverware.

It’s like having a rolling restaurant at our beck and call.

When we want to feel particularly spoiled, meals can even be delivered to our room.

Amtrak has taken us to some of America’s most historic cities as we hopped from Washington DC, to Philadelphia, to New York, to Boston on a patriotic adventure exploring the origins of our country.

See our journey to America’s founding cities.

Or when we were feeling like getting away from it all, we took the Empire Builder through Glacier National Park.

For us, it is the only way to roll.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

Arnhem, Discovering a Dutch Treat

One of our favorite things about traveling is finding unknown gems. It is always a thrill for us to discover a city that is not famous as a tourist destination and explore its charms.

In Holland, Arnhem certainly captured that…

CONTINUE READING >> 

Thanks to Viking River Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure through the tulips and windmills of Holland and Belgium with stops in Amsterdam, Kinderdijk, Antwerp, Bruges, Veere, Hoorn, and Arnhem.

One of our favorite things about traveling is finding unknown gems. It is always a thrill for us to discover a city that is not famous as a tourist destination and explore its charms.

Finding so much to see in Arnhem had it certainly capturing that mindset and made us wish we had more time.

We docked near the site of some of the fiercest fighting in the Netherlands during World War II, the bridge over the Rhine River. In September of 1944, Allied paratroopers were dropped into the occupied territory with the task of securing the bridge.

Many were off course and landed too far away to help the mission, but a small band succeeded in taking one side of the bridge.  Without reinforcements, they could only hold it for a few days and ultimately had to surrender. The struggle was immortalized in the 1977 movie A Bridge Too Far.

A few months later, the Allies returned to liberate the city and destroyed the bridge to keep the enemy from crossing the river. When it was rebuilt it was named the John Frost Bridge in honor of Major-General John Dutton Frost, the commander of the paratroopers.

We walked under the bridge on our way into town and stopped at The Jacob Groenewoud Park, named for the only Dutch officer involved in the operation, and lingered for a few minutes over the photos and relics from those two attempts to free Arnhem.

Near the park we spotted a Winged Diesel Man-Headed Turbo Chicken (shockingly, that is not its proper name). We could only assume that the artist intended this as a metaphorical piece to represent something.

After asking numerous guides, and attempting multiple failed Google searches, all we learned was that it is relatively new.

The lack of answers created a great deal of speculation on our part. Does the wing represent paratroopers? Perhaps the diesel engine signifies rebuilding.

Could be, but why the contraption was given a man’s head and put in the shape of a turbo chicken was beyond our comprehension. There’s nothing like how art can prompt conversation… and we loved it!

Continuing along the river, we came to the old city gate and hung a right into town. This is the only remaining gate of the original four in the old walls, and it has been superbly restored.

It felt like we were walking through a portal into the Middle Ages.

Unfortunately, not much else is left in Arnhem from that era. Wars have ravaged the town, so most of the buildings are relatively modern, but the lack of landmarks didn’t dampen our day at all. The main square was buzzing with the weekly market in full swing.

As usual, within minutes we were wishing we had access to a kitchen so that we could cook up some of the fantastic looking meats, seafood, sausages, and vegetables offered at the dozens of booths.

We had to settle for some cheese. Settle is probably not the right word, because the Dutch make some of the best cheese in the world.

We sampled several varieties and chose an herb seasoned goat cheese, along with a classic Gouda named for the nearby town.

As we wandered deeper into the city we found a little shop with stroopwaffles being made in the front window.

Our new friend and waffle master, Betta, was kind enough to demonstrate the process for us from start to finish. She began with a small ball of dough, pressed it in an iron, and in minutes created a delicious treat.

The final result is more of a cookie than a breakfast item, with caramel spread between two crispy waffle layers, that easily puts the average sandwich cookie to shame.

Watch Betta making stroopwaffles.

Oreos won’t even dare to venture out of the bag in the presence of these babies.

Turns out that these amazing tongue ticklers originated in Gouda too, a couple of hundred years ago. Time was, if you wanted a stroopwafel you had to go to Gouda, because for nearly one hundred years that was the only place they were made.

