Book Review: The Cost of Courage

The Cost of Courage by Charles Kaiser is a heart-wrenching,  true story about a French 25579035-_uy200_bourgeois family whose three (of four) children joined the French Resistance during WWII.  This is gripping read and page turner from page one wondering what happens to the individual family members. The Boulloche family repeatedly demonstrated courage, dignity and humility during the most difficult of times and paid the ultimate price for their patriotism. Certain family members would continue to serve their country and the citizens of France after the war.  The author is the the nephew of an American soldier who billeted with the family at the end of the war and who grew up hearing his uncle’s stories about the family.  Thankfully, Kaiser documented the Boulloche’s story in The Cost of Courage.  For those interested in books on WWII, this is another must read.

 

Bom Caminho! Portugal’s Camino Way

The Camino Way is an historic pilgrimage route (over 1,000 years old) to the alleged burial site of the apostle St. James. St. James’ remains reputedly lie within the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.  Some years ago, Chris and I biked the Spanish Camino Way (aka Camino de Santiago) from Pamplona, Spain to Santiago de Comp0stela, Spain which is still one on our short list of the best biking experiences.  There are trails all over France, Spain and Portugal that lead to the tomb of St. James.  So when we decided to spend some time in Portugal in September, we looked into biking the Portuguese Camino Way starting in Porto, Portugal and ending in Santiago de Compostela.

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The scallop shell is the iconic symbol of the camino, and is used with the yellow arrow to guide pilgrims heading to Santiago de Compostela along its many different routes. Painted on trees, sidewalks or tiles, the yellow scallop shell (and/ or yellow arrow) helps pilgrims find there way to the next village.  There are many stories tied to the significance of the scallop shell. In French, the scallop is called Coquille Saint Jacques.  We love this system as it typically (not always) makes for easy navigating and you can travel for hundreds of kilometers without a map or GPS.

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Fellow pilgrims are typically super friendly, and part of the etiquette on the trail is to greet fellow pilgrims with “Buen Camino” or in Portugal “Bom Caminho”.  Traditionally, the camino was done for religious reasons.  Today, folks from all over the world walk or bike the camino for a variety of different reasons- spiritual experience, health reasons or social aspects.

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We started our mountain biking journey in the charming city of Porto known for its port wine production.

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But before biking out of Porto, we picked up our camino passports at the Se Cathedral. Hotels, restaurants, bars along the camino have stamps for the passports verifying the distance and noting the days.  The Se Cathedral is in the Romanesque style built between the 12th and the 13th century.  (The Portuguese Camino was used by Queen Isabel of Portugal in the 13th century crossing North Portugal and South Galicia, Spain.)

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Our first destination on the camino after leaving Porto was Barcelos, Portugal.  This was supposed to be a relatively easy ride the first day, but it took us a little while getting out of Porto dogging tourists, cars and buses.  Once out of Porto on the back trails to Barcelos, the trail was quite peaceful dotted with beautifully tiled cathedrals along the way.

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Barcelos is a relatively small village in northern Portugal with a rooster as the town’s symbol and the unofficial symbol of Portugal.  The legend of the rooster is tied to a pilgrim on his way to Santiago de Compostela who was wrongly accused of crime in Barcelos and sentenced to death.  The pilgrim repeatedly voiced his innocence and swore to the proof of his innocence by pointing to a cooked rooster and said that the rooster would crow at the hour of his hanging as proof. As he was being hanged, the roasted rooster appeared and stood up on the table in front of the crowd and crowed just as the pilgrim predicted. The judged realized the mistake and rushed to save the pilgrim.

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From Barcelos, we headed out to Ponte de Lima, Portugal- the last village in Portugal before biking over the Minho River which divides northern Spain and Portugal.  Lucky for us, there was an end of summer festival happening in the small village of Ponte de Lima. The village was packed with festive decorations, activities and locals.

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The following day, a rugged path along a small stream among grape vines took us over the Minho River into Tui, Spain for the evening.  However, before reaching Tui, we had a steep and challenging climb in front of us.  The biking distance from Ponte de Lima to Tui was not far, but the terrain was challenging and we ended up biking about 5-6 hours that day. The charming, walled city of Valence (an old Roman village) on the eastern side of the Minho river in Portugal was on the agenda for the day.

