20 Years of Travel #19: Chernobyl

_DSC5065The 20 Years of Travel series continues with our day trip to Chernobyl in Ukraine. If there was any trip my husband and I have taken where people ask the question “Why?”, it would be our trip to Chernobyl in 2016. The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl happened on April 25-26, 1986, when I was a little kid. When my husband and I heard that they were opening the13770367_267208830320350_1063754274685798828_n areas around the reactor for visitors almost 25 years later, we immediately put it on our list of places to visit. We were definitely interested in learning more about the accident and the reactor first hand. However, there is something unique and a bit post-apocalyptic about seeing towns that have been completely deserted and as a result have remained completely the same for the last 25 years. The only differences are that grass and weeds are overgrown everywhere and the buildings are rundown. When the people evacuated these towns after the accident, they were all under the impression that they would get to return to their homes in a week or so. However, as most of us know, that did not happen. Even the carnival rides from the fair that was being held in Prypyat during the time of the accident continue to hauntingly remain standing and abandoned.

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Journey to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone:
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is safe! It would not be open to public tours if it wasn’t. Actually, you are also allowed to stay overnight in the Exclusion Zone, however, due to time constraints, we decided just to take the one-day Chernobyl Tour that leaves from Kiev early in the morning. The drive to the Dytyatky checkpoint into the Exclusion Zone takes a couple of hours, so you have a chance to nap in the car or watch the Chernobyl documentary that they put on the television for us. This documentary was amazing, and I really wish I had written down the title of it. It gave an overview of what led up to the explosion, including power failures during testing. I think the most shocking part of this documentary for me, as I was very young when this disaster occurred so knew little about it, was the cover-up that occurred after the explosion. As this was a Soviet nuclear power plant, they tried to keep this incident a secret from the international community and even from their own people. Many individuals in the nearby town of Pripyat felt the explosion in the middle of the night. As firefighters were risking their lives, trying to contain the explosion, people in Pripyat were told to continue with their daily activities and enjoy the carnival that was in town, while fumes and smoke spread through the city. More than 24 hours later, they finally decided to start evacuating nearby towns. The international community became aware of the situation, when Sweden started detecting high radiation levels. If Sweden was detecting high radiation levels, just imagine the radiation levels in the towns near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

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Geiger counter & Homes:
Once in the Exclusion Zone, we started visiting some of the towns that were abandoned. _DSC5173To get a clear idea of the vast impact of the Chernobyl catastrophe, the picture above is a memorial to all the towns that were affected by radiation and had to be evacuated. When we exited our vehicle, our guides gave us individual Geiger counters (see picture on the right) to be able to track radiation levels. The Geiger counters were sound an alarm if radiation levels were above 2.0 mSv’s. I think I saw our Geiger counter hit 4.0 at one point. However, even when the alarm sounds, the radiation levels are not harmful. Basically we were just given our yearly dose of radiation in one day. We first started visiting some of the abandoned homes (see pictures below).

Abandoned Community Facilities
We also visited some community buildings including a local school, gymnasium and public pool (see pictures below).

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Duga-1:
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union built this missile defense system, which was designed to detect the launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles. This structure, located only a few kilometers from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, was irradiated during the Chernobyl disaster but remains standing, as all the valuable metal has been contaminated and the surrounding sand too. Since it can’t be knocked over without releasing dangerous amounts of radiation, it’s one of the few remaining Soviet missile radars still standing in the former Soviet Union.

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Pripyat Carnival:
The nearest town to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was Pripyat. The town of approximately 50,000 people were enjoying a carnival that was in town when the explosion happened. The carnival rides are still standing (see pictures below).

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The Reactor:
Less than a month after the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, a cover was designed, called the Sarcophagus, to go over the reactor to contain the radiation. The Sarcophagus was only designed to be a useful cover for 20-30 years, so work was done to build the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement (aka the Arch). This Arch would cost billions of dollars and be constructed next to the reactor. We got to view the reactor with the Sarcophagus and the Arch next to it from a safe distance (see picture below). In 2017, a year after our visit, the Arch was moved over the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant as a more permanent containment system.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was one of the most interesting places we have ever explored. We have never seen so many abandoned towns. The expansive reach of such a tragedy was astounding. It was quite a haunting and somewhat unnerving site to behold. We would definitely recommend visiting this area if you are ever in Ukraine.

