Author Archive

Scenes from a small village in the Dolomites
When we decided to spend a week or so in Italy before crossing into France, we were nervous about battling the onslaught of tourists that converge on Italy during August. Many Europeans take off the ENTIRE month of August and hit the road. We knew the big towns and regions would be swamped, so we dug deep into our guidebook trying to locate places that might be less overwhelmed. Once again, our Lonely Planet guidebook saved the day with all sorts of recommendations.
Sights on the streets of Bolzano
Our first stop was Bolzano, a relatively large city in the Northeast corner of Italy filled with perfectly preserved medieval buildings, cafe- filled squares and, happily, very few tourists. Bolzano is situated at the foot of a mountain range whose greyish peaks have earned it the nickname “the Dolomites” (meaning “pale mountains”). We used Bolzano as a base to drive around the picturesque area and quickly regretted that we hadn’t allocated more time to the Dolomites. The mountains and the surrounding valleys are as pretty as anything we’ve seen, and exploration of the small, Italian villages and the numerous hiking trails could have occupied several weeks.
Visit to the Abbey at Piona
All too soon, it was time to leave Bolzano. We drove through the Swiss Alps, where we quickly visited the posh, but surprisingly commercial, ski town of St. Moritz, Switzerland (as well as countless less posh but incredibly more quaint and charming little hamlets that gave new meaning to the term “Alpine village”) before crossing back into Italy to Lake Como. I know what some of you are thinking, and yes, that’s where George Clooney has a villa. We were intrigued: if it’s good enough for George, surely it would be good enough for us, right? Right.
Visit to Lake Como
We found an amazing hotel on the side of a mountain in the northern part of the lake, with vistas that stretched for miles and an owner-chef that cooked up some of the best meals we’d had in a long time. We spent our days visiting small villages along the lake via car and ferry, including a short visit to Bellagio, the small lakeside town that is the inspiration of the Las Vegas casino that bears its name. And, of course, we searched for George. Passing through the small village where Clooney’s villa is located, we kept our eyes open for any signs of George, but our search was in vain. Being a member of the paparazzi is a tough job.
Views of the beautiful Piedmont countryside
After leaving the lake region, we came upon one of our greatest finds of our trip – the Piedmont region of Italy. In the far western end of Northern Italy (just south of the Italian Alps where the 2006 Winter Olympics where held and north of the Italian Riviera), the region just started attracting a smattering of tourists a few years ago. In fact, when we met locals in the region, their first question was, “How did you find out about Piedmont?” These kind of questions are the true sign that you’ve found travel utopia.
Hazelnut harvest in Sinio
Piedmont’s cities and roads were blissfully empty, so we were able to explore the area without hassle, driving over hills covered with vineyards and hazelnut trees, discovering ancient, unspoilt towns and witnessing the hazelnut harvest. Known worldwide as the mecca of Barolo wine and the absurdly expensive truffle, the region is also home to the Slow Food Movement, an international organization that promotes an attitude toward life that emphasizes spending more time enjoying the company of friends and families, starting in the dining room. From our dining experiences in Piedmont, we think the region’s people have that figured out.
Cooking class with Angelino, makiing gnocchi and several desserts
On our last day in the area, our hotel owner organized a free, private cooking class with a chef who evidently owned an acclaimed restaurant in the area but retired a few years ago. Now, he has another small restaurant but only cooks when he feels like it. Luckily, he felt like cooking for us. After we spent a few hours with him learning the secrets of making gnocchi, tomato sauce and panna cotta, we returned later that evening for a dinner that lasted well over 3 hours and cost a pittance of what it would have cost back home. After multiple courses – 4 different types of antipasta (the course you eat “before” pasta), 3 different types of pasta, a fish course, a cheese course, lamb chops and 2 different desserts – we slowly ambled out of the restaurant promising that we would soon return to this undiscovered Italian region.

[embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”450″ editlink=”” standard=”″ vars=”ytid=yQ-n22p5bJM&width=450&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep4341″ /]