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When we crossed the border into Spain (Spain is in a different time zone than Portugal), we lost an hour which we were actually pretty happy about since Spain does not eat until late (very late by US standards around 10-11 pm at night or midnight in major cities) and we were hungry after the big climb and a solid day of biking.  We were also thrilled to be back in Spain for a few nights.  It gave us an opportunity to practice our Spanish, eat wonderful Spanish food and enjoy the vibrant Spanish culture.

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Bridge over the Minho river which is the border between Portugal and Spain

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From Tui, our next destination was Pontevedra.  We spent a Sunday night in Pontevedra and while it is a fairly good size city (about 83K people), it was pretty sleepy.  Restaurants, shops, bars are closed on Sundays in most of Europe.

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Burgo Bridge built in 12th century near the former site of a Roman bridge that gave the city its name, the “old bridge”  (Check out the Camino shells that mark the bridge.)

From Pontevedra, we headed to Lestrove, Spain for one night.

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From Lestrove, we had about a 3 hour bike ride to our final destination, Santiago de Compostela.  Once we arrived in Santiago de Compostela, we headed to the Pilgrims Office to obtain our certificate given to pilgrims that hike or bike 100 km or more.   The journey from Porto to Santiago de Compostela took us 6 days over about 185 miles.

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While the Portuguese Camino Way was a great experience, for those that are considering doing the camino, we would highly recommend the northern Spain route over the Portuguese section.  The villages, the scenery, the food, history and culture we found more interesting on Spanish Camino Way (aka Camino de Santiago).  It also had more pilgrims (at least when we did it) but not too many which is part of the experience. But if you are looking for another Camino segment, this is not a bad one.

One of the World’s Best Hikes?

The  Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) trail circumnavigates Western Europe’s highest mountain, the mighty Mont Blanc, up craggy passes, over pastoral saddles and through surreal valleys of France, Italy and Switzerland.  It offers fantastic hiking that is both scenic and challenging while providing the allure of great vino, a hot meal and a comfortable bed in a charming village at the end of the trail every evening. The route winds through famous mountain villages such as Chamonix and Courmayeur as well as smaller villages that will leave you contemplating dairy farming as a plausible profession.

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There are countless hiking options of varying lengths and difficulty as well as many options to leverage buses and lifts to navigate the hike around the massif.  And both directions of traveling the loop offer their benefits and challenges.  You can plan on about 10 days of actual hiking give or take your speed of walking, and it is worth considering an option that includes 1-3 “rest” days to check out some of the bigger villages and side trails along the way. Some travelers carry their own gear, but there are plenty of guide and transport companies that will transport bags so you only need to hike with a day bag. And with plenty of refuges, some of the best potable water supplies and villages along the way, day packs can be light.  Most stay in hotels, auberges or refuges so carrying a tent or even a sleeping bag is not required. Guided trips are available and may be the way to go for those less experienced with walking and hiking, but we found the navigation and hiking pretty straightforward and enjoyed the flexibility of a self-guided version where we walked at our own pace but met up with a group often on the trail as well as at the end of the day.

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The surreal scenery makes this hike one of the best that we have ever done, but that is not the only reason why this hike is consistently rated one of the best in the world.  Here are some more reasons to love it:

  • Hiking thru three stunning countries with different cultures, food and languages- France, Italy, Switzerland.

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  • Trekking 132 miles on well marked trails with about 32K of vertical (up and down) not only gives one a sense of accomplishment, but burns a lot of calories on the gorgeous trails and allows for guilt-free enjoyment of the wonderful food and wine every night.

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  • Days are filled with surreal natural beauty.

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  • The only sound you are likely to hear are the bucolic chimes of cow bells or the rush of running mountain water.

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  • Gorgeous wildflower strewn fields abound in alpine back country.

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  • No need to worry about grizzly bears. The only wildlife you should see on the trail are more benign- ibex, marmots, hawks

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  • A hot shower and comfortable bed awaits every night in charming hotels and villages.

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  • Eating is taken seriously in Europe.  (France takes two hour lunches and many places are closed from 12-3 pm.)  In the Alps, regardless of where you are whether at the top of a col or in a valley where there appears to be nothing for miles, refuges are plentiful on the TMB offering wonderful food, drinks and shelter.

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  • Plenty of vino, cheese and great food every night.