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

20 Years of Travel #18: Paris

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues by featuring the City of Love: Paris, France. I grew up watching old movies that were set in Paris: An American in Paris, Funny Face, Gigi, and many more. I dreamed of seeing this amazing city. I went for the first time in 2006. I was a bit disappointed with Paris at that time. I can now say that my disappointment was almost completely due to lack of planning on my part. I was traveling to Paris with a classmate of mine after we finished a graduate course in Geneva, Switzerland. As students, we had a tight travel budget. I was able to get a discount on a hotel in Paris through my job at home, but that unfortunately was located on the outskirts of the city. It ended up costing a lot of money and time to travel into the city center. We also were visiting in the middle of the summer tourist season and 100 degree heat. We waited in the heat for hours to get into Notre Dame (pictured above), which was worth it, but unpleasant. My most amateur mistake was waiting until our final day in Paris to go to the Louvre, which was a Tuesday, the day that the Louvre is closed. We decided to go visit Versailles instead, which was impressive but was under renovation and none of the fountains were turned on.

Luckily, almost ten years later, I decided to give Paris another try. I had a much better experience. We stayed in the city center, smallest hotel room ever, but worth it for the location. We also went in the middle of December which in my opinion is the best time to see Paris. There are minimal tourists and beautiful Christmas markets everywhere. I believe there is also a lot to be said about experiencing the same city at different points in one’s life as well.

Things to do and see:

Champs Elysees

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The Champs Elysees is one of the most famous avenues in the world, leading to the Arc de Triomphe.

Roue de Paris

This is a large ferris wheel off of the Champs Elysees, where you can experience amazing views of Paris.

The Seine

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There are walkways along the Seine, where you can take romantic strolls with views of the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower

Of course you have to explore the Eiffel Tower. My friends and I went up to the top at sunset for the amazing views and then decided to walk down, which wasn’t as strenuous as I thought it would be. I only had a problem with my little fear of heights and the fact that you could feel the tower sway a bit.

Notre Dame Cathedral

This is the famous gothic-style cathedral in Paris. If you have an opportunity, do the gargoyle tour as well as exploring the inside of the cathedral.

Favorite Bookstore

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If you are a booklover like me, Shakespeare and Company Bookstore is a must!

The Louvre

This amazing art museum did not allude me on my second visit to Paris. December is a much better time to visit this museum anyway. I was there at opening time and got to stand alone in front of the Mona Lisa for twenty minutes.

Musee d’Orsay

Musee d'Orsay Collection

This is my favorite art museum in Paris as I love all things Degas, Renoir and Monet. The above picture shows just a few of my favorites.

Christmas Markets

If you find yourself in Paris around Christmastime, you can experience a plethora of amazing Christmas markets that are set up all over the city.

Sights I Still Want to See

Two trips to Paris were not enough to see everything I wanted to. I still have not gone to Sacre Couer and the catacombs. Hence, why they are not featured here. Those will just have to wait until my next visit.

Day Excursions:

Versailles

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Less than a hour train ride from Paris is the Palace of Versailles. Not only is Versailles featured prominently in history, but it contains beautiful art and expansive gardens. Many of my husband’s pictures are featured above as he recently got to see Versailles with minimal renovations and working fountains, unlike my original visit to Versailles.

Rouen

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Less than a two-hour train ride from Paris, Rouen is an idyllic French town. We visited because of our interest in Joan of Arc, but there was so much more to this town. Definitely one of my favorite places.

Excursion I Still Want to Make

As mentioned before, I really love Monet paintings. Monet’s home and where he found some of his inspiration is located less than an hour from Paris in the town of Giverny.

If you are looking for more excursions into Normandy from Paris, see my Normandy link below.

Related Posts:

PARIS, FRANCE (December 2013)

Normandy, France – October 2014

I am sure Paris and I will meet again soon!

Happy Travels!!!

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20 Years of Travel #17: The Balkans

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues with my undergraduate study abroad program to the Balkans in 2002. I am sure that everyone experiences moments that change their lives. The Peace and Conflict Resolution program I took through American University that took me to the Balkans literally changed my life.

As silly as this seems to talk about, years later, I went through a rough patch in 2002, as I got my heart completely shattered when a boyfriend and I broke up. The 2-year relationship ended almost as poorly as it could. I was struggling so much and didn’t even know if I wanted to continue with school, when I was accepted into this program at American University. I now had this intensive educational program to focus on, which left me little time to think about my broken relationship. As part of this research program, we were heading to the Balkans, which was still recovering from the Balkan War of the 1990s.

