Caltagirone

We stayed in this picturesque,  hilltop city for a few days while we explored the west side of Sicily.  The town is known for a few things.  For many centuries it has produced quality ceramic tiles, masks, sculptures and vases.  The town center displays them with masks on the walls next to a long staircase with each stair featuring a different style tile pattern. It is also known for the high concentration of Roman Catholic churches, there are over 100 of them in this quaint town. Most of them are used once or twice a year on big holidays or the church patron’s day.

We stayed in a little apartment on the one side of town.  It was decorated in an older style of Italian furnishings.  We used this as a place to sleep while we did day trips to Syracuse to the south, Agrigento to the north and to an ancient Roman villa of Casale.

We enjoyed many home cooked Italian meals.  They were simple yet very enjoyable.  I must have gained 10 lbs in the week were there.  All the women loved the girl and always wanted to hold her, feed her and show her things.   We spent many of walks just visiting with the locals.

In this little town our friend’s parents live.  We visited their country house and it was beautiful.  We played soccer on the field, swam in the pool and wandered around the grounds admiring the orchirds, chickens and ducks.  The dog was happy to have us around and followed us everywhere trying to get us to play with him.

Taormina, A Legendary Town

Taormina has been in existence for over 2500 years. It sits high up on the hills above the salty Iaoian Sea with a ancient Saracen Citadel above it.   The citadel is not in good condition but The Greek Theatre is.  It was started by the Greeks and expanded by the Romans over the next 5 centuries.  It’s incredible location overlooking the ancient port of Nexos makes a beautiful stage backdrop.

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Our journey into Taormina took us past Mount Etna, a 10,000′ + active volcano’s with lava flows we can see from the road.  We drove 1/2 hour through a couple long tunnels to get to the beach house.   We stayed in a beautiful 4 story beach house overlooking one of the prettiest bays in the area.  The water was definitely salty but very warm.  It was a great place to swim and the girl loved to play in it.  The beaches were not sandy like we are used to but a rocky beach which was a nice change. We wandered up into the city and enjoyed the walk through town.  The view from there was spectacular.   There we saw one of the narrowest streets in Italy. You shoulders brushes the walls as you walk.   We spent many hours sitting on the porch, enjoying the view. While in Toarmina for those few short days we visited a few restaurants and bars.  The one restaurant just down the street was wonderful.  We had a great time and the food was excellent.  We also checked out a bar in a little village about Taormina.  It was a 4 story bar with an amazing view of the lava flows and Catania.  The bar was nice and has occupied the place for over 150 years.  The decor of the place caught me a bit off guard and we thought it was funny. After visiting that place we decided to take a drive up the mountain.  It was very dark and cold, so we didn’t even feel like getting out of the car.  We couldn’t see anything and we didn’t have a light to help guide us up to the lookout.  We headed back down the mountain and home to relax in the warmth by the sea.

Fiery and Fabulous Florence

Florence, or as the Italians call it “Firenze”, was like something out of a vivid dream where you were taken into the past, yet it still exists today with it’s epic churches, ornate palaces, an ancient fortress and striking, historic homes that blend one or more of these elements, oftentimes adding a modern twist. The days were unseasonably hot for October and because of that the evenings were just barely comfortable. Staying near the train station made for easy access to everything and all of the amenities but the humidity forced us to take shelter between noon and 6 p.m. The early evenings cooled down the air just enough to allow us to begin our explorations of the city center and try the local cuisine.

Everything is picturesque and it’s not too difficult to imagine what things must have been like centuries ago in this bustling, artistic city centre.  We began our trek through Florence, as soon as the temperature would abide, by wandering up and around to the other side of the river to a local eatery for an ultra-creamy gelato, (the kind only Italy is best known for), and a crisp, tasty proscuitto panini, consumed in just that order.  After a quick cappuccino on ice, we followed the river up to the next bridge and in towards the Duomo.