Frequent travelers like to seek out places that are more off the beaten path and less expensive than their well-known counterparts, places they can claim as their own well before their fellow globetrotters have even heard of them.  Twenty years ago or so, these travelers discovered Prague, in the Czech Republic, and they fell in love with it for its grand architecture, its interesting history and its manageable prices.  Unfortunately (for them), word of their discovery got out.  Prague is now full of souvenir stands and tour groups, and those travelers have been left to try to discover the “next Prague.”  Well, intrepid travelers, look no further.  We’ve seen some amazing places during the last month, and I’m certain that one of these European destinations deserves the honor of being the next in line to inherit Prague’s tourism throne:
Wawel Castle and Cathedral
1.     Krakow, Poland – Considering it was the royal capital of Poland until 1596 and was left largely unscathed during World War II, Krakow’s old town has to be one of the greatest in Europe.  Hundreds of ancient buildings once occupied by noblemen and dignitaries are now home to a dizzying array of restaurants, cafes, bars and art galleries.  The gem, though, of this immaculate town is its main square, a square that’s the size of some small towns.  Two hundred meters (that’s two football fields!) wide and two hundred meters long, the square seems to have a life of its own.  And if you’re into history, Krakow gives you the enormous Wawel Castle, the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, a nearby Jewish ghetto made famous in the movie Schindler’s List and, less than an hour away, the gruesome death camp at Auschwitz.
2.     Ljubljana, Slovenia – The fact that Ljubljana (and, for that matter, all of Slovenia) is not world-famous is an outrage.  Pronounced “Lyoo-bli-yana”, the city name means “beloved” in Slovene…and for good reason.  Crammed between a massive hill (which is, of course, crowned by a huge castle) and the Ljubljanica River, the Romans, the Austrian Habsburgs and Napolean all took advantage of this city’s strategic setting.  This brought great wealth to the city, which produced some remarkable architecture, much of which was destroyed in a 1895 earthquake.  Fortunately, Ljubljana called upon the services of Joze Plecnik, a young architect who had learned his trade while working on Prague’s marvelous Hradcany Castle, to return the city to its former glory.  His training paid off, leading him to build some of the grandest and most interesting buildings, bridges and sculptures (many of which are of dragons, since legend has it that the city was build on the spot where Jason, of Argonauts and Golden Fleece fame, slew a dragon) found anywhere. Our mostly tourist-free time spent walking along the river, admiring the colorful buildings and shopping at the daily market is one of our greatest memories of Europe.
Scenes from streets of Bratislava
3.     Bratislava, Slovakia – During forty-five years of Communist rule, the largest Communist-era housing complex was built in Bratislava – scores of identical and soulless buildings marring the landscape.  Luckily, the Communists didn’t go near the old town of Bratislava, leaving unscathed a town that is the very definition of quaint.  With cobblestone, traffic-free streets, maze-like alleys and tiny, cafe-filled plazas, all you’ll want to do is walk around the tiny town and sit unhurried in a cafe soaking up the romantic atmosphere.  Luckily, you can!  Even though Bratislava is over 1,100 years old, it is blissfully free of any must-see destinations, enabling you to relax guilt-free without worrying about missing that umpteenth castle or cathedral.  My suggestion for the Bratislava Tourism Board’s new slogan is “Come to Bratislava…and Do Nothing.”
statue in main square of Lviv
4.     Lviv, Ukraine – Even though its Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, Lviv sees precious few Western tourists.  As I explored the city’s charming streets and public squares, though, I got a feeling that that’s about to change.  The hotels are nice, the restaurants are diverse and the churches and medieval buildings are as grand as any we’ve seen. This, combined with a culture and people that is drastically different from much of Eastern and Central Europe, is just too irresistible for tourists to ignore for much longer.

Amazing Castle of Kamyanets-Podilsky
5.     Kamyanets-Podilsky, Ukraine – The greatest military strategists couldn’t design a more secure location for this town.  Situated on a large rock island, surrounded by a river that acts as a natural moat, Kamyanets-Podislky has been inhabited for thousands of years by people seeking protection.  To bolster their security, a wooden castle was built here in the 10th century and reconstructed with stone 500 years later.  Our initial view of the castle as we walked across the bridge into the Old Town was, to us, one of the greatest visual spectacles this world has to offer.  And since the city is well off the tourist track (even its residents were puzzling over why we took the time to visit…), you’ll probably have the unforgettable view to yourself.

So there you have it.  If you’re bound for Europe any time soon, make sure you see some of these amazing places now.  Before everyone else does.


[embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”450″ editlink=”” standard=”″ vars=”ytid=3qGBFxUdAFU&width=450&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep2392″ /]


[embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”450″ editlink=”” standard=”″ vars=”ytid=uQ1O_kPcG4M&width=450&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep5715″ /]


[embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”450″ editlink=”” standard=”″ vars=”ytid=Qp8pWnMBWoA&width=450&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep7584″ /]

Lviv and Kamyanets-Podilsky:

[embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”450″ editlink=”” standard=”″ vars=”ytid=HP_kK42t2Wo&width=450&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep1860″ /]

Town of Miklosvar and surrounding area
To many, “Eastern Europe” signifies the old Communist bloc – an area of the world continuously grey and bleak, with long lines filled with desperate people waiting hours to score a loaf of bread or a piece of meat. Fortunately, these stereotypes are mostly a thing of the past. Since the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 80s/early 90s and the communist strongholds of Eastern Europe have changed their political and economic bent, Eastern European countries have undergone a slow, but significant, change in their way of life. As many of the countries have entered the European Union and their economies have expanded rapidly in the past few years, many places in Eastern Europe seem as much, or even more, “Western” as their geographical neighbors. Selfishly, we’ve been a little disappointed, hoping to witness some of the old school ways of the Communist era. Well, we finally got our wish…
Sights on drive through rural Romania
As we were waiting in line to cross the border between Romania and Ukraine, a uniformed border guard looked down at the French license plates (a novelty in this part of Europe) on our Peugeot rental car and knew we were ripe for some harassment. He approached us and asked us for the receipt for our payment of the Romanian road tax. We correctly informed him that we were unaware of such a tax, had never been asked to pay such a tax and had found no mention of a road tax in either of the Romanian guidebooks we had consulted. Brilliantly feigning surprise at our lack of knowledge, he informed us that the penalty for not paying the tax was $200 and that, after finishing the border-crossing formalities, I should park the car and come see him in his office.