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Bakery in Les Houches where we picked up sandwiches for our first day on the TMB.
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This spread was in a small refuge quite far from anywhere

There are so many ways to do this hike- on your own, guided or self-guided.  We used Sherpa Expeditions, and they were fantastic.  Sherpa offers a self-guided model that involves transporting your luggage every day but one.  We also started the trek with 8 other people and stayed in the same hotels every night making for a social but flexible trek.  So for those that want to hike at different speeds, this is a great option.  

The TMB is definitely one of the best hikes in the world and one of our best experiences this year between the stunning views, fresh, clean mountain air, fabulous food and wine, charming villages in three of our favorite countries!  We loved it so much we will likely repeat this trek sometime in the future.  Stay tuned for more details on the TMB.

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In the Garden of Beasts

Biking through France has made me hungry for books on WWII, and there arein the garden of beasts plenty of good reads on this topic.  After reading All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale which are both fiction novels, I picked up In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson which is a non-fiction book about the US Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family’s experience living in Berlin from 1933 (as Hitler is coming into power as Chancellor) to 1937.  Although this is non-fiction, it reads more like a historical fiction novel, and I found it to be a quick read.

The book raises a lot of questions, but a key question raised (and attempted to answer) is why the US government did not speak out and/ or take any action given Hitler’s barbarism.  For example (and only one of so many), in 1934, the Nazi regime unilaterally carried out a series of political executions of Germans who were thought to oppose Hitler (this act was later known as “The Night of Long Knives”).  To Dodd’s credit, he warned President Roosevelt and others of the risk of another world war. Had the US and other countries done something in response to Hitler’s atrocities could WWII have been circumvented?

Well researched and written, this is a fascinating read about Hitler’s accession to power and Dodd’s experience as US Ambassador in Berlin in the years leading up to WWII.  In my opinion, the one downside of the book is that there is too much time spent on Dodd’s daughter’s, Martha, social connections and love life, but regardless, another compelling read.

Another Pearl in the Mediterranean Sea

With approximately 800,000 residents and roughly 8 million visitors per year, Mallorca is a popular tourist destination, especially with Germans and Brits. We flew from Paris to Mallorca, and we thought maybe we had flown to Vegas. The Palma airport is quite large for an island of its size, and a crazy amount of people filled the airport at 10pm.  The town was absolutely jamming. It is August in Europe where popular spots will get quite crowded (it is one of the reasons all the locals leave on their own vacations during this time).

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Mallorca is a lovely island off the coast of Spain in the Mediterranean with something for everyone with over 2,500 restaurants, 41 marinas, 400 km of hiking trails, beautiful beaches and  lots of cycling. The main city of Palma is a bustling spot with much to see – beautiful buildings, ancient castles and chateaus, churches as well as many parks and ramblas.

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If you go, here are a few of our favorite spots:

  • Mercat d’Olivar– a fabulous market offering a plethora of local specialties-anchovies, fresh produce, olives, lamb, eggs, bread, wine, cheese, sausage, ham- and a few restaurants and tapas bars. Both locals and tourists swarm the stalls all day long but it is worth dealing with the crowds to get some tasty goods.

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  • Banyalbufar– a seaside village in the Sierra de Tramuntana in the north west of the island of Mallorca.
  • Deia– another beautiful seaside village in the Sierra de Tramuntana that for its size has gotten a little over run, not in terms of development.  The village is stunning but the amount of cars that descent on this little village every day in peak season is high for a village its size- so high a make shift stop light had to meter one way traffic thru the village core.

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  • Soller– a village in the northwest of the island which is very popular with day trippers.  There is a train that goes from Palma to Soller dropping a lot of day visitors on this lovely village.  When we return to Palma, we would likely spend some time staying in Soller.  It has some great beaches, great day trips via sea and land, great hikes and good restaurants. We did a really fantastic hike from here (check out the details).

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  • Valldemossa– a hill town villages situation in the Tramuntana range only 17 km from Palma.

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And visiting the stunning Cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma( more commonly referred to as La Seu) that dominates Palma’s skyline is a must.

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We really enjoyed our apartment in old town Palma (our first time out of hotel rooms in over 2 months) walking and running along the promenade and heading to the market to prepare some non-restaurant food.  The city has many harbors and beaches all within walking distance of the old town.  You can also rent scooters and cars to check out some of the other beaches around the island.  It is easy driving and getting around.  Nothing is too far- distance from north to south on the island is only 100 km and east to west distance is about 70 km.