The Duomo itself causes you to just stop and take a deep breath while absorbing the complexity of it all.  The tile work is intricate and mesmerizing.  Inside you’ll find perhaps the most beautiful tile work seen anywhere in Europe, maybe the most beautiful on Earth.  Nearly in shock, we wandered inside and around the plaza looking for treasures in the surrounding marketplace and little shops.  Finally, hunger once again got the best of us and we began to look for places to have dinner.  The aromas wafting out of the pizzerias was irresistible and we unconsciously set our minds to having one.  It did not disappoint.  Some friends had warned us that there wasn’t any good food in Italy.  We were a bit worried because we are picky eaters but we let our noses do the choosing in Florence and didn’t have a bit of trouble, especially when we went a little out of the way and off the beaten track.

Also, we still can’t figure out why people don’t like traveling with children.  All throughout Europe, but especially in Italy and France, the owners, waiters, waitresses and other patrons made an extra effort to interact with us and it made what might have been just another trip to Europe a magical experience for us all. Our little one year old was always happy and kept herself busy entertaining the owners and staff, and vice versa, so we used that time to relax and enjoy our first of many flavorful pizzas in Italy.

The Italian people are so loving towards children that we sometimes couldn’t hardly get a block down the street without someone wanting to hug or kiss our little girl.  It really took some getting used to, but we’re learning to trust.  Certainly perfect strangers wanting to pick up, hold, and take your child around the restaurant, bar or hotel isn’t commonplace in the US or Canada, but it is here and when in Rome… or rather, Florence, do as the Florencians do!  It also afforded us both a moment to eat… together!  We always kept a watchful eye on her, of course, but somehow it made us feel a renewed sense of caring in people, which, these days is refreshing to say the least.

The next day began with a quick grocery trip and transitioned into seeking refuge in artsy studio apartment we rented for the remainder of the hellacious heat of the day, until the evening’s reprieve.  On our way to dinner we did a bit of last minute clothes shopping, and found prices in line or just slightly above those found in US, depending on what you were looking for, and then embarked on our twilight trek towards the Fort.  It’s tall tower is a Florence landmark and can be seen throughout the city.  Underneath it sits the famous, stunning statues of Neptune and David.

Being so lifelike, had they begun to move one would have just thought it was another talented street performer who somehow made themselves a bit larger than life. Someone had mentioned that they are replicas, due to their popularity there is a fear of vandalism, but certainly some of the other statues in the area are the genuine articles.

The Neptune and David statues are in a busy, open courtyard where people gather in large numbers to listen to the nightly entertainment, which, of all things, is comprised mostly of American music! We began to wonder when the rumored impromptu opera was going to begin, but, alas it did not. Perhaps the heat kept the tenors away?  However, there was a high end karaoke machine, accompanied at times by live musicians, which allowed for an extensive repertoire of the Beatles, and a plethora of American bands, to be performed.  They won out the night and the crowd.  There are certainly other types of art and music events held at this plaza on a regular basis, but the evenings we were there it was rock and roll all the way with talented vocalists from all over the globe.

On the edge of the plaza is an Italian restaurant, frequented by locals and expats which is always a good sign when choosing a place to chow, where we had a wonderful spaghetti pasta with meat sauce that was identical to Mom’s recipe!  There was no difference what so ever.   Everyone always enjoyed Mom’s pasta sauce.  She makes it for us, OK, me… religiously when we go back to Canada to visit.

Our last full day in Florence consisted of wandering about checking out the statues in the daylight, heading across the river on the ancient, two level bridge for another wonderful meal while listening to string instruments being played in the street.  It was a hot, beautiful time in Florence.  We will definitely hit the museums next time and plan to get reservations months, if not years, earlier as we missed seeing the original David and some others… but we had to have a reason to come back, and what a great reason it is!

The Duomo, originally designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, is an amazing work of art inside and out. The inside of the dome is a beautiful mosaic with 44 wonderful stain glass windows.

The Duomo is one of the centerpieces of Florence. Below the Duomo is the evolved remains of many versions of former churches.

The Duomo in Florence, Italy is a beautiful structure made from Green and Pink marble panels bordered by white. The building was started at the end of the 12th century and continued for many years. The dome is a landmark and is recognized throughout the world as a symbol of Florence.

The Arno River that cuts through the center of Florence is beautiful and was the source of water for the city. This day we are seeing pickup soccer happening on a pitch right at the water’s edge. The two story bridge with the shops underneath is known the world over and is located just downstream.