Once our passports had been stamped, I quickly found myself in the guard’s tiny office. Brashly, the young officer announced, “I just told you the legal process for handling your lack of payment of the road tax. Why don’t you suggest an alternative solution?” Acting perplexed, I asked him what he meant. “The fine is $200. How much do you think is a fair payment?” Resisting my innate urge to punch the corrupt guard in the jaw, I started a negotiation that resulted in an agreement of $40 for the mythological “road tax”. As I began to hand over the bribe money, the guard spotted his superior officer coming towards his office and began freaking out, saying “Put the money away! Hide! Oh, %!@&! Don’t say anything!” Fortunately for the guard but unfortunately for me, his boss reversed course and went away to handle another matter. Wiping sweat from his brow, the guard quickly grabbed the $40 from my hand, and I ran for my car as quickly as possible.
Flooded roads in northern Romania/southern Ukraine
It was a rainy day (in fact, it had been raining for days), and just a mile after crossing the border, we spotted pools of water on the road. As we continued to drive, the water started getting higher along the side of the road and under the bridges we crossed. Cautiously, we made our way through sections of the road that were partially flooded. We saw rivers that had escaped their banks and flooded several villages. Luckily, we made it past the flooded area fairly quickly and without incident, only to find out a couple of days later that the floodwaters had risen to produce Ukraine’s worst flood in 200 years, killing 22 people, affecting over 40,000 homes and causing over $800 million in damage (unbelievably, the country’s special disaster fund only has $57 million in it).
Flooded roads in northern Romania/southern Ukraine
As we continued our drive, we were pulled over by a police officer. This stop brought our trip total to five – South Africa (speeding – no payment), The Netherlands (driving across a bridge reserved for buses and taxis because we couldn’t read the sign that, in Dutch, told us not to – $60 hit), Croatia (passing a car in a no-passing zone – no payment), Romania (speeding – no payment) and now Ukraine. When behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle, I drive faster than the speed limit at almost every chance I get. This is especially true in Eastern Europe, where the speed limits typically hover around 30 or 40 mph–even on the highway. When I got pulled over this time, however, I was definitely not speeding because I had been stuck for several minutes behind a huge truck that was barely moving. When the cop pulled out his radar gun, though, it registered 50 mph – 20 mph over the speed limit. I told him, in English, that his radar gun was incorrect, but my English was as comprehendable to him as his Ukrainian was to me. He quickly cut to the chase and started ask for money. Immediately, we began a caveman-esque process of negotiation, flashing numbers with our fingers, accompanied by grunts and head movements. Eventually, our negotiations ended with the cop pocketing only about 10 euros (about $16). A paltry sum for a story I’ll have for the rest of my life.