*Side note – all pictures featured in this post have been scanned from physical photos taken with an old film camera that I was using in 2002.*

HUNGARY

Our tour of the Balkans included a very intense travel schedule, so our professor arranged to begin the trip with a weekend in Budapest (to overcome jetlag) and end the trip with a weekend in Vienna (before heading back to the States). This is now a trick I try to incorporate in as many travel experiences as I can – making sure you allow some free time at the beginning and at the end, especially when you are taking adventure trips and tours. While we were suffering from jetlag, we did get to experience some fun things in Budapest, like the market, the parliament building, a Hungarian opera, amazing food and a beautiful, early-morning walk to and from attending a church service at Matthias Church (Mátyás-templom).

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SERBIA

Our home base for much of our time in the Balkans was in Belgrade, Serbia. Belgrade was bombed by NATO in 1999. Three years later it was still recovering and rebuilding. It was my first experience actually seeing the structural effects of war, so of course I wanted to document that with my camera, which I found out quickly was illegal. In Belgrade, we would learn about the steps the former-Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro – at that time) was taking to change their system of government from a socialist one to a democracy. This transition would take years. Occasionally, we would take trips outside of the city to meet with human rights groups and religious leaders to discuss the effects the war had on society and religion in Serbia.

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MONTENEGRO

At this time, Montenegro would still be part of the former-Yugoslavia with Serbia. They would not gain their independence until 2006. While traveling through Montenegro, I remember thinking that it was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. It was hard to imagine that horrible things were taking place there just a few years before. While in Montenegro, we stayed at a large orphanage that housed many kids who had lost their families in the war. It was heartbreaking, but through these kids, you could also see hope and a promise of a better future.

CROATIA

We traveled to Croatia a few times. We took one such day trip to Zagreb and Vukovar from Belgrade. This was one of the most intense travel days I had ever experienced. On the way into Croatia, the bus driver was trying to accommodate our need to use bathroom facilities by just pulling over on the side of the road. Normally, if I had to go bad enough, that might be sufficient for me. However, the location did not seem like aserbia great idea, as I came face to face with my first mine field (see picture on the right). Demining operations are still ongoing in parts of the Balkans. We spoke to some officials in Zagreb about Croatia gaining its independence from Yugoslavia and what their goals as an independent nation were. Then headed to see Vukovar, which was completely destroyed during the war. The city was under siege for almost three months straight. Its residents had to flee and thousands died. All the structures were just covered in bullet holes. We headed back to Belgrade after this but were stopped at the Serbian border. Border crossings were still pretty strict at this time, and they frowned upon multiple crossings in one day, which we were doing. After keeping us there for hours, holding on to our passports the whole time, we were able to monetarily bribe our way back into Serbia. That would be our only time doing multiple border crossings in the same day. Our next trip to Croatia would take us to the coastal town of Dubrovnik, long before it was made famous by Game of Thrones. Here we met with a women’s group who would make by hand items like purses, scarves and sweaters to be sold. These items would go directly to support women and their families who have lost husbands and fathers in the war. Meeting these women who had lost so much, trying to do whatever they could to support their families, impacted me so much. Later that day, one of our guides, from Bosnia, who had been with us the whole time, told us his story of living through the siege of Sarajevo. That story will stick with me for the rest of my life. That evening, a group of us sat watching the sunset over the Adriatic talking of different psychological topics, when we started talking about relating to people by reading people. I didn’t quite buy into the concept of reading people, because I did not believe that people could be that readable. I asked someone to read me. That same guide from Sarajevo decided to take on that task and told me that I had fallen in love with the wrong person but would get over it. I had not told anyone anything about my life or relationships, so this completely threw me. This was the moment my life changed. I realized that my broken heart was so insignificant compared to what so many people in the Balkans were going through. For the first time, I started to think about my future goals and what I could do to help others. It was not just that he had seen my hurt and pain, but that he had seen a strength I possessed that I did not know I had.

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SLOVENIA

We would take a cruise along the stunning Croatian coast and head to Slovenia. Slovenia was the first country to declare its independence from Yugoslavia. It had also managed to, for the most part, stay out of the war. We took a short trip here exploring caves, Lake Bled and spending a night in Ljubljana before heading to Vienna for our last few days in Europe.

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AUSTRIA

By the time we made it to Vienna, Austria, I was exhausted both physically and emotionally. This had been one of the most intense and moving experiences of my life. While in Vienna, my mind was on everything we had just learned, seen and experienced, and where I would go from there. I barely remember going to St. Stephen’s Cathedral or the Secession Building that housed contemporary art. Luckily, I got to revisit Vienna a few years later.

Vienna

This tour through the Balkans was one of the best travel experiences of my life. I believe that every trip should be an educational one, whether you are learning about the culture of the location or even just learning how to travel. This was more than an educational experience, it was literally life-changing, and that is why it made my list of 20 favorite travel experiences.