We checked out of our place on Tuesday morning and took another high speed train down to Rome.  Our flight left that evening for Sicily.  We wanted very much to check out some of the sites but the distances were too great in that hot weather.  We instead decided on having a beer and gelato then doing some more treasure hunting.

We hopped onto another train to take us the 30 min drive into the airport.  We made the trip in plenty of time to wander around the airport a bit.  We particularly thought the wine bar was a good idea for all airports.

Our plane took off without a hitch and we were in Catania in just over an hour.

Agrigento – Greek Temple in The Valley of Temples

One Sunday afternoon from our base in Caltagirone we set out to Agrigento and it’s famed Valley of the Temples.  The weather was hot but it was overcast which was nice.  We strolled around this hilltop in a valley that was covered with ancient Greek temples and other ruins.

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We wandered through them marveling at how well they were preserved. It is said that the Tempio Della Concordia is one of the best preserved Greek temple in the world.   In total there are over 20 ruins that run the length of the hill.  We explored and touched the stones and pillars of Tempo Di Ercole.  The dimensions were impressive and with a prominent spot on the ridge had a beautiful view towards the sea.

These temples had a spectacular setting.  Aligned East West on a cliff looking out to sea.  Over the years they have been converted to Mosques and Churches depending on who was in power.  Some were toppled by earthquakes over the centuries and the stone was used in new buildings.

They now are closely protected, like other ruins in Italy, structural  enhancements have been made to reduce further degradation and collapse.

We left after the moon started to rise.  They were getting ready to close the park to prepare it for a wedding and ballet concert.  People were in for a magical night.  We just had a great experience connecting with the ancient world.  We had visited Greece and didn’t have to leave Sicily.

In the valley of the Temples near the sea is where the Greeks built many temples over 2500 years ago. Near this ruined one is the best preserved temple of all.

The Louvre Museum

The Louvre Museum Map

The Louvre Museum is located in central Paris in an old palace that holds Napoleon’s Luxurious apartment. The museum is so huge that it is divided up in several ways. It is spread across four or five floors depending on how you look at it, The Pyramid Hall, Lower Ground, Ground, 1st and 2nd Floors. Those floors are then divided up into sections called, Richelieu, Sully and Denon. The museum collection includes Oriental, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, Paintings, Sculptures, Prints, Drawings, Objects d’art and Arts of Islam.

The Louvre Museum Map
The Louvre Museum Map

Denon

This section holds:

  • Italian and Spanish Paintings
  • 19th-Century French Paintings
  • Apollo Gallery, Crown Jewels
  • Italian, Spanish and Northern European Sculptures
  • Geek Etruscan and Roman Antiquities
  • Roman Egypt, Coptic Egypt
  • Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas

Richelieu

This section holds:

  • 14th – 17th-century French Paintings
  • German, Flemish and Dutch Paintings
  • Northern Schools
  • Medieval, Renaissance, 17th and 19th-century Decorative Arts
  • Napoleon III Apartments
  • French Sculptures
  • Mesopotamia, Antique Iran Islamic Art

Sully

This section holds:

  • 17th, 18th, 19th-century French Paintings
  • 17th, 18th, 19th-century Drawings and Pastels
  • 17th, 18th-century Decorative Arts
  • Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities
  • Phoraonic Egypt,
  • Ancient Iran, Arabia, Levant
  • History of Louvre, Medieval Louvre

The Collections

Oriental Antiquities

This department presents the civilizations of the Ancient Near-East, Which go back to 7000BC and succeeded one another in Mesopotamia, Iran and the countries of the Levant, an immense territory stretching from the Mediterranean to India

Egyptian Antiquities

Created by Jean Francois Champollion, this department illustrates the art of Ancient Egypt from two different view-points; a chronological circuit, from the earliest times to Cleopatra, and a thematic circuit illustrating certain aspects of Egyptian civilization. Two sections devoted to the Coptic Egypt and Roman Egypt complete the display.

Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities

This department includes works from three ancient civilizations: Greece, Etruria and Rome. On the ground floor, a chronological circuit, based on marble statuary, contains works starting from the third millennium BC up to the 6th century AD. The collection on the first floor is organized according to the techniques and materials used: bronzes and jewelery, silverware, glassware, figurines and terracotta vases.