Old Bridge (called Stari Most) in Mostar
Considering that Bosnia is most recently known for a gruesome war that ended just 13 years ago, I’m guessing that there aren’t many people out there who put Bosnia and Hercegovina (aka “Bosnia”) at the top of their list of vacation destinations.  In fact, it wasn’t on our radar screen until we looked at a map and realized that driving through Bosnia (and then Serbia) on our way from Croatia to Romania would save us at least a day of driving.  Of course, there was one catch – the terms of our car lease didn’t allow us to drive through Bosnia or Serbia because our car wasn’t insured there.  After discussing the risks of driving through war-torn countries without insurance for approximately 14 seconds, we hopped in the car and headed to the border.
Mosque in Mostar
Following the lead of Slovenia and Croatia, Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.  Unlike Slovenia (composed mostly of Slovenes) and Croatia (predominately Croats), Bosnia had a fairly mixed population of Croats (who are Roman Catholic), Serbs (who are Eastern Orthodox Christian) and Bosniak Muslims.  ((The Muslim population in Bosnia is quite different than the Muslims generally associated with the Middle East.  With a few exceptions, the Muslims we saw during our short time in Bosnia practiced a sort of Islam-light, wearing Western-style clothing and partying in bars and clubs until the wee hours of the morning.))  Accordingly, the declaration of independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia was not universally accepted in Bosnia; in fact, the Bosnian Serbs living in the country immediately declared their own independence from Bosnia.  The next four years were filled with massive bloodshed, with the Serbs and the Croats (who initially were on the side of the Bosniak Muslims) effectively trying to exterminate the Muslims from the country.  Evidence of their attempted genocide is still everywhere.
War-torn buildings of Mostar
After arriving in the city of Mostar and finding a place to stay, we walked around the town–one of the most famous in the country–in an attempt to get a feel for it.  We were amazed at the still-visible signs of the war; dozens of buildings, heavily damaged by direct hits of mortar shells and bombs, lined the streets. Unlike Croatia, where damage from the recent war has been mostly repaired, Bosnia has a long way to go.  The wreckage was most evident on a street named “the Boulevard.”  The Boulevard saw a great deal of fighting because one side of the street was occupied by the Croats and the other by Bosniak Muslims.  Evidently, the fighting became so bad that, when someone was killed on the Boulevard, the body would sometimes remain there for months; it was too dangerous to try and retrieve the body for burial.
Jumping off the Old Bridge in Mostar
Mostar has been famous for hundreds of years for its bridge, a stone arch masterpiece completed in 1557 (several years before the Rialto Bridge in Venice).  However, the magnificent bridge and pride of the Bosniak Muslims was not spared during the war; the Croats blew it up in 1993.  After the war ended in 1995, a decision was made to rebuild the bridge, leading to its triumphant re-opening in 2004 (interestingly, it took longer to build the bridge in the 20th century than it did in the 16th century).  Now, the bridge is the town’s centerpiece, attracting tourists from all over the world (including two from the USA…).  Keeping up a tradition that goes back centuries, young men donning speedos ((I fear the speedo.  It seems that if there’s any opportunity for a mainlaind European (as noted by one of our British readers, the Brits and Irish share my disdain for the speedo.  God bless ’em.) man to take off all of his clothes and walk around in a ridiculously small speedo, he’ll seize upon it.  In my opinion, speedos should be outlawed unless the person wearing it is participating at that very moment in an Ironman competition or an Olympic swimming or diving event.  If there are any mainland Europeans reading this blog, I ask you–no, I beg you–to do the world a favor and fight the visual injustice caused by the speedo.)) periodically jump from the top of the bridge into the icy river 75 feet below.  While this feat used to be done to impress girls, it’s now carried out to attract money from tourists (a jump usually brings in about $50).

After leaving Mostar, we drove through the rugged mountain terrain of Bosnia to the capital city of Sarajevo, host of the 1984 Winter Olympics.  During the Bosnia War, Sarajevo also incurred heavy damage.  Most notably, the Bosnian National Library was targeted by the Serbs in a wicked attempt to erase the history of the Bosniak Muslims by destroying the thousands of books and archives housed in the library.
Cemetery for those who lost their lives in the Bosnian War
We spent our short time in Sarajevo walking around the Turkish quarter of the city ((The Turks controlled Bosnia for over 400 years, which explains the predominance of Islam in the country.)) , visiting a cemetery where thousands of gravestones evidenced the widespread killings that occurred from 1991-95 and seeing the spot where a Bosnian Serb shot and killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife as they were driving in Sarajevo in 1914, sparking World War I.  We ended our one night in the city at an outdoor summer concert called Pop-Rock-Live. We had hopes of seeing some of the good live music that we so dearly miss from our lives in Nashville.  Instead, we heard a couple of terrifying heavy metal songs delivered at top volume by screaming teenagers.  While we couldn’t understand the angst-ridden lyrics, we had a pretty good feeling that the band was expressing their anger at the recent horrific events endured by the Bosnian people.  How could they not be?  They were singing right in front of the bombed-out library.


[embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”450″ editlink=”” standard=”″ vars=”ytid=qSxiauYVDeg&width=450&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep3688″ /]

Sarajevo: [embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”450″ editlink=”” standard=”″ vars=”ytid=8_01arEtEkg&width=450&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep9620″ /]

The gorgeous Bay of Kotor
Occasionally, our hotel room will have a television.  However, the selection of English-speaking programs is usually quite dim; in most cases, we’re stuck watching episodes of The Simpsons in German or Friends in Czech.  Sometimes, we strike gold and get CNN International.  During our months of watching CNN, we’ve been amazed by the continual advertisements sponsored by the Tourism Board of the tiny country of Montenegro.  It seems like a Come Visit Montenegro commercial is on every 10 minutes.  So, when our friends Todd & Heather Rolapp (who traveled with us in the Czech Republic and Croatia) said they’d like to visit Montenegro to track down some family history, we were overjoyed.

Montenegro became part of Yugoslavia in 1922.  When Slovenia, Croatia and then Bosnia declared independence in the early 1990s, Montenegro continued a loose union with Serbia until it achieved independence on June 28, 2006 – just two years ago.  Until Kosovo declared independence from Serbia just a few months ago, Montenegro was the newest country on the block (it will have to settle for second newest now).
From Dubrovnick, Croatia, it’s only a 45 minute drive to the Montenegro border.  Once you clear customs, you drive past some fairly unappealing towns and soon arrive in the dramatic Bay of Kotor.  Due to its geographic location, ((The Bay of Kotor is surrounded by steep mountains.  The only feasible entrance to the Bay is via a narrow waterway, less than a quarter mile wide.)) the Bay of Kotor has been a strategic area for thousands of years, with Greeks, Romans, Turks, Austrians and Slavs all fighting for control of the Bay.  Now, the only fights take place between Serbs and Montenegrins trying to find an empty area along the Bay on which to sunbathe.