Cheese and stroopwafels, Gouda must be Dutch for heaven.

In the afternoon we headed inland a few miles to Paleis Het Loo, which means The Woods Palace. From 1684 until 1962 the House of Orange-Nassau, the Dutch royal family, used this as a residence and summer retreat. It is a museum now, but there are still official functions held from time to time.

The design is classic European country palace, bringing to mind Versailles, but on a smaller scale. Before going inside we walked around the garden, which is also laid out in the typical royal residence style.

The main difference we noticed from other imperial back yards that we have visited was the hedges forming the patterns are all very low. Our guide explained that a blight recently took a terrible toll on the plants, so they all had to be replaced.

The early spring weather we enjoyed the past few days gave them a good start, but they still had a long way to go before anyone would be getting lost wandering among the hedgerows.

Inside the palace we found ourselves walking through what felt like a time capsule. The rooms are perfectly preserved and, unlike Versailles, the furnishings were not destroyed or stolen away during a revolution, so opulent seventeenth century life is well represented.

Many of the rooms show a working residence; the business of running the kingdom was addressed not only in studies and libraries, but even from the bedroom. King Willhem III often suffered with ill health so he held meetings and did much of his ruling from his chamber.

As we proceeded, we seemed to be moving forward in time. The rooms began to show some modern conveniences, such as indoor plumbing, with a shower and tub, and even heated towel holders in Queen Wilhelmina’s bathroom from 1904.

From the house we made our way to the old coach house next to the stables and discovered some of the most interesting items on the tour.

There were, of course, several very nice horse drawn carriages, including one that looks like Cinderella should be stepping out any second before it turns into a pumpkin, along with sleighs.  Once again moving forward in time, we found a collection of automobiles.

The cars date back nearly a hundred years, but surprisingly they are all very practical models. There’s not a fancy luxury car in the assortment, instead it was mostly Fords, with a Fiat and Volvo or two.

Right next to the cars we found a big surprise, two anti-gas kinderwagens. The baby buggies were set up to protect child passengers in case of a gas attack.

These were made during World War II because of the fear that gas would be used again, as it was in the first World War.

Happily, they were never put to the ultimate test.

David & Veronica, Gypsynester.com

See all of our adventures in Holland.

Thanks to Viking River Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure through the tulips and windmills of Holland and Belgium with stops in Amsterdam, Kinderdijk, Antwerp, Bruges, Veere, Hoorn, and Arnhem.

This post contains sponsored links.

Do Alligators Like Tabasco?

For a long time roads weren’t an option in South Louisiana. This was some wild country back in the day, not Bourbon Street wild, but wilderness wild. The incredibly wet, squishy ground made bayous the only reasonable routes for transportation and Bayou Teche was the Superhighway. Following The Teche, we set out to discover the real… CONTINUE READING >>

For a long time roads weren’t an option in South Louisiana. This was some wild country back in the day, not Bourbon Street wild, but wilderness wild.

The incredibly wet, squishy ground made boats the way to get around and bayous the only reasonable routes for transportation. Back then, Bayou Teche was the Superhighway.

Following The Teche, we set out to discover the real Acadiana.

Our odyssey began in Breaux Bridge, which gets its name from a footbridge across the bayou built by Firmin Breaux back in 1799.

The town, officially dubbed “The Crawfish Capital of the World” by the Louisiana legislature, is said to be the first place where mudbugs were ever offered on a menu, and the birthplace of Crawfish Étouffée. Well then, let’s eat!

We headed for Rocky and Lisa Sonnier’s Bayou Boudin & Cracklin, a real slice of Cajun culture on the banks of Bayou Teche.

The menu is flexible, depending on the time of day and day of the week, but there is always boudin, pronounced approximately boo-daah, and cracklins.

Traditional boudin is made with sausage casing and stuffed with a delicious mixture of pork, pork liver, onion, spices and rice.

This particular afternoon the Sonniers were serving up some seafood boudin alongside the standard variety. Crawfish, shrimp and crab are used in place of the pork products, and seeing as how we were in the capital and everything, well, what else could we order?