Location-related posts:

BUDAPEST AT NIGHT (November 2015); The Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Christmas – Budapest, Hungary (November 2015)20 Years of Travel #13: Mediterranean Cruise

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!!

20 Years of Travel #16: Iceland

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The  series continues by featuring Iceland. In 2011, we took a family vacation to Iceland. Since then, Iceland has become a favorite and popular travel destination as it should be. Here are my favorite highlights from our trip all around the island.

Reykjavík

Start and/or end your time in Iceland exploring its capital city.

——Music Scene——

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When you think about Iceland, do you think about music? If you don’t, you should. It is not just the home of Björk. Check out 12 Tónar, which is not just a music shop but also a recording studio.

——Puffins——

257484_10150214019212986_68884_oWho doesn’t want to see these adorable animals?! You can take the Puffin Express to get a good view of these interesting looking creatures!

Blue Lagoon

For a little relaxation, soaking in these hot springs is well worth the money in my opinion.

Thingvellir National Park

Here you will not be standing on a tectonic plate but will be walking on the Almannagjá fault line between the North American and Eurasian Plate.

Waterfalls

There is no shortage of amazing waterfalls in Iceland. Here are just some that we got to see.

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Viking Houses

In the rural areas, you can see remnants of a strong Viking past.

Horseback Riding

You will definitely want to ride the unique Icelandic horses. Not only are they beautiful creatures, but they have an interesting quick-step trot.

Geysirs & Hot Springs

You will find these in Thingvellir National Park, Blue Lagoon, and other places.

Glaciers, Volcanoes & Icebergs

In 2010, Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted causing many problems not just in Iceland but around Europe. Due to a large ash cloud, air travel was restricted on the European continent and around 100,000 flights were canceled. Bárðarbunga erupted in 2014. We heard a bit about Hekla, while we were in Iceland as some natives believe that we should expect a potentially bad eruption from Hekla soon. From research I have done, Hekla usually has a large eruption in the 40s both in the 1840s and 1940s. We shall see if that trend continues. Meanwhile, that particular volcano once spread lava over a vast part of Iceland, which has now turned into fields of moss (pictured below). These volcanoes are covered with massive glaciers. The melting of these glaciers have created lakes with chunks of ice (like icebergs) in them.

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ATV Tour

At the last minute, we got to do a ATV tour in through the mossy lava fields.

Coastal geology

You can tell by looking at the cliffs on the coasts of Iceland that Iceland used to be part of the mainland not an island. Part of the coast even looks like the Giants Causeway in Ireland (see picture below).

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Our trip to Iceland was amazing. It is such a beautiful and peaceful place. There is a reason it has become a hot travel destination in the last few years.

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HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

20 Years of Travel #13: Mediterranean Cruise

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues with a Mediterranean cruise that we took for our wedding anniversary in 2015. It was our first big cruise line cruise. We had done a river cruise in the USA, transportation cruise to the Bahamas, and an exploration cruise in the Galapagos, but never one like this. For beginners, I think we handled this learning experience really well and had a lot of fun along the way.

ITINERARY

Trieste, Italy

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Trieste was the port where the cruise would depart and return to. We lived in Italy at the time, so we just took a train to Trieste from our hometown but allowed plenty of time before and after the cruise to tour around the city for a bit. This town is the bridge between Western Europe and the Balkans. You can easily access Slovenia from here if you have time.

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Bari, Italy

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Our first stop on the cruise was the small coastal town of Bari in the Apulia region on the eastern side of Italy. It was a great walkable city, so we did not feel the need to take an excursion offered by the cruise line. There are forts to explore, a nice waterfront and the beautiful Cattedrale di San Sabino (Bari Cathedral).

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Corfu, Greece

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Our first stop in Greece was the island of Corfu. We again didn’t take a cruise line excursion, which you might want to consider doing if you want to get to the heart of the town in a timely fashion. However, we decided to just find a cafe, where we indulged in a drink and enjoyed the atmosphere of some locals.

Mykonos, Greece

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Mykonos was a highlight for me as I’ve been wanting to go there since I was a kid. It did not disappoint. We took a jeep tour of the island excursion, which was an amazing way to see most of the island. Plus, my husband loved driving around on the rough passageways. This excursion also included lunch on the island with an ouzo tasting, which is an alcoholic shot that looks cloudy and tastes like black licorice. After the excursion, we had time to clean up and catch sunset on Mykonos. The island lights up with amazing colors at sunset. We decided to eat a fancy dinner for our anniversary on the island, which I highly recommend. Though it is tempting to eat only the food that is included on the cruise you paid for, it is nice to give some money to the local businesses. Mykonos was just stunning!