After circling the bay, we headed up one of the mountain passes built by the Austrian Empire when it controlled this region.  Testing my nerves behind the wheel, the road has 25 switchbacks, which are liberally sprinkled with steep drop-offs.  As a payoff for all of that effort, it also affords amazing views of the Bay.  Once we summited the mountain, we wound our way through valleys and hills populated only by sheep and the occasional home selling cheese, smoked ham (basically, Montenegro versions of prosciutto), honey and homemade brandy.
After a couple hours of driving, we reached the small town of Cetinje, the former capital of Montenegro.  Based on information received from relatives of Todd, two important items could possibly be found in Cetinje: the birth certificate of his great-great-grandfather and a flag that his great-great grandfather rescued from the Turks during the Battle of Vučji Do in 1876.  After parking our car, we walked for a few minutes and went into the first building we saw, the National Museum of Cetinje.
As we approached the main desk of the museum, a woman who worked there asked if she could help us.  As Todd started to explain the story of the flag, the woman quickly interrupted, “Of course, the flag rescued from the Battle of Vučji Do.  It’s right around the corner.”  Flabbergasted, we went around the corner and, sure enough, we were standing in front of the bullet-hole-ridden flag (over 400 bullet holes) that Todd’s great-great-grandfather had saved from the Turks.  A surreal experience.

The same woman directed us toward the Cetinje Monastery; just a few minutes’ walk from the museum, it is where local archives (including old birth certificates) are stored.  Still stunned by the flag discovery, we entered into the ancient (circa 1484) Eastern Orthodox monastery.  After talking to a black-robed priest, Todd set off into the monastery’s archive in search of the birth certificate.
Meanwhile, we donned white robes (since we were wearing shorts) and went into the monastery’s small chapel.  The monastery’s prized possession is the supposed mummified right hand of St. John the Baptist.  Evidently, the hand is covered up and only showed on special occasions.  Luckily for us, the priests were showing the hand to some pilgrims when we arrived, allowing us a glimpse of the decayed and, frankly, somewhat disturbing relic.

Unfortunately for Todd, the priest at the monastery in charge of archives was away on vacation (who knew that Eastern Orthodox priests vacationed?).  Todd had to settle for the name and number of the priest-in-charge in hope of getting a copy of the birth certificate if and when it is found.  All in all, though, our trip was a success, and one that will be relived every time we see one of those Montenegro commercials during the evening news.

[embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”450″ editlink=”” standard=”″ vars=”ytid=ZbMC_bZstZU&width=450&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep9124″ /]

After fueling up our car (See Note re: Gas Prices below), we crossed the border out of Luxembourg and into Germany.  While many visitors to Germany focus on the larger cities, mainly Munich and Berlin, we decided to spend our few days in the country in the smaller villages and cities in the southern region of the country.  We followed small country roads in the southwestern part of Germany that passed through villages that seemed to have changed very little over the past hundred years, with names that didn’t make our guidebook or our map.

We then drove down the Rhine Route, a small road heavily promoted by the German tourist board that follows the Rhine river south for a couple of hours. While the drive brought up fond memories of a Rhine river cruise I did during a mad-dash tour of Europe in 1993, the scenery was somewhat disappointing because the river was full of tourist boats and the supposedly quaint towns along the way were far from quaint, with the streets full of gift shops selling “authentic” German wares lovingly made in China.
View of Heidelberg from Castle of Heidelberg
Heidelberg was our next stop, though, and it turned out to be gorgeous.  Home to the oldest (founded in 1387) and arguably the best university in Germany, this vibrant town is full of ancient churches and is watched over by a large castle.  When Mark Twain took his family on a trip to Europe in 1878, his first stop was in Heidelberg, where he intended to stay for just a day or two.  Instead, the allure of the city (which some attribute to the name Heidelberg, which means “Huckleberry Mountain”) kept him here for three months.  We can see why.
Our next stop was Nuremberg, known now as the city that hosted the Nuremberg Trials for Nazi war criminals after World War II.  The city was chosen as a host because it was the centerpiece of Nazi activity.  Hitler built huge Nazi Party rally grounds here, and hundreds of thousands of Germans gathered upon them to see the Fuhrer and to be indoctrinated with Nazi-inspired hate.  A fascinating museum, outlining Nazi history and the building of the rally grounds, was well worth our stop and provided us with a greater understanding of the atmosphere in Germany in the 1930s that led to one of the most tragic times in history.