Sculptures

European Sculpture, from the Late Middle Ages to the mid-19th century, is to be found in this department. The collections, which mainly include French works, also contain many significant pieces from Italy, Spain and Northern Europe.

Objects d’art

The collections in this department come from every era: items from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, decorative arts from the 17th and 18th centuries, the Crown Jewels, 19th century items and furniture, Napoleon III apartments, etc.

Arts of Islam

Works of various Mediterranean countries, from Iran, Central Asia and India, which formed the lands of Islam are exhibited in this department. Some of the works are from the royal French collections. Most of these are ceramics, metals, ivories, woods, carpets and paintings dating from the 7th to the 19th centuries.

Prints and Drawings

Access to the Graphic Arts Department, consisting of the Drawing Cabinet (more then 100,000 works), the Edmond de Rothschild Collection and an engraved copper plate collection, is by prior arrangement only. The very fine but extremely fragile works are on display in regular temporary exhibitions and on a rota basis in the museum’s main exhibition rooms.

Learn more about the Louvre Museum in Paris by visiting their website.

Museum Details

Reservations must be made in advanced for groups of 7 or more. The museum is open every day except Tuesday and certain public holidays. The main exhibitions are open from 9am to 6pm. On Wednesday and Fridays the museum is open till 10pm.

The price per person is 9 euros and entrance after 6pm is 6 euros. Free admission for everyone under 18. Free admission for those under 26 on Friday evenings only. On the first Sunday of every month the museum is free of charge to everyone.

The museum has an 420 seat auditorium that features Archeology, art history, literature, cinema, and music: symposiums, lectures, films, concerts and performances for young people.

Food and drink available at the museum is located under the pyramid. There is a gourmet restaurant, Le Grand Louvre, a few cafes & tearooms, and a cafeteria.

General Information Call : 01 40 20 53 17

Cardona – Medieval Castle

The Castle Walls & Towers

Cardona Castle’s history and mystique certainly make it the most amazing medieval fortress in Catalonia.

Sometimes the most romantic, exciting thing you can do is to plan as little as possible while on vacation. We decided, on this tour, until we got a feel for the region or city we were in, we would fly by the seat of our pants as much as possible. A good example of our “going with the flow” would be our stay at Cardona Castle. We saw another castle on the scenic drive to Andorra from Barcelona. It was sitting there in the mist on the side of the road, beckoning us to take that exit. Fortunately, or not, we drove past it, but we knew from that moment that a castle was certainly on our list of things to experience while in the Europe.

Stories

So, upon our return from Andorra we found ourselves making last minute reservations at www.parador.es which has an English version, and got quite the deal for under 30’s that night as well. Now Naia isn’t under 30 anymore… but Dan was still 29, until the end of November and needless to say, we took them up on their offer. So, it was not only one of the most hearty, history-rich fortresses around, it was affordable as well, and with the exchange rate, it was certainly a welcome gift from the powers that be. Winding up the long drive to the top allows you to see 10 miles around or more and, as expected, the sunset was spectacular. The building itself dates from the second century and it was strategically built next to a watch-tower over the Saline Valley. It belonged to the most powerful dynasty ruling between the tenth and seventeenth centuries. The Folch dynasty, heirs of Charlemagne, built this fortress, within the area that was known as “Marca Hispanica” (Border between the Spanish territories and the Muslim ones.) The Folch family ruled all the region and they owned at one point a total of twenty ports. Not too shabby for the good ol’ days, or now!

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The fortified, 9th Century fortress, within which the Parador (hotel) is located, conceals a 2nd Century tower and an 11th Century church. Inside the solid stone walls are comfortable, nicely decorated bedrooms, some with four-poster beds. The sparkling clean, marbled bathrooms are spacious, modern and well equipped for the tired traveler. Donned with an ample sized bath/shower as well as hair dryer and other amenities, like quality, yes actual quality shampoo/conditioner/lotion samplers we would actually use, the proprietors pulled out all of the stops. And why not? Frankly, we feel that doing something for the sheer enjoyment and use of the guest is the mark of a sharp hotel owner. The fact that they’re not wasting money on something you won’t use, because it’s not high enough quality, is smart. Also, it proves that they aren’t just for show either. The furniture in the drawing room was inspired from medieval times and helps to set the tone of the hotel. Throughout Cardona the antique furniture and rich decor works quite well with the castle itself. The reception is a beautiful space where there is internet access and cozy couches to regain your strength from a hard day of exploring the area.