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Santorini, Greece

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Our next island stop was Santorini, which was my favorite stop on the cruise. I had seen beautiful pictures, but pictures don’t seem to do it justice. We took the excursion transportation to Oia, which was 100% worth it. The guide gave us a great overview lesson of the island, its history and economics, and then we wandered around. We immediately found a cafe, where we could sit outside with coffees, enjoying an amazing view of the caldera. When you have finished viewing and taking pictures of the cliff-side architecture, I would do a wine tasting and purchase some bottles of wine if possible. Due to the eruption of the Santorini volcano many years ago, the soil on the island is rich for producing wine. You will have a lot of white wine choices, and Santorini’s specialty is the Vin Santo, which is a dessert wine. I loved everything about this island and especially Oia.

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Dubrovnik, Croatia

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This was not part of the original itinerary, but due to some bad weather, we stopped in Dubrovnik instead of Split, Croatia. Dubrovnik was the last stop before heading back to Trieste, Italy, where our cruising adventure would end. I went to Dubrovnik ten years prior to this trip (I’ll discuss further in an upcoming post about the Balkans), and it has remained very dear to my heart ever since. I was happy to revisit some of my favorite places, including the cafe that overlooks the Adriatic, where the owners gave us coffee and drinks even though they were not officially open. The weather was not great but we still got to walk in the ancient city walls and visit the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

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Lessons Learned

  • Make sure that you have a spare set of clothing (aka dress, underwear, shorts, etc) in the small bag that you carry on to the cruise boat. We had our luggage checked prior to getting onto the boat. The luggage check-in was located outdoors in the midst of a huge windy rainstorm. When we received our duffle bag full of clothes, everything was drenched. While the cruise line had all of our clothes dry cleaned for free, this took a couple of days, where we were wearing the same clothes.
  • The drink package is sooooo worth it! After finding out about our wet clothes and having my credit card canceled (even though they knew I was traveling – thank you Capital One), we wanted nothing more than to sit at the bar and have a drink or three. We decided to purchase the all-you-can-drink package, which we definitely utilized frequently. This includes water and coffee as well, so it is 100% worth it!
  • Pack multiple sets of dress clothes. Apparently dressing up for dinner on a cruise boat is sometimes mandatory. That bit of information can often be hidden on websites and can catch you completely by surprise if you have never been on a cruise before.
  • Find a good booking site. After getting frustrated on trying to figure out how to see some Greek islands on our own, without using an organized tour, I received an email from VacationsToGo, advertising a discount on a Mediterranean cruise for the time period we were looking to travel. It seemed like a sign, so I picked up my phone and called the 800 number on the website and within a few minutes an agent had us all booked on this cruise. It took barely any of my time to plan, cost a lot less than if I had set up travel to the islands on my own, and we even got our drink package for free as part of a special deal.
  • Plan excursions prior to being on the cruise. Before going on your cruise, check out the possible excursions and make a decisions on the ones you want to go on prior to being on the boat. We did not purchase excursions ahead of time and found at least one we wanted to do was fully booked.
  • Don’t be afraid to change dining tables. Cruises love to give you assigned dining seats, so you can meet new people. However, unfortunately we did not have a great experience with our dining table, and we waited too many days to change tables to sit with some friends. If after the first night, you do not enjoy your dining experience, talk to someone, so that you can be relocated.
  • Allow plenty of time before and after the cruise. Most people will travel to take cruises. If you are one of those people, make sure to leave a good cushion of time before and after your cruising experience. The cruise line took a long time returning passports to passengers at the end of the cruise (hours after we were docked) and madness erupted. Many passengers were furious, because they missed their schedule trains or planes home. While we had allowed plenty of time before and after the cruise to catch our transportation home, it was hard not to feel for every individual who had to suffer missed connections because of this delay.

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While I am not sure I would recommend Costa cruise lines as the best option for cruising, we enjoyed our cruising experience overall. So much so that we have decided to take another cruise at the end of this year. If you have done some cruising, please feel free to leave some tips and recommendations in the comment section below. I would greatly appreciate it. Until next time…

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

20 Years of Travel #12: St. Petersburg

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues with our 2014 trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. While I have no interest to return to Russia any time soon, I thoroughly enjoyed St. Petersburg and would not pass up an opportunity to visit again. If you have just a short time in St. Petersburg, here are some of the highlights:

Summer Palace – Peterhof Palace

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Peter and Paul Fortress

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Winter Palace – The Hermitage Museum

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The Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood

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Museums dedicated to Russian writers

  • Anna Akhamatova Literary and Memorial Museum
  • Nabokov House
  • Dostoevsky Museum
  • National Pushkin Museum

The Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

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If you want to find out more about our adventures in Saint Petersburg, Russia, please see St. Petersburg, Russia – August 2014.