We spent our last couple of days in Germany in the heart of Bavaria, a large region in southeastern Germany that is famed for its forests and mountains.  We based ourselves in Regensberg, another university town we’d never heard of.  It turned out to be a gorgeous, cafe-filled city that was as vibrant as any we’ve seen anywhere.  It seemed that every resident of this ancient city (which is well over 2,000 years old) lived life outside, walking the streets and lounging in the outdoor cafes.
From Regensberg, we took day trips to a few small villages near the Danube River, two of which (Kreistadt and Eichstatt) were having their local summer festivals on the day we visited.  These festivals, put on solely for the local community and devoid of the truckloads of tourists that you’ll see at larger festivals such as Octoberfest in Munich, were full of families enjoying the summer weather, the German music, the delicious sausages and the German obsession – beer.   I took the opportunity to play chess against a hot-shot teenager who thought he was so impressive that he had set up a few tables and was playing 5 games of chess simultaneously.  He crushed me in about 2 minutes.
Part of the Kriestadt festival included a sort of variety show wherein local dance classes performed that year’s routine and a folk-singing group did some sort of square dance.  We’d seen the same kind of stuff at home, but imagine our surprise when a bit of home came to us.  All of the sudden, a group of high school kids from Edmon, Oklahoma (presumably students from a German class on their summer trip abroad) took to the stage and lackadaisically began doing the Macarena and an equally horrifying dance number to a medley of last year’s hip-hop favorites.  (Surely they were forced by their German teacher to embarrass themselves in this way.)  I think we’ll stop laughing about these poor kids in the next decade or so.

GAS PRICES:  If you think it’s bad in America right now with gas selling for over $4 a gallon, try driving in Europe!  We’ve been paying between $7.40 and $8.30 a gallon since we’ve been here.  Filling up the tank is simply painful.  Gas has historically been much higher in Europe in America.  Accordingly, most Europeans drive very small, gas-efficient cars – seeing an SUV or truck in Europe is a rare occurrence.  It will be interesting to see what America’s cars look like 10 years from now.

[embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”450″ editlink=”” standard=”″ vars=”ytid=xTZdWRAuOTg&width=450&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep5836″ /]

After an 8-hour flight out of Africa (which seemed to last about 30 minutes with the aid of Ambien, a fantastic sleeping pill that is a godsend for long flights), we landed in a very different world – Europe. With only 10 weeks left on our trip, we quickly caught a train from the Amsterdam airport to Lille, France, where we were to pick up the brand-new Peugeot car that we had leased for the remainder of our trip. After loading up the family truckster, we hit the road (without a map), only to get lost twice in the first 30 minutes. Our first stop was Brussels, where we picked up Shane, Shanna’s brother, who was coincidentally in Europe for a few days to present a paper he had co-authored. A few minutes later, we were in a traffic jam on our way to Bruges, Belgium.
After hearing my friend Scott Wells state on several occasions that Bruges is his favorite city on the planet, I had high hopes for this small, medieval town. Having eluded attacks during World Wars I and II, Bruges is regarded as possibly the best-preserved city in Europe, so well maintained that you could easily convince yourself that you’re in the European section of a Disney theme park. The ancient streets are lined with ornate buildings that have housed countless families and businesses over the last thousand years and now serve as homes to quaint hotels, shops, restaurants and bars. While our allotted time here was short, we quickly voted Bruges as our favorite small European city we’d ever visited. Scott, I guess you finally got something right…
After departing Bruges the next day, we stopped in historic Ghent for lunch, drove through the diamond powerhouse of Antwerp and were quickly in the neighboring country of the Netherlands (aka Holland). What we saw of the rural part of the Netherlands was exactly like I had imagined: a land flat as a pancake, full of windmills, small canals, wildflowers and bicycles.

After spending an amazing day in the Netherlands (Shanna will tell you more in our next post), we looked at a map and decided to drive to Luxembourg, mainly because we knew nothing about this tiny country. After saying goodbye to Shane and departing the Netherlands, we crossed back into Belgium for a couple of hours and got lost on the small, hilly backroads leading south toward Luxembourg, allowing us to visit small, gorgeous towns completely off the tourist track.
We also saw dozens of friterias, small buildings on the side of the roads completely devoted to french fries (was this a dream?). Although still full from lunch, we eventually gave in and stopped at the last friteria before Luxembourg – one of the best decisions we’ve made on our trip. The fries were unlike anything we’ve ever tasted, with the perfect thickness, crispness and saltiness. Unlike at home, where the only viable condiment option is ketchup, the Belgium friterias provide 10-20 sauce options, including mayonnaise (don’t turn your nose up until you’ve tried it!) and “American” sauce – a delicious blend of ketchup, mayo and cajun spices that reminded me of my famous “pink sauce,” which I serve with shrimp and crawfish (of course, my sauce has a few other ingredients not available for public distribution).
Feeling bloated, we crossed the border into Luxembourg, a sparsely populated country (400,000 residents) the size of Rhode Island. As our guidebook only had about 3 pages devoted to Luxembourg, we were unsure of our final destination for the evening. When we read about a small village named Vianden famous for its majestic castle and the fact that it was once home to Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables), we rolled the dice and pointed the Peugeot in Vianden’s direction. Vianden turned out to be the quintessential medieval village, dominated by the gorgeously restored 1,000 year-old castle that overlooked the town, which was built to house the peasants that moved here to be near the protection of the castle’s ramparts.
The next day, we drove through much of Luxembourg, passing its many castles and roaming the streets of the modern and refined Luxembourg City. One of our highlights was a visit to an American cemetary just outside Luxembourg City where over 5,000 American soldiers, include General George S. Patton, were buried after losing their lives fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. We could not help being deeply affected by the gravesights of so many heroic Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country and to ensure the freedom of millions of Europeans.

[embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”450″ editlink=”” standard=”″ vars=”ytid=Nxfbrm6BYu8&width=450&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep1495″ /]

Google Video

Getting in a car with virtually no plan in sight is a luxury in which few of us seem to indulge these days.  With limited vacation time, today’s traveler seems to plan every minute of their trip, making sure they make the best out of every moment.  During our 30 days on the road in South Africa, we’ve felt like we’ve been on a different trip from the prior 9 months.  Having our own wheels has allowed us to avoid the stresses of booking flights, boarding buses and trains and following the schedules of the transportation industry.   It’s been a refreshing change.
Sunset from our balcony in Knysner
The last week has been one of the highlights of our road trip.  After finishing our hike along the Wild Coast, our only future obligation was to catch a flight out of Cape Town 9 days later.  So we hit the road and started heading down the coast.  The South Africa tourism industry has named the 300 or so miles of coastline east of Cape Town the “Garden Route.”  While there is a notable absence of gardens along the route, the scenery is stunning – steep, majestic mountains just a few miles from an endless stretch of empty, white-sand beaches.
Surfers at "Supertubes" in Jeffrey's Bay
Our first stop on our drive was Jeffrey’s Bay, world-famous for its surfing.  Surfers from around the world come to J-Bay to test their skills on the massive waves that consistently pound its shores.  Although neither of us surfs (a fact that pains us both), we wanted to see talented surfers in action.  The next morning, we walked down to “Supertubes,” a particularly famous surfing beach – it’s said to play home to the “perfect wave” – near our hostel.  We’d picked a good time to be there – dozens of surfers were busy putting the guys in Point Break to shame.

Full of envy, we loaded up the car and drove west until arrived at a coastal town called Knysna.  With the help of our guidebook and our cell phone, we were able to find an amazing hotel right on the Knysna lagoon for a fantastic low-season price.  ((For anyone considering a trip to South Africa, we would highly recommend visiting in May or June – the low season here.  The prices are much lower than the rest of the year and you’ll have pretty much everything to yourself; in many cases, we’ve been the only people in hotels and national parks that are completely full during the rest of the year.  The inexplicable part is that we’re not sure why this is the low season – the weather is fantastic (not too hot or cold), there’s no rain, it’s the best time to see wildlife and the most ideal time to scuba dive.))  With an incredible view of the lagoon right from our hotel balcony, we felt very little incentive to stray far from our room.
After a couple of days doing virtually nothing in Knysna, we continued to head east toward Cape Town.  While we had planned on going to Hermanus for a cage-dive with great white sharks, it was cancelled due to windy weather.  We called an audible (something you can’t really do without your own car) and headed to Franshhoek.  Set in a valley surrounded by mountains, Franshhoek is famous for the superb wine made in the area and shipped around the world.  Again, we consulted or guidebook, negotiated low-season discounts and found ourselves in a top-notch hotel for a very reasonable price.  We spent the next day touring some of the local vineyards and having a couple of meals at world-class restaurants that cost a fraction of what they would back home.  I’m not sure either of us has ever been this relaxed…

[embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”450″ editlink=”” standard=”″ vars=”ytid=LSSBpPkO4lU&width=450&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep9314″ /]

After an article was written about us and our trip in The Tennessean, the local paper in Nashville, we received hundreds of comments and e-mails from readers encouraging us as we traveled and providing recommendations for things we should see and do on our journey.  None have proved as valuable as one we received from a Nashville reader who sits on the Board of Directors of an orphanage in South Africa.  When she saw South Africa on our itinerary, she suggested that we visit the orphanage if we were in the area.  Ten months later, we arrived at the Sihawukelwe Lauren Children’s Home (SLCH) in Umzinyathi, a small, rural town in the Zulu area of eastern South Africa.
SLCH was started a few years ago to help address an increasing problem in South Africa – children orphaned due to the death of their parents from AIDS.  South Africa plays home to more people with AIDS (many of whom have kids) than does any other country.  A report we heard on local radio in South Africa (and later confirmed online) stated that there are more than 1,200,000 AIDS orphans here.  This fact is particularly difficult for Westerners to understand.  While the risks of AIDS are still very real in the West, education and various social programs have proved fairly effective in preventing the widespread dissemination of the disease.  Unfortunately, this is not so in many parts of Africa.
While government education programs to reduce the risk of AIDS exist in Africa, many of these programs have failed to make a significant dent in the problem.  Multiple factors have collided to cause this failure, including illiteracy, strong cultural dynamics and massive misinformation.  The president of South Africa himself has suggested that AIDS is caused by “poverty.”  South Africa’s health minister advocates a diet of garlic, olive oil and lemon to cure AIDS.  (Despite calls by scientists for her resignation, she remains in her post today.) Finally, according to people we’ve met during our time here, some Africans (hopefully only a few) believe that AIDS was brought to Africa by the West in order to kill off all Africans.  So, in short, there are a lot of obstacles to effectively combating this deadly, widespread disease.