Good thing too, because there ain’t no better boudin, anywhere, anyhow, I guarantee. Big chunks of crawdad tail and shrimp stuffed into natural casing, a little hot sauce and a cold beer and ooooweee, it don’ git no better dan dat.

Since Rocky is known in these parts as the Cracklin King, we had to take a crack at a crackle too. Most people might call these pork rinds but that would be like calling The Queen Mary a boat. These are fresh fried and have a flavor no bagged pig skin could ever match.

Long live the king.

Rocky and Lisa also offer cabins overlooking Bayou Teche, for a real Cajun bed and breakfast experience.

I tell you what, nothing says good morning like a plate full of cracklins and a gator on your porch. As tempting as a stay in the “Fifties Cabin,” described in the brochure as the “Most modern with Elvis and decorations from the 50’s” sounded, we decided to move on.

Wait, what?

Did that say we actually get to stay with Elvis? So THAT’s where he’s been hiding.

Bellies filled, we headed south tracing The Teche through St. Martin Parish down into Iberia Parish. In the town of New Iberia, The Shadows-on-the-Teche is certainly worth a look.

This beautiful example of an antebellum mansion from the early 1830s is now a museum. Better yet, it’s right on the way to the promised land for pepper sauce lovers, Avery Island.

Every bottle of Tabasco sauce ever made came from this little island.

A massive salt dome, said to be the size of Mount Everest, lies just beneath the surface. The huge formation pushed this spot up above the surrounding swamp.

The deposits led to the island becoming the site of America’s first commercial salt mine. Turns out that this just so happens to be a perfect place to grow peppers too.

Prior to The Civil War, Edmund McIlhenny married into the Avery family, moved onto the island bearing their name, and started a life of salt and peppers.

After the war, he began experimenting with a sauce made from those peppers. It seems that he got the formula right, because untold millions of bottles have been sold in over 160 countries around the world.

The first thing we noticed upon arriving to the island was the smell. It simply reeks of Tabasco, which is not a bad thing as far as we’re concerned.

After a few minutes, we got used to it and didn’t even notice. Either that or our smell buds had been completely fried.

The tour through the factory was short and sweet. After a brief film, we all headed down a hallway with windows overlooking the shop floor. As we walked along, we observed every phase of Tabasco production.

We got to see the big barrels of mashed peppers being aged for the required three years.

Next we saw the liquid from that properly aged mixture being drained off and stirred into giant vats with vinegar and salt from the island’s own mines.

At the end of the hall, we watched while the final product was squirted into bottles, labeled and boxed up for shipping to the far corners of the globe.

A member of the McIlhenny family still personally oversees every aspect of the operation. The peppers are grown with seeds, chosen by a real live McIlhenny, from each season’s best plants.

Meticulously tended in their patches around the island until harvest time, the peppers are hand picked at the perfect point of redness.

Each pepper picker carries a “petite baton rouge” (small red stick) to match the exact McIlhenny-decried shade of crimson. This attention to detail continues throughout entire production process.

There is of course the obligatory crap shop at the end of the tour. Anything and everything Tabasco is available here.

The usual souvenir items, plus countless varieties of Tabasco sauces, condiments, canned goods and prepared foods.

Now we both like hot stuff as much as the next guy, but the gift shop had a few items that tested our limits. Not everything needs Tabasco.

Let’s just say that ice cream and soda pop aren’t improved by the addition of the hot sauce.

Sharing Avery Island with the Tabasco plant is a botanical garden and bird sanctuary, Jungle Gardens and Bird City. In the 1890s, just before taking over as President of Tabasco from his father, E.A. “Mr. Ned” McIlhenny started this refuge in an effort to save the snowy egrets.

These beautiful birds had been hunted to near extinction for their decorative plumes. From Mr. Ned’s initial eight birds, the colony has thrived and now thousands migrate here every spring.

These Jungle Gardens are lovingly landscaped with azaleas, Japanese camellias, Egyptian papyrus, bamboo and of course live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.