When the sun went down, our stomachs woke up and hunger set into full gear, motivating us to take a quick shower to wash off the dust of the day’s explorations before we sought out our dinner. Someone was using the elevator, so we took the steps and couldn’t resist letting our minds wander once again to imagine what it must have been like to live back then… to hear the footsteps of soldiers in the stairwell… the sounds of children playing… Suddenly, we snapped out of our fantasyland when we heard the clinking of silverware and waiters popping corks, instantly causing us to be transported to the present. Upon arriving to the enormous dining area it is easy to imagine a grand ball taking place in the festively decorated dining room. We sat in the back corner and had the pleasure of simply feeling the room full of happy people eating the lovely fare and making merry. The holiday season was upon us and many people there were taking a long weekend break just before the Christmas rush set in at home. The Catalan cuisine is heavily influenced by an assortment of fresh forest mushrooms and a wide variety of homemade sausages and olives, all found locally. The dishes were deliciously prepared and gratefully enjoyed. The “butifarra con mongetes”, (sausage with beans), was lovely, as was the rest of the meal. The service was good and the staff was very friendly and it was quite apparent they were genuinely happy to be there, another trademark of excellent management and care taking of employees. Most staff we encountered at Cardona spoke English at least well enough to have short conversations and give directions and recommendations, which is always a plus as well.

Feeling happily, perfectly satiated, we retired for the evening as Asha was falling asleep in Dan’s arms and it was certainly time for us to examine the insides of our eyelids as well. The mattress and pillows were refreshingly comfortable and morning came too quickly. We were up early and went to the buffet breakfast, which offered a plentiful array of fresh juices, breads, fruits, yogurts, deli meats, sausages, eggs, muffins, croissants, jams, jellies, and more. It was tasty and we ate heartily before we embarked on a “special mission” to get pictures from all over the castle.

Dan’s second, OK… his third big love is History. He got “that look” when he found out that Cardona’s role in the War of Spanish Succession was amongst the most important to be played by any Catalan town. We spent about an hour or so going all over the castle taking pictures from the inside and outside. Out of windows, doors, off the top of balconies, snapping from all directions, trying to capture the feeling of the castle in shade and light. Showcasing her beautiful, if slightly rugged, charisma and class. The strategic and military importance of its fortifications enabled a resistance to be mounted in advance of Bourbon forces on several occasions during the conflict. The scene of this resistance was the town of Cardona itself and the castle.

Yes, before Naia could set up the first shot, Dan was heading up, up, up the stairs to the top of the tower with Asha, a giggling, one year old little explorer, on a quest to figure out which way the intruders must have approached. He continued on, musing about what it must have looked like and how the residents would have taken refuge in the castle and fought alongside the soldiers to defend it. He went on to tell us of three challenges that stood out as being particularly important amongst the events that took place here during the War, such was their magnitude: The siege in November and December 1711, the battles in August and October 1713 and the final capitulation of the castle, on September 18th 1714, a week later than that of Barcelona, when the rest of the country was already under the control of the Bourbon army. Looking out from the castle and it’s archer’s positions, you can just imagine, it must have been an amazing, harrowing time. We were seeing in our minds’ eyes showers of arrows zipping by us, hoping we wouldn’t be the unfortunate targets whose marks were hit.

The story of these three episodes goes something like this… Following the orders issued in Calaf by the French Duke of Vendome, Lt. General the Count of Muret went to Cordona with 25,000 troops. He took the town on November 17th, 1711, but not the castle, which was bombarded with cannon fire for thirty-four days. Imagine being shelled for thirty-four days and you will understand why we were taking all of the pictures. It is a fortress, indeed. During one of the fiercest engagements over the control of the castle, which took place at La Querosa and Els Escorials, Colonel Pere Muntaner-Damon i de Sacosta, who was in command of the castle’s troops, lost his life. Miraculously, despite this potential wrench in their plans, the troops held on for more than a month, until December 18th when the siege was finally lifted, thanks to the arrival of a large allied force commanded by Marshall Guido von Starhemberg and English General James Stanhope.