SLCH was opened after a group of Nashvillians learned of some of these problems and of the incredible toll they were taking on the Umzinyathi community.  They reached out to the community in a big way, providing funding for a new Children’s Home that currently houses 18 children (with room to accept more children in the future), most of whom have lost their parents to AIDS.
We were fortunate to spend two days and nights at the home.  During our time, we helped the SLCH staff purchase winter clothes for the children (remember that, because South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s almost winter here now!), some needed items for the home and art supplies and soccer balls for the kids.  After we discovered that over a hundred books had been donated by the Nashville community but were locked away in a separate building inaccessible to the children, Shanna, a voracious reader, made it her mission to create a library in an empty room in the home.  It was a unique feeling to flip through books in a small Zulu village that had once been read by children back in Nashville.

The greatest joy of our time at the home was talking and playing with the kids.  We were shocked at how disciplined, mature and inquisitive they seemed to be (and, as you’ll see in the video, what amazing dancers they are!).  It was easy to forget the tragic losses that the children have all recently endured, losses that have amazingly been eased by the generous contributions and dedication of a small group of Tennesseans thousands of miles away.

[embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”450″ editlink=”” standard=”″ vars=”ytid=lENQ_F3uNco&width=450&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep9668″ /]

Craft Market in the Ezulwini Valley
If you’re like me, you probably know very little, if anything, about Swaziland.  In fact, the only mention of this small country throughout my travels came from a kayaker we met a few months back in Laos; according to him, Swaziland had some great white water rafting.  Leaving Kruger National Park and heading toward the coast, we decided to take a short 2-day detour through this enigmatic land.
King of Swaziland
Since gaining independence from the British in 1968, this tiny country bordered by South Africa and Mozambique has been ruled by a succession of kings.  Unlike many remaining monarchs in today’s world (like those in England and Thailand), the king of Swaziland is the ruler of the land – an absolute monarch.  The current king, King Mswati III, has 13 wives; his predecessor, King Sobhuza II, had over 120 wives and over 600 children!  The royal family has several palaces around the country.  It’s good to be the king.
Craft Market in the Ezulwini Valley
Other than beautiful landscapes, raging rivers and prolific wildlife, Swaziland’s current – and less praiseworthy – claim to fame is HIV/AIDS. It has the highest HIV infection rate in the world; approximately 39% of Swazis are HIV positive!  39%!  According to a recent survey, 25% of Swaziland’s population is predicted to be DEAD from the disease by 2010, and already over 60,000 children have lost either one or both their parents to AIDS!  It’s impossible to process these numbers.  Luckily, the king and his government seem acutely aware of the massive problem and prevention measures and campaigns are widespread.

With only one full day in the country, we opted to follow the advice of our kayaking friend and hit the river.  Unlike most rafting trips I’ve been on, Shanna and I would be paddling our own raft.  While I’ve done many trips like this before on the Nantahala River in North Carolina, the Usutu River made Nantahala look like the creek in your backyard.  Within a few minutes, we arrived at the first major rapid, inexplicably named Monica Lewinsky.  Monica was fierce and I was quickly evicted from the raft.  Once afloat, we worked on our paddling skills and achieved an expert rhythm.  This didn’t prevent a later rapid from consuming our boat and once again throwing me, this time accompanied by Shanna, into the cold, crocodile-infested river.
Road in Ezulwini Valley
As we were nearing the end of our outing, our guide – who was as concerned about our safety as he was about the NHL playoffs (i.e., not at all) – instructed us to park our rafts on the bank and walk ahead to scout our last rapid.  As we approached the furious rapid, we knew the guide was joking; no sane individual would allow novices to raft this section of the river.  When no punchline was delivered and we began walking back to our rafts, thick fear enveloped us – horrific injury or possible death was only seconds away.  We approached the rapids just as instructed, but we were both immediately launched out of our boat.  The next 10 seconds have been lost from my memory, but I know they involved me losing a paddle and gaining about 10 bruises on my legs as we bounced against rocks as if we were in a pinball machine.  Our only consolation was that the other 4 boats on the river with us succumbed to the river in the same fashion.  We were in Swaziland for less than 48 hours, but the marks it left on us will remain for weeks.

[embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”450″ editlink=”” standard=”″ vars=”ytid=_uAnKXGoUxA&width=450&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep5267″ /]