A shrine to an ancient Buddha, a gift to McIlhenny back in 1936, stands as the centerpiece of the “Jungle.” It really is a beautiful place and we had a fantastic afternoon.

Ah Southern springtime! Blue skies, colorful wild flowers, the kudzu coming in and the algae pond scum greening up so nicely.

Beautiful, and made even better by the fact that we didn’t get attacked by a single carnivorous swamp dweller.

For most visitors this should never be an issue, since they drive through the gardens in the safety of their cars, but we had the bright idea to ride our trusty bikes through the jungle.

The folks at the front gate gave us the green light, and it seemed like a great way to experience the landscape until we rounded a corner and found ourselves about ten feet away from a six foot alligator.

Yup, this is a nature preserve so there are no fences or cages. No motes or walls or any other barriers. The gators roam free to feed on any stray cyclists that might wander too close to the water.

No mention of this when purchasing a ticket. I guess they figured it doesn’t take too much brain power to understand that steering clear of large, sharp toothed swamp reptiles is a good idea.

Plus they did put up a few little signs around the watery spots that say: “Alligators Are Dangerous.”

Seems like plenty of precaution, if not for the fact that we had just come from the Tabasco tour and smelled like delicious sauce.

Do we know if anyone has ever been eaten?

In no mood to find out we gave the gators plenty of room, and enjoyed the rest of our ride without incident.

We even hung out with Buddha for a while. Very peaceful, Zen even.

Once the sun started getting low we headed back out to follow the bayou. Later we learned that alligators don’t really think of humans as a delicious dish.

No mention though, rather the smell of vinegar, peppers and salt might change their minds.

Do gators like Tabasco?

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A Big Thank You to Dealspotr for this Fun Interview!

We are thrilled to be featured on the Dealspotr blog in this fun interview covering everything from how we got started on our adventures that led us to creating GypsyNester.com, to some of the craziest things we have ever done in our travels… CONTINUE READING >> 

Read the entire interview here.

We are thrilled to be featured on the Dealspotr blog in this fun interview covering everything from how we got started on our adventures that led us to creating GypsyNester.com, to some of the craziest things we have ever done in our travels.

We also talk about saving tons of dough by using Dealspotr. It works like a social media sight where people make friends and share great money saving deals they find, and earn rewards. To join, click here.

For bloggers like us, Dealspotr has a network of influencers with great benefits and the opportunity to put a little cash in your pocket. If you are an influencer and that sounds good (hint, it is) contact us for a special code that allows you to be a part of it.

Dealspotr’s network of influencers includes notable bloggers and social media personalities across a wide range of topics and interests, but all with a focus on frugal living and saving money. In their weekly Influencer Spotlight, they invite one influencer to share their experiences and success stories with the rest of the community. 

Read the entire interview here.

Do You Know the Way to San José, Costa Rica?

The capital city of Costa Rica is not typically a tourist destination, which made us like it all the more.

We were ready for a taste of the day to day life that the locals describe as Pura Vida…. CONTINUE READING >> 

See all of our adventures in Costa Rica.

The capital city of Costa Rica is not typically a tourist destination, which made us like it all the more.

After our stint visiting the beaches, jungles, and volcanoes that attract so many visitors to this Central American country, we were ready for a taste of the day to day life that the locals describe as “Pura Vida.”

This catch-all phrase that the native citizens, known as Ticos and Ticas, use liberally literally means pure life, but has taken on the universal character of hello, goodbye, take it easy, hang loose, it’s all good, or just about any other positive response, outlook, or greeting.

It has come to embody the Costa Rican attitude that life is good, so be happy and thankful for it. Not a bad viewpoint.

Aiding our emersion into the local life was the fact that we stayed at an AirB&B in a neighborhood instead of a hotel. Our house was right in the center of town, so everything was within an easy walk.

Pura Vida.

Just a couple of blocks away, we started with a walk in the park, the Parque Nacional. This beautiful urban green space centers around what is considered the most important monument in the country, the Monumento Nacional.