In August and October 1713, coinciding with the siege of Barcelona (1713 – 1714), Catalan troops under Manuel Desvalls, Military Governor of the castle, resisted two new offenses by the Bourbon forces under the Count of Montemar. Finally, on September 18th 1714, Manuel Desvalls i de Vergos was obliged to surrender the fortress, under the same conditions as those agreed for the capitulation of Barcelona on September 11th 1714.

We would like to return to Cardona Castle in the future to experience some of their seasonal offerings and to hear more of the stories of the many battles and those heroes and heroines of history we so often take for granted. Until next time, via con Dios Cardona!

{tab=Hotel / Accomodation}

Some of the hotel rooms have charming canopy beds. Pits, towers, walls and gothic features come together with a predominantly comfortable décor and Catalan-inspired mediaeval furnishings. Book Now!

  • Address: Castell de Cardona, s/n
  • Town/City: 08261 Cardona, Barcelona
  • Telephone: 00 34 938691275
  • Fax: 00 34 938691636
  • E-mail: [email protected]
  • Constuction style: Castle
  • Credit cards: American Express, Diners, JCB, Visa, MasterCard
  • Director: Jaime Sebastián Sánchez
  • Chef: Manuel Cubilla Moga

GENERAL SERVICES

  • Air Conditioning
  • Bar
  • Bureau de Change
  • Conference Suite
  • Credit Cards
  • Distance to Airport: 100 km.
  • Distance to Port: 100 km.
  • Distance to Train Station: 32 km.
  • Heating
  • Life
  • No animals allowed
  • Restaurant
  • Satellite Dish
  • Shop
  • BEDROOMS
    • Canal plus
    • Double Rooms (double beds): 5
    • Duplex: 2
    • Minibar
    • Places: 106
    • Rooms with Lounge Area: 3
    • Safety Deposit Box
    • Single Rooms: 2
    • Telephone in bedrooms
    • Television
    • Twin Rooms: 42
  • REST AND RELAXATION
    • Gym
    • Sauna

Dining & Food

Catalan cuisine is served in the dining room including aubergine terrine with pig’s trotters, selections of sausages and especially barbecue dishes with the braised lamb shoulder a highlight.

Eat like a true king at the Parador’s medieval dining room: Aubergine terrine with pig’s trotters, selections of sausages and specially barbecue dishes with local braised lamb shoulder a highlight Patatas enmascaradas (potatoes served with butifarra sausage and garlic) are a speciality. Hungry?

Activities

  • Solsonés Route (15 to 40 km.)
    • Romanesque architecture.
    • Museums.
    • Cardener fountain.
  • Cardona town.
    • Salt Mountain.
    • Cardonal Mediaeval Centre.
    • Salt Museum.
    • Romanesque architecture.
  • Montserrat (45 km.)
    • Montserrat Monastery.
    • Museum.
  • Parador.
    • Romanesque church from the 13th century.
    • Cloister.
    • 2nd century Minyona Tower.
    • Walls.
  • Bages Route (15 a 45 km.)
    • Romanesque architecture.
    • Museums.
    • Planetarium
  • Berguedá Route (30 a 60 km.)
    • Pyrenees.
    • Romanesque architecture.
    • Museums.
    • Llobregat fountains.

Local Festivals

  • Carnival: February, Solsona, 22 km.
  • Cardona annual festival: second Saturday in September, Cardona.
  • La Patum: Corpus, Berga, 31 km.

Europe, A Quick Introduction

Travel Through Europe

Travel Through Europe

Our travels to Europe started in late August 2008. It would be my husband’s first adventure on another continent. The trip we dreamed up would allow us to experience a good overview of the western side of the continent, visit the major western cities like Amsterdam, Paris, Florence, Rome, Barcelona and Madrid in style, but without having to sell our first born to do it. Since we had our cute little eight month old baby along for the trip, this was imperative! I had already been to England, Ireland, Denmark, Germany, Northern Italy and the South of France. We wanted to make sure we didn’t repeat any spot I’d stayed in already so that the trip would be equally exciting for both of us. We had an incredibly tight schedule. We had to be back in the U.S. to go to North Carolina to meet at our friend, Bud’s beach house in Nags Head. My family would be meeting us there in a mere 6 weeks. Looking back now, our journey to the EU was simply incredible and we definitely are planning on going back, maybe even living there.