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Thoughts on 10 Months on the Road

Over the last 10 months of travel (wow, have we been gone that long?!), we have been fortunate to visit many fascinating places.  We have also had the opportunity to spend some quality time with a lot of different folks during our travels like Raghu and Gita, our friends’ wonderful parents who live in India, or Sam and Pip, our guides during our 3 weeks of biking from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City, or or Snehal and Falguni who worked with Chris years ago when we lived in Singapore or Claudette who hiked the Machu Picchu trail with her son, Calvin, or Marko, our kayaking guide in Croatia, and Ana and Ivan who joined us kayaking for 1 week in Croatia.  At the same time, we have obviously kept in touch with family and friends back home. People back in the States and abroad are often curious about the details of our trip and the dynamics of our daily lives while on the road. They wonder about our planning, our favorite spots, our challenges, our relationship while traveling.  So here are some thoughts on the frequently asked travel questions.

Before you left, did you plan the whole journey? How have you been managing the travel planning?  We did not plan the whole journey before we left.  While we wanted to make sure we did not waste any time and had a vision prior to leaving, we also wanted to make sure we had flexibility to make adjustments.  So when we left on September 29, 2015, we had plans thru January 5, 2016 knowing how we wanted to kick off the trip, and we also wanted secure plans during the busy December holiday season (when travel would also be crazy).  After that, we have tried to plan travel 1-3 months ahead depending on where we were headed, weather, goals and experiences.  We also wanted to stay in warm climates most of the year which had us following the summer season around the world.  From a planning perspective, Europe has been and is a little different.  Europe is crazy in the summer as Europeans take their vacation seriously, and the rest of the world seems to descend on Europe during the summer months.  So we started planning for the summer in Europe about 4 months out.

In terms of managing the travel planning, we did a lot of online travel research before we left the States and also a lot on the road.  The online sites that we have relied on and/ or found particularly helpful in terms of planning are The Clymb Adventure Travel, TripAdvisor, Expedia, Booking.com, LonelyPlanet.com.  Travel sites such as Conde Nast Traveller and Afar are in our feeds, and we are reading these on a daily basis.  We have also made it a point to find local adventure companies wherever we are traveling- Old Towne OutfittersKerala Cycling Trips, Malik Adventures, Meridien Ten, Valencia Travel.  The local travel/ adventure companies know the areas that they operate the best, and most of the time, adventure travel companies in the States outsource or work with these local companies.

What are your favorite spots?  We have enjoyed so many spots that we have been able to visit.  For the most part, we have tried to visit new countries. It is hard to pick favorites because there have been so many different experiences.  We both really liked South Africa and Vietnam. Colombia also ranks high on our spots we have visited. Peru and the Inca trail were awesome and probably our biggest surprise.  Central America was probably our hardest travel, but we are both glad we visited.

What do you miss the most?  We have not missed a lot (which I am not sure what that says about our lives back in Seattle;>). We certainly miss the time we spend with family and friends the most.  Cooking in our home is probably high on the list – both the act of preparing a meal (especially the big ones on Sunday evening with its leisurely pace and accompanying wine) and the joys of eating healthy, home-cooked meals (we have spend a lot of time in restaurants this year).  We have not missed our cars (it is amazing how much you walk and bike without one) or the time spent in them. We do miss Seattle and its surroundings – the mountains in the winter and the islands and water in the summer – but we know that it will all be there when we return.

How have you managed laundry?  Thankfully, in most of the places we have traveled with the exception of France, we have found fantastic drop off laundry services.  We drop our laundry off in the morning and typically 3 hours later, we have washed, dried and folded laundry ready for pick-up.  In Asia-Pacific, drop off laundry services are on every corner it seems and inexpensive- USD $.50-1.00 per kg for washing, drying and folding.  In Ho Chi Minh City, as an example, we found a wonderful laundry service that came to the lobby of our hotel and returned the laundry to our hotel 3 hours later.  We found this laundry service just by doing a search on Google Maps searching for “laundry services near me”.  The internet is a fabulous tool.  We found the same wonderful drop off laundry services throughout South America and Central America.  In South Africa, we had an Airbnb apartment on the front end and back end which had a washing machine so not sure if South Africa offers a similar model.  In France, laundry has been a little more of a challenge.  However, we found a chain in France, 5 a sec.  5 a sec was quite good in terms of service but a lot more expensive.  I think we paid $22 euros for same day service for about 5 kgs of laundry.  Unfortunately, 5 a sec is not everywhere in France.  So in lieu of a drop of service, we have used a laundromat a couple times and found a fabulous one in Annecy, France run by an lovely couple who keeps the laundromat is excellent condition and monitors the laundromat so users can go off and do other things.