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

 

 

20 Years of Travel #1: German Class Trip

Per my last post, I am celebrating 20 years of travel by writing about my top 20 travel destinations over the last 20 years. It seems fitting that I would start with my first oversees travel experience.

In July of 1998, I got to go on a trip to Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy with my high school German class. While that was 20 years ago, I’m going to list the places and events from this trip that I remember most. Enjoy a look at these places through the eyes of a sixteen year old (including pictures taken with disposable cameras):

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Cities visited in order of the Itinerary (see picture above):

  1. Frankfurt, Germany
    • To overcome jet lag, our teacher/tour leader signed us up for a Rhine River boat tour with a wine tasting. That may have been my first taste of wine. Lesson learned: drinking wine might not be the best way to overcome jet lag.
  2. Rothenberg, Germany
    • What I always pictured a European town to look like.
    • Largest Christmas store I’ve ever seen.
  3. Munich, Germany20180604_214421
    • Seeing a 1998 World Cup Soccer game on a big screen in the main square
    • We stumbled across a large crowd of people outside Planet Hollywood. I sat on my friend’s shoulders for 45 minutes. We had know idea what was going on. Eventually, we realized that this crowd was waiting for Arnold Schwarzenegger. He threw me a t-shirt that I actually still have.
    • My teacher bought us giant mugs of beer at the Hofbrauhaus.
    • The Glöckenspiel. – Munich was one of my favorite places, and I would finally revisit it 18 years later.
  4. Berchtesgaden, Germany
    • Saw my first mountains as we headed in to the Alps.
    • We all had a snowball fight in July.
  5. Salzburg, Austria
    • Obviously the birth place of Mozart, but I’ve always been a huge fan of the Sound of Music. We took a Sound of Music walking tour, which I thought was perfect as I was “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”.
  6. Lake Maggiore, Italy
    • The lake district of Northern Italy is just gorgeous. We stopped on Isola Bella and toured the stunning Palazzo Borromee.
  7. Innsbruck, Austria
    • I was unimpressed with Innsbruck. It was a brief stop anyway.
  8. St. Moritz, Switzerland
    • My first of many European train rides. The train from St. Moritz to Tirano, Italy has the best views (see picture above).
  9. Lugano, Switzerland20180604_212955
    • With some allotted free time, a few friends and I rented a speed boat on Lake Lugano. See pic on the right of me driving the boat. My friends and I also got into a lot of trouble for this, because we missed our curfew, and apparently everyone was looking everywhere for us. However, I have no regrets. It was amazing…just sitting in the boat with the wind blowing your hair and looking at the mountains coming out of lake. It was the most memorable moment of the trip for me.
    • While Lugano holds a special place in my heart for the enjoyable boating experience, I have not returned, which may have something to do with the cockroach infested accommodations we stayed at while we were there. Insects everywhere…in the shower, in the beds….
  10. Zermatt, Switzerland
    • It is pretty remarkable that my first experience with mountains also included viewing the Matterhorn (see picture at the top of the page). We took a train to a higher elevation to view it. Then some of us walked back down to the town of Zermatt, which was just a beautiful little Swiss town. I loved it there.
  11. Gruyere, Switzerland
    • CHEESE!!!!
  12. Lucerne, Switzerland
    • Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) – I remembered seeing this bridge in picture albums my Grandmother had, and it was really amazing to be able to see it in person.
  13. Heidelberg, Germany
    • I vaguely remember a boat ride, but I think I was so exhausted by the end of this tour that I have little recollection of doing anything in Heidelberg.

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Since this trip almost 20 years ago, I’ve been back to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland many times and lived in Italy for a few years, so this area of the world has always meant so much to mean. While this trip was not the beginning of my love of world travel, it was the beginning of making world travel a reality and a way of life for me.

I hope you enjoyed this walk down memory lane with me. Next post on the 20 Years of Travel series will be a location a bit closer to home.

Why I Travel

sunset

For years I have been asked in many different ways by many different people the following question: “Why do you Travel so much?” This question always takes me down memory lane a bit, and there is by no means a quick answer.