Below are the countries and the places we visited during our trip of a lifetime in Europe. The countries and the cities listed are in order of visitation. We visited 8 countries and 9 major cities if you include the Vatican and Vatican City as ones. We spent at most only 6 days in one location which made the trip seem to go by pretty fast.

Netherlands

We started our tour of Holland by staying in an apartment in Amsterdam, on the canals, for a few days to shake off the jet lag, which is a formidable opponent, then moved onto Kampen and the province of Overijessel. Our reasons for visiting this area were numerous but the main reasons were friends who lived there and the fact that Dan’s father lived there until he moved to Canada at age 7, right after WWII. We then traveled down to the south of the Netherlands to Maastricht to check out one of the oldest cities in Holland. We made Maastricht our base for day trips to Cologne and Brussels.

Germany

Cologne was our only stop in Germany and it was for just one day. Our goal here was to visit the cathedral, eat some good German sausages and sample the beer. We had a great day and it was a packed one with lots of adventure.

Belgium

We spent only an afternoon in Brussels but it gave us time to taste some Belgian beer and waffles. We spent a good bit of time wandering around the city in search of the peeing boy, (Yes, that’s right., a peeing boy is a major tourist attraction, go figure!), the Palace and Central Square.

France

Sadly, our only stop in France was Paris. I must say how much Paris had changed in ten years. I had only had a layover in Paris on my way to the Cannes Film Festival the last time I was in France. I was lied to by someone who worked for the airline I was taking and thank goodness I knew enough French to understand and… ahem.. correct the problem. France has changed so much, I was shocked at how kind, helpful and interactive everyone was. We had four days in total to spend here, two days at the start of our trip and two days near the end of our 6 week trek. We explored the city during the day with the help of an excellent guide, Emmanuelle, whom we met at dinner our first night there. Our second trip on the return leg we reunited with our new friend, Emmanuelle, visited the Lourve, went to a birthday party and saw an old friend from C.A., Greg Corinth, who was in Paris visiting relatives.

Italy

We arrived at our first stop, Florence, by high speed train from Paris. We explored only in the evenings as the heat was pretty incredible during the day. After staying five days, we then headed down to Rome for an afternoon while we waited for our flight to the island of Sicily. We were met by our good friend, Giovanella at the airport and the adventure began immediately. If you have ever driven or ridden in a car in Italy, you know what I mean. Although we spent most of the week white knuckled, driving in the car, a week spent in Sicily was just not enough. Amazing doesn’t even come close to describing it’s treasure chest of spots. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day to stop and pour over relics, take photos of architecture and art in all of the places we wanted to do so. We toured through some absolutely beautiful places like: Taormina, Caltagirone, Agrigento and Syracuse. Our friend, Giovanella and her family, gave us the grand tour and treated us to the best of everything. It made me fall even deeper in love with Italy and it’s people. We then flew back to Rome to explore the eternal city. The fountains, buildings, ruins and piazzas must be seen and experienced by everyone. The beauty of this country is truly a global treasure which must be preserved.

Vatican City

Although this country / city is located within Rome it has a much different feel then the rest of Rome. The piazza, museum, cathedral and fountains are definitely worth the couple days we devoted to it. While in Rome, we stayed just outside the walls of the Vatican and passed through St. Peter’s Square everyday.

Spain

From Rome we flew to Madrid. Our time in Spain was divided between Madrid, Barcelona and Cardona. We didn’t exactly have a plan, but it worked out perfectly. We couldn’t have done a better job had we gone to all of the toil and trouble of planning it months in advance. Our first full night in Madrid we saw the Real Madrid football game, (Be sure to bring a gas mask because the plumes of cigarette smoke can ruin a great night and the next few days, if you have allergies). Then, a few days later, we met up with Margaux, an old friend of mine who just so happens to be one of the few well published, American wine and food critics in Spain and she gave us two days of city tours and introduced us to many local people and cuisine styles too. Having spent a few days in amazing Madrid we were off to Barcelona, which is a beautiful city with a plethora of amazing architectural feats designed by Gaudi. We didn’t have a lot of time in the city as we were on a mission to visit the countryside and Andorra. The only time we rented a car on this trip was to travel between Barcelona and Andorra. Magical Spain allowed us to fulfill another lifelong dream. Both of us had always wanted to stay in a medieval castle. The parador, (castle in Spanish), we stayed in can be found in historical Cardona.