It is interesting to reflect on the cloths we have worn for the year – it is not much.  A couple handfuls of tee-shirts each, one pair of jeans, a few pairs of shoes (and sandals of course), a lot of quick dry items that can easily be washed in a hotel room plus a few dresses, skirts and shorts.  We also have some running and biking clothing.  For me, Athleta clothing has been good to me.  It travels well and they have some nice skorts and dresses.  And most clothing items are black which has also been key to our packing strategy.  The warm weather helps, but it does make you wonder, in general, about how much you need (and we have new found respect for Steve Job’s and others’ minimalist approach).

What have you been doing for hair cuts and color?  This has been pretty straightforward as well with the exception of India (although I just made sure I got my hair cut and colored before India and right after).  Again, the internet has been key-  some online research looking for reputable hair salons in walking distance wherever we are has worked well.  The best hair cut and color, so far, was in Ho Chi Minh City at YKC Beauty Spa & Hair Salon.  YKC is a fabulous spot (an oasis) in HCMC.  The owner is great giving fabulous cuts as well as color and speaks fluent English.  In between hair cuts and colors, I have picked up L’Oreal color (yes, L’Oreal or Garnier are available in most places we have traveled) which has been working great. Chris does not have to worry about either one too much.

Did you buy a round the world airline ticket?  Given how competitive the airline market is  coupled with the restrictions on round the world airline tickets, we did not, and we are glad we did not buy one.  Before we left the US, we bought our tickets to Bangkok (cashed some miles) and our ticket to Spain and Cape Town, South Africa, but all the airline tickets we have bought have been purchased on the road and has been quite easy to do.  We use Expedia, Kayak and Rome2Rio quite a bit when buying airline tickets. Skyscanner and Skypicker (recently renamed kiwi.com) are also awesome sites and apps, if you have flexibility.  Our American Express card has come in handy as well. We leverage their travel site from time to time and their lounge access. In the past, we have not been able to justify their yearly fees, but we have used the card a lot this year (no international fees or spending limits), and it came with 100K miles which should pay for the ride home.  We have taken 33 flights since we left so far and flown about 60 K miles. We did not expect to fly so much but the low-cost carriers around the world really make flying more attractive in many situations – especially in Europe where flying is now often cheaper than train travel (we would prefer to take the train from a convenience and comfort perspective).

Where are you staying- in Airbnbs or hotels?  We have only spent roughly 6% of the nights on the road, so far, in Airbnbs.  Most of the places we have stayed have been hotels.  Airbnb, typically only makes sense for us, when we plan to be in a place for an extended period of time.  As example, in Cape Town, we knew we were going to stay for 3 weeks over the holidays so we booked an Airbnb but we have also stayed in Airbnb apartments in Nicaragua, Mexico City, Scotland, Madrid, and Majorca – the ability to cook (which is not always realized with the apartments) are the key attraction.

As a couple, how are you guys getting along?  100% of the time together for a year is a long time.  We find this to be a fascinating question and often consider it.  Chris and I have been married for 19 years on May 31, 2016 (and have been together for more than a few years before that).  We have been fortunate to a strong relationship that just keeps getting better. Like most married couples, we do not have perfect days together all the time, but we genuinely enjoy each others company and share common interests.  So neither of us was worried about this before we left and today, we are still not concerned about it. We have been enjoying the time spent together.  We do not have too much stress which makes things a lot easier. For sure, there are days when we are confronted with some travel challenges that can create stress but when we consider where we are and what we are doing, we can only be thankful. Occasionally (and it really is only occasionally for both of us), we may need some time alone so we may head off for a run alone or to run an errand.

Are you worried about the re-entry back into the real world? We are not too worried. We know there will be an adjustment and it will likely be really hard initially. But we also know that we have been fortunate to have a year to explore the world and we have experiences that we will remember forever. Exiting our careers for a year may have created some risk, but there is always risk with rewards. A few years ago, while kayaking in the San Juan Islands one week-end, we bumped into a crusty-old, Canadian kayaker out there paddling alone.  He was a bit gruff but departed with some wisdom that we could not agree with more “you cannot get the days back..[so enjoy them]”.