I would not say that I was born to travel, but instead learned to love traveling. My family took some vacations in the United States when I was growing up, but we did not travel much. I think we were all too busy with work, school, activities, friends, etc. My grandmother and grandfather were the only ones in my family that traveled outside of the United States, that I was aware of. I would spend many hours with my grandmother’s photo albums looking at all her adventures including pictures of my grandfather with a snake wrapped around him in Morocco, my grandmother riding a camel in the Sahara, tulips in bloom in Holland, the sandy beaches of the Cayman Islands, the white Cliffs of Moher and Passion week in Oberammergau. I always thought I would love to see those places and have those experiences.

It wasn’t until I was sixteen years old that I got my first opportunity to travel abroad. With my parents’ support and some money from my after-school job, I traveled with my high school German class to Europe. While that was quite a while ago now, I will never forget my first wine tasting on the Rhine River, the snowball fight in the Alps in July, the dancing with giant mugs of beer at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, singing “I am Sixteen going on Seventeen” at the Von Trapp house in Salzburg, and renting a speedboat on Lake Lugano (which we did without our chaperones’ knowledge, but it was so worth the punishment we endured afterwards).

While that was a memorable trip, and I was very fortunate to have that experience, my true passion for traveling began in college. My junior year, I spent spring break in London with my college’s theater group. I was not part of the theater group, but I had friends who invited me. I got my first acting course on the stage of the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, saw the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, visited one of the most famous addresses in the world (221b Baker Street), saw countless broadway and off broadway shows, and salsa danced with a DJ at a local club. From that moment on I knew that I would never turn down the opportunity to explore more of the world, and I signed up for a study abroad semester the next year.

My semester abroad took me to Belgrade, Serbia, which was at that time still recovering from the Balkan War of the 90s. This was a very different travel experience than what I had been accustomed to before, and it changed my life forever. Traveling was no longer just about visiting museums and other sights, but it was about the people and the different cultures. That was when traveling and exploring the world went from being a fun hobby to being part of who I am. I developed a new found respect for the world and the people of the world.

I signed up for another study abroad course in graduate school that led to more international travel. Then, in 2007, I met the person who would become my husband and permanent travel companion. We have together traveled through 4 continents and visited more than 25 countries.

So over the course of the last two decades, I have developed a passion for travel. I love the adventure, exploring the world, educating myself, and most importantly learning about myself. Through each travel experience I have discovered what kind of person I am, what my interests are, and how to overcome my own personal barriers. I hope that I never stop learning and growing – and that is why I travel.

St. Petersburg, Russia – August 2014

Overview

While visiting friends in Moscow, we all decided to take a weekend trip to St. Petersburg. I am so glad that we made this trip, because St. Petersburg turned out to be one of my favorite cities in the world to this day. One long weekend is not long enough to see all the wonderful things that St. Petersburg has to offer. You could spend one full day just at the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum, and that is where I will begin my description of some of the sights I experienced in St. Petersburg.

The Winter Palace – The Hermitage Museum

Winter Palace

The Winter Palace is a massive, ornate building, located on Palace Square. While we were there, there was a unique display of Russian armament in the square in front of the Winter Palace. This included tanks and anti-aircraft missiles. Not something you see everyday in other parts of the world. I felt a bit uneasy about this display, but mostly I was uncomfortable seeing kids climbing on the tanks and missiles.

Beyond this display though is an amazing palace. You must walk through the many rooms within the palace. Formally, the home of such leaders as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, the palace includes rooms of such grandeur. It is simply breathtaking. The grand staircases and elegant chandeliers continue in the Hermitage Museum.

I’ve been to a lot of museums and art galleries in my life, and each one is unique and special. However, I absolutely adore the Hermitage Museum, and as unpopular as I amDaVinci going to be for saying this, I loved it more than the Louvre in Paris. You could spend a full day wandering the halls of ancient relics, sculptures, and paintings. I was amazed at the large collection of paintings by the most famous painters in the world, including Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Gaugin, and so many others. At one point, I turned the corner into a room that was void of people but filled with numerous Picasso paintings. I was simply in heaven. It was just me and Picasso’s art. I also really enjoyed viewing DaVinci’s Madonna Litta. To make myself even more unpopular, I will also say that I think this DaVinci painting is better and more stunning than the Mona Lisa.

Peterhof Palace

Peterhof

I realize that after a full day of wandering through the Winter Palace, you may not want to visit another palace, but Peterhof Palace is worth it. Peterhof Palace is located on the Gulf of Finland. To get there, you can take the Peterhof Express (hydrofoil) from the mainland. Try to pick a nice day to visit Peterhof, so you can enjoy a nice cruise to the palace. Plus, the palace is surrounded by a park and gardens that you will want to walk around. While taking a stroll, we stumbled upon an area that gave some information on the Peterhof Palace during WWII. The palace was severely damaged, and at one point during the war, it was used by the Nazis. We found a nice restaurant with outdoor seating for lunch before continuing on to get a better view of the palace.