The statue depicts Costa Ricans expelling private military expeditions into Latin America led by William Walker in 1857. His plan, known back then as filibustering, was to establish English-speaking colonies under his personal control by organizing mercenary armies.

The idea of controlling the region because of its strategic position as a location for a canal linking the Atlantic and the Pacific made it irresistible to businessmen, including Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The private militias from the US and Europe intervened in several Central American countries, especially Nicaragua, but a coalition formed against the usurpers from the north, with the normally peaceful Costa Ricans playing a vital role.

Venturing outside of the park, we encountered the first of what would be many street vendors selling fresh mango.

Cut like French fries and served with a squeeze of lime, a dash of salt, or even a splash of hot sauce for the daring, it was a delicious and refreshing snack.

Teatro Nacional

Now that’s Pura Vida.

Moving on through the center of town, we came to the Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica. The national theatre is one of the premier landmarks in the city, and a symbol of the time in the late 1800s, when coffee was king and the economy was booming.

Héroes de la Miseria by Juan Ramon Bonilla

Built to house the National Symphonic Orchestra, the outside of the building is beautiful, but the interior is even more ornate.

The lobby serves as a defacto art museum, displaying works from some of the country’s most celebrated artists.

Edificio de Correos y Telégrafos de Costa Rica

Veering off of the main drag, we turned right from the theater for a look at another of the city’s most famous buildings, the main post office, the Edificio de Correos y Telégrafos de Costa Rica.

For one hundred years this stunning structure has served as the headquarters of the country’s postal service.

It seemed like we were never more than a few steps away from a park as we returned to the center of the city and Parque Central. Scattered among the citizens enjoying the beautiful day, we noticed that one guy wasn’t moving.

The Street Sweeper was stuck in mid-sweep so David tried to give him a hand, but Edgar Zúñiga’s bronze tribute to the workers who clean the city’s parks and streets wasn’t having any of it. He has stayed stoically standing still since 2003 and wasn’t about to change that for us.

Could be he is too deep in his own private Pura Vida.

Church of Our Lady of La Merced

By this time we had walked enough to work up quite an appetite, so we ducked into an open air café on the busy corner across from the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de La Merced, the Church of Our Lady of La Merced.

Perhaps the most famous church in San José, it dates back to 1894, when it was built and dedicated to the Virgin of Mercedes, patroness of Barcelona.

The other corner is home to yet another park, Braulio Carrillo, usually just called La Merced Park.

We definitely got lucky when we picked La Casona Tipica because, as the name implies (tipica = typical), it turns out to be acclaimed as one of the best spots for authentic Costa Rican cuisine in San José.

casado

When it comes to food, we take the When in Rome… adage as words to live by. We can’t get enough of local delicacies so, with that in mind, it was a must for us to try a casado.

The name means married man, ostensibly originating from customers entering restaurants and proclaiming that they wanted to eat like a married man.

The ingredients can vary, but they will always be hearty, usually including salad, rice, plantains, black beans, picadillo (a dish made of diced chayote), and a serving of meat such as beef, chicken, pork, or fish.

olla de carne

Another typical Tico dish is olla de carne, a stew of meat, potatoes, carrots, cassava, sweet potato, and corn.

It is often served deconstructed, as ours was, with the components removed from the broth and placed on a plate. The broth accompanies them in a bowl on the side.

We were more than happy to linger over our abundant meals while we took in the flavors, not only of the food, but also the quirky décor of memorabilia and odd-ball mannequins scattered about the dining room.

Definitely Pura Vida.

No meal in Costa Rica can be considered complete without coffee brewed right at the table.  Costa Rican coffee is considered some of the best in the world, and even though bananas have surpassed it as the main cash crop, it is still an integral part of the economy.

If you look closely behind the chorreador you can see a few of the weird mannequins.

Our server brought us a chorreador, which is an ingeniously simple coffee maker that drip filters the brew through what looks more or less like a sock.

Luckily, the results tasted nothing like it had been filtered through any footwear.

This was high on the list of the best java we had ever encountered.

Which was without a doubt perfectly Pura Vida.

See all of our adventures in Costa Rica.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com