Have you found the answers to life’s questions yet? No, definitely not. We have had no major epiphanies. Our travels have certainly reinforced our belief that we have it very good in the States. It is not a perfect country, but it is also not a perfect world, and there are many out there that are suffering and challenged on a level that we cannot even consider in the States – even with some of our challenges there. This is certainly not a new revelation, but one we will continue to reflect upon.

Are you coming home?  We think so:>

What do you think about the Presidential election?  Do you think Trump has a chance of winning?  This is probably our least favorite question. It is very often asked and often delivered with a smirk. We used to laugh it off.  While we have not be in the States for the last 10 months, we both have been following the election closely.  10 months ago, we did not think Trump had a chance of being the Republican Presidential Nominee.   The fact that an individual who is so crass, inarticulate, lacking details on plans and any experience with public service, no military experience and a questionable business record has attracted so many followers back in the States and has gotten as far as he has is both perplexing and frightening.  There certainly does not seem to be any rational supporters overseas that we have encountered during our travels.

Politics aside, it has been a fascinating trip so far  – spending time with so many different people with varied backgrounds, cultures, languages, and perspectives.  Most have been great, but we have certainly met some characters as well.   My personal favorite question is the question about spending so much time with your partner and my least favorite is about the Presidential election.

We are still together and having a ball! Stay tuned for more!

Book Review: Two Good Reads on France and WWII

I just finished two great reads, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, which were set in France during World War II (WWII) . All the light we cannot seeAll the Light We Cannot See, is about two children’s lives during World War II- one growing up in France and the other in Germany. The narrative moves back and forth between the two main characters- Werner and Marie-Laure and parallels their coming of age. Werner, a young orphan boy in Nazi Germany, lives in a children’s home . He is exceptionally bright and curious with a knack for fixing radios. His talents in math and science win him a spot in a nightmarish Hitler Youth Academy. This is his only chance of escape from a grim life working in the same deadly coal mines.  Marie-Laure lives with her locksmith father who works at a museum, and she is blind. When the Germans attack Paris, she and her father flee to the coastal town of Saint-Malo to live with a great-uncle who lives in a tall, storied house next to a sea wall.  Eventually, these parallel stories intersect briefly.  While the story is beautiful and heartbreaking, I was looking for something more when these two young lives cross, but nonetheless, an engaging, well-written book with many thought provoking lines. Here are a few of my personal favorites from All the Light We Cannot See:

“Doing nothing is as good as collaborating.”

“Don’t you want to be alive before you die?”

“Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”

The Nightingale, is another great read about WWII (and a personal The Nightingalefavorite).  The narrative is about two sisters- Viann and Isabelle- who could not be more different from one another.  During WWII, both found themselves in unthinkable circumstances and did heroic things to survive the horrors of war as well as to help many others survive.  This is a heartbreaking book (suggest reading this in the privacy of your own home or hotel room because there will likely be tears) but provides a small glimpse into what courageous women did while France was occupied by Germany during the WWII. I highly recommend it.

Island Hopping Croatia’s National Parks

The Adriatic Sea off the coast of Croatia may be the most inviting, beautiful water we have ever seen.  The warm, crystal clear water in gorgeous shades of blue and green with a lot of salt is wonderful for swimming.  There is very little algae, weed, or other flora (likely because of the high salt level) growing along the coast and even in the harbors so the water is clear down to tens of meters. It is absolutely stunning.

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As the days were getting hotter during our stay in Croatia, we wanted to make sure we spent more time on and in the water as well as continue training for our upcoming cycle trip to the Tour de France.  So on Saturday, June 25th, we took a 1 hour ferry from Split to Trogir to catch a boat on which we would be island hopping, sleeping and biking some of Croatia’s National Parks along with roughly twenty other people and eight crew for 8 days.

The company we used is Island Hopping, a German company, that runs boat and bike trips not only in Croatia but many other locations-including Greece and Vietnam.  Our home for the next 8 days was a brand new boat named Melody, built on the Croatian island of Brač  and owned by the captain of our ship.  The boat was equipped with large, spacious rooms and bathrooms (larger than many European hotel rooms) as well as A/C.  We learned our lesson in Thailand.  A/C is a requirement if you want to sleep at all on a boat in hot weather.

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Home for 8 Days- Melody

On the agenda was biking, swimming and visiting Croatia’s National Parks- Kornati and Krka National Parks as well as Telascica Nature Park.