Samson FountainPeterhof Palace was modeled after Versailles in France. Many years ago I visited one of King Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria, Germany called Linderhof. Linderhof looks very similar to Peterhof, so I guess many leaders tried to create their own Versailles. Like the others, at Peterhof Palace you will find an ornate fountain with a gold statue. Here it is called the Samson Fountain and is my favorite feature of this palace’s decorations. Just like the Winter Palace, you could spend a full day wandering around the inside and outside of Peterhof Palace.

The World of Russian Literature

As a huge fan of literature, I adore Russian authors. It would be hard to be in St. Petersburg and not dive into the lives of such notable authors, including Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment), Pushkin (Eugene Onegin), Gogol (Dead SouPushkinls), and Nabokov (Lolita). Many people visit Dostoevsky’s house and museum. I did not get a chance to do this, but I am sure I would have loved it had I had time. Before this trip, I knew very little about Alexander Pushkin. On this visit, I quickly became a Pushkin fan. I purchased one of his stories at the Dom Knigi bookstore and in the evening had a drink at the Literary Cafe. This is the location where it is believe that Pushkin had his last moments before meeting his death in a duel.

The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

Church-Day

The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood is another famous site in St. Petersburg. This ornate and colorful church is located on the Griboedov Canal. I highly recommend going inside and taking a look around. Not one surface appears to be free of religious artwork. It is very impressive and also has an interesting history.

The Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Leningrad

During WWII, Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg) was attacked by the Nazis. The people of Leningrad defended themselves heroically and eventually were victorious at the cost of many casualties. If this historical event interests you at all, do not miss a visit to the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, accessible by metro train. This monument also includes an exhibit that walks you through each stage of the devastating siege that lasted years before the people prevailed and defeated the Nazis. The exhibit is very informative and heart-wrenching.

Victory

It is hard to believe that we discovered all these beautiful gems in St Petersburg in one weekend. It is an amazing and beautiful city.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY (August 2014)

Hagia SophiaI got to meet up with family in Istanbul, Turkey. We only had a few days, but it was enough to get a taste of how unique Istanbul is. It is the one place on earth where I have been able to see religion, land, and culture converge and grow.

  1. Religion: Of all the places I have visited, I have never been in a place that values religion as much as Istanbul, where in one block you will find a temple, church and mosque. The first place we visited in Istanbul was the Topkapi Palace. This palace has an extensive history, lush courtyards, elegant rooms and large jewels. What I thought was most interesting was its collection of religious relics, such as Moses’ staff and a piece of the Prophet’s beard. The Blue Mosque, pictured on the right, is still an activeDSC_3606a place of worship. It is such a large space for prayers and reflection. To be honest though, while the ceilings were beautiful, I did not really feel as spiritually moved in the Blue Mosque as I did in Hagia Sophia. Hagia Sophia, pictured below, is no longer an active place of worship but a museum that represents a dramatic history where it was used as a place of worship for Christians, Catholics, and Muslims. I hope that it remains a museum.DSC_3537
  2. Land: Besides experiencing the convergence of religions and empires in Istanbul, DSC_3604this is also where two continents meet. From the Bosphorus River, that runs through Istanbul, you can see Europe and Asia. Istanbul is split between the two continents. While on an enjoyable cruise on the Bosphorus, I got to see the Asian side of Istanbul but unfortunately never stepped foot on that part of town. I will just have to do that next time. For a little additional taste of history, explore an underground cistern. The one that we got to see, pictured on the left, has been converted into a mini museum.
  3. Food: Food in Istanbul is more than a necessity, it is an experience. On our first night in town, we ordered a meat dish that was prepared in a pot. When the dish was ready, the waiter brought the pot to the table, broke of the top of the pot in a dramatic fashion and then served us our meal. Seafood is plentiful. I saw a filet served that had a layer of salt on it. The waiter set the filet on fire and then chiseled the salt layer off. My favorite part of dishes in Istanbul is the flavor. I am not one for souvenir shopping, but I will purchase Turkish spices. Even if spices and other items are more expensive at the open markets, you should check out the Grand Bazaar anyway. (Just a side note: After ingesting my share of expresso and cappuccini in Italy, I was excited about having some Turkish coffee. However, unlike coffee in Italy, you will want to leave a little of the Turkish coffee in the bottom of the cup. If you don’t, you will be swallowing a lot of bitter tasting grounds. Unfortunately, I was not forewarned about this.)

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