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Kornati National Park is an archipelago of roughly 140 islands that are rugged, rural and uninhabited. It is stunning to see from a boat and said to be even more stunning underwater which is its main attraction. We mostly stayed above on our visit but the barren islands and landscape were beautiful.

 

 

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Kornati National Park
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Kornati National Park
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Kornati National Park
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Salt Water Lake at Kornati National Park

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Krka National Park houses the hydroelectric power plant which was the first such hydro power plant in Europe and second in the world. It was set in operation on August 28, 1895, two days after the power plant on the Niagara Falls went live.  Both hydroelectric plants, Adams Power Plant on the Niagara Falls and Krka power plant, were based on the work of Nikola Tesla using Tesla’s AC system patent. The park is famous for its beautiful waterfalls and it does not disappoint. Visitors can follow a 1-2 km path, most on elevated boardwalks, that circles and traverses the various waterfalls.

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Krka National Park
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Krka National Park
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Krka National Park

 

We casually biked about 30 miles a day with a couple days of reasonable climbs.  The rides were social with plenty of time for coffees, swims and chats with our fellow riders.  Our group was a gregarious one with folks from from the UK, Germany, Switzerland and the US.  The US contingent made up the majority of the group including a large group from Washington, DC.

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Every night, we docked at charming harbor villages- Rogoznica, Slanica, Molat, Zadar, Skardin, Zlarin and Trogir.  Our days consisted of biking from roughly 9 am- 2 pm, followed by lunch, maybe some swimming, biking or checking out a harbor village in the afternoon.  Dinner was usually about 8 pm on the boat.  Lather, rinse and repeat for 7 days. It was a very relaxed week and nice way to see some of the National Parks, do a little cycling, meet some fun, new folks and enjoy the waters of the Croatian Adriatic.

 

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If you have not been to Croatia, you need to visit before this charming country with an absolutely stunning coastline gets too commercialized.  Dubrovnik and Split are already quite busy but boating and biking is one of the best ways to get out on the water and land as well as check out the smaller, less crowded and stunning harbor villages.

 

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We’ve Got to Split (Croatia)

When planning our visit to Croatia, we knew we wanted to spend some time in Split.  Located in the Dalmatian region of Croatia on the Adriatic Sea, Split is one of the oldest cities and the second largest (~200k people) in a country of roughly 4 million.  Its history, coastline, access to many stunning islands and its architecture including a 1700 year old walled city make it an interesting spot. The city is a hot spot for tourists, a hub for ferry traffic within Croatia and to Italy and a stop for the cruise ships.  Off-the-chart yachts and charter boats line the harbor. It is teaming with people, and the vibe is very festive.

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And yet, it was not that long ago that Croatia was involved in a war for its independence with the former Yugoslavia.  In 1991 (along with Slovenia), Croatia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia.  During the War of Independence, there were some incidents in Split which resulted in some minor damage; however, Dubrovnik, further south in Croatia, sustained more damage during the war.

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Given Split’s proximity to some islands and its coast, we knew Split would be a great base for some cycling. So we booked a cycling trip with Meridien Ten, an active travel company based in Split, to work out 5 days of routes and a cycle hire. (Many US-based companies use Meridien Ten for their Southern Croatia itineraries.)  We chose to stay in the city for a week at the lovely Hotel Slavija and  did cycle loops back to Split each day.  Located within the walls of the Diocletian’s palace, Hotel Slavija is the oldest hotel in Split and a great spot.  The hotel was actually built above the western Diocletian baths. Today, the hotel is protected under UNESCO.

In addition to three island rides, we had a chance to experience a few rides on the mainland outside of Split, and one led to two interesting spots to check out in the Split area.

1. Marjan Park which is just a few kms from the old town area of Split set on a hill that provides great views of the Adriatic Sea and the city of Split.  If you visit Split, you cannot miss the park as it is a thickly, forested peninsula that is easily visible from the Riva. Originally used as a park by the citizens as early as the 3rd century, today, it is heavily used by locals and tourists alike and offers numerous beaches, jogging trails and bike paths all surrounded by a pine forest and the Adriatic Sea. It is a relatively short 20K out and around but has some climbing and there is enough to see that a couple to few laps will extend your ride and keep things interesting.

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2.The Ivan Mestrovic sculpture museum at his former home is another must when visiting Split. Mestrovic was a popular Croatian sculptor who was imprisoned in Zagreb for political reasons until the Vatican assisted with his release. After his release, Mestrovic moved to the US and taught at Syracuse University and Notre Dame.  When he died, he left his work to his home country, and it is now on display at his beautiful home outside of Split.  It is only a couple kms outside of the city and on the way to the ride above.

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For those that are interested in biking vacations, there are many different models to chose from depending on where you are traveling.  There is the stationary model like our stay in Split where you can do loop rides from a base.  There is, also, the bike trip model cycling from one location to the another like our bike trip from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City.  And then, there is also a boat and bike type model which we also tried when we were in Croatia. You can also choose self-guided options which allow you to control your schedule and mileage every day or a guided option which tends to be more social and is also required in harder areas (such as Cambodia and India).  But in general, Europe is filled with fantastic bike routes with designated routes and good markings so we think the self- guided model is perfect.

All models are fun and interesting with pros and cons depending on the type of experience you are looking for.  More on our Croatia boat and bike experience in a future post as well.

Biking to Dreamy Piran, Slovenia and an Istrian Gem

You cannot be sad while riding.- Anonymous

Stages 5 and 6 of our cycling journey from Venice, Italy to Porec, Croatia took us to dreamy Piran, Slovenia and the Istrian gem of Porec, Croatia.  The beginning of Stage 5 was mostly uphill from Trieste, Italy across the border to Slovenia. None of the hills we encountered on this ride were terribly high or long.  Our heavy hybird bikes slowed us down, but generally, the route is relatively easy.

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The bike path from Italy into Slovenia continued.  This is thanks to the EUs investment in cycling paths.  The path, today, was yet another stunning bike route which took us out of Trieste along a plateau with views of the Adriatic Sea. A large portion of it was dirt and snaked along an old rail line through an ancient forest.

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Trieste off in the distance as we cycled uphill and into Slovenia.

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Before exiting Italy, yet another stunning fishing village awaited.  Muggia, Italy is a small village southeast of Trieste lying on the border of Slovenia and is the last and only piece of Istria still in Italian territory.

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Our first town in Slovenia was the coastal town of Koper along the Adriatic Sea.  The town is officially bilingual with both Slovene and Italian as the official languages.

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From Koper, we cycled to Portoroz, Slovenia, literally Port of Roses.  After Portoroz, the village of Piran, Slovenia was our destination. Here we experienced one of the steepest hills on one of the hottest days of the trip. But it was only a couple kilometers and Piran awaited us.

Piran is located in southwestern Slovenia on the Gulf of Piran on the Adriatic Sea and resembles a large-open air museum with medieval architecture.  Narrow streets and compact houses  and a small harbor gives the seaside village a special charm.  Stage 5 wrapped up with about 45 miles of biking.

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On our last day of cycling, we peddled from Piran, Slovenia to Porec, Croatia kicking off with a cycle through the salt gardens of Secovije.  Once past the salt gardens, we crossed the border of Croatia to the Istrian peninsula.  The Secovije international border crossing is one of the main crossings from Slovenia into Croatia. It is mostly designed for cars and trucks, but we jumped into the line with our bikes and no one seemed to be bothered. The crossing guard in both countries were very friendly.

The Isrian peninsula is the largest on the Adriatic Sea with some modest hills along an old railroad bed.  Cycling with our passports was a requirement for all on our trip even those of our fellow German and French biking buddies.  All passports were checked at the Croatian border as Croatia is slowly phasing into the EU and is not yet part of the Schengen unlike other EU countries.

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The last day mileage was about 55 miles and the destination was Porec, Croatia.  Biking through the Istria region gave us our first glimpses of the famous Croatian coast and started to get us excited about the few days we would be staying there. Along the way, we stopped in the beautiful city of Novigrad for lunch.

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Porec is a village on the western coast of the Istrian peninsula and has been a UNESCO site since 1997.  It is almost 2,000 years old and is set around a harbor protected by the sea. The village population is about 12,000 people.  Originally part of Italy, Porec and much of the Istrian peninsula became part of Croatia in 1947.

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All in all, this bike ride was in the top tier of cycle trips that we have completed.  The cycling routes were mostly (97%) either on country roads with little to no traffic or on bike paths.  The architecture and history along the route was beautiful as well as fascinating.  And the food, weather and sea coast exceeded expectations. Check out our other days cycling here.

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