Andorra

It is a beautiful mountain country, very small and wedged between France and Spain. It is pretty much only accessible by road so we drove in from Barcelona. The drive was a mere few hours, but it was some of the prettiest scenery on our trip. The mountains were calling to us the entire way. Mist covered some and others stood proudly into the clouds above. Our main goal in Andorra was to visit the amazing Caldea spa for my birthday, detox my throat, sinuses and lungs from the smokers and auto exhaust while relaxing, away from the busy cities where we had been spending a good portion of our time. We stayed in our timeshare, a chalet, which we had reserved many months prior. It was the off season so the restaurants, stores and streets were quite empty. It was a nice change. We enjoyed a few days exploring, tasting the local fare and driving around before we headed back to Spain, eager to stay in our first castle.

Paris… Falling in Love Again

Being completely honest, as is required in this job, I must say the last time I was in Paris I didn’t have the best of experiences.  Of course, it could have something to do with the fact that I never ventured out from the airport, but still, the amount of rudeness and underhandedness I experienced in an hour long layover, at Orly, was quite unbelievable.  As a matter of fact, the level of disdain I experienced there put me off for a full ten years from traveling to, or through, this mecca of romance.

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My husband, Dan, even had to coax me into going by mentioning all of the incredible art at the Louvre, the one museum I had really wanted to see in the EU.  I am exuberant to report that after my most recent trip, I happily stand corrected about Paris.  Today’s Paris has done a 180 degree turn on it’s heels.  People everywhere were polite and genuinely friendly.  I hadn’t ever known any other European city to be so open and friendly to tourists.  All of the people in Paris were so friendly it was absolutely shocking, but in a good way.

I think most people have heard that France, Paris in particular, being full of rude, racist and obnoxious people just lurking in the shadows, waiting for their opportunity to spew their venom on you.  Not so today, however, something tells me that was a more probable scenario before the internet took over.  Now because of the social aspect of the web, people have friends all over the world and it’s making a difference, a big difference.

Paris is certainly one of the capital cities of the Modern Age.  So much is going on 24/7, it’s dizzying.  It certainly rivals New York City for it’s pace, friendliness and style.  The only thing we didn’t see were blinking neon signs of those famous NYC “Open All Night” restaurants, but I bet they were there.  What with all the different attractions, incredible restaurants, mix of cultures and such a long history, you might need a year to just start to scratch the surface of all of the wonders that are Paris.

I realized something very important on this leg of our Europe trip.  The difference between my last trip to France and this one is simple.  Today’s French are really beginning to fall in love all over again…  with Paris, their country and the world, and why shouldn’t they?  The grandeur that is Paris can be seen in it’s magnificent palaces, museums, government buildings and the art that seems to be seeping from just about everywhere.  Also, the French are obsessed with lovemaking.  Well, again, they should be.   Didn’t they invent it or something?  After all, how sensual is it to be surrounded by the most famous architecture? How about the “ahh factor” of shopping in some of the most unique of boutiques or drink an award winning wine, neither of which need be the most expensive?   Mind you, if you want to go full tilt then there is a scotch that goes for $1200 USD per shot most recently consumed by our friend, Greg with his uncle in Paris.

Most people who have been to France understand when I say that there is a heaven on Earth and it’s the smell of the freshly baked baguettes, flakey croissants, and other treats on offer at the local patisserie.  It might as well be the equivalent of culinary Chanel wafting through the air first thing in the morning, or whenever you happen to be hungry.  It is downright Pavlovian.  It’s practically foreplay when you eat the oh-so-delicate, but rich, saucy French food, and of course parlez francais all the while, even if you’re messing up the words!  It’s no wonder that Paris is one of the cultural capitals of the world.  France, in general, certainly holds it’s own as one of the most amazing places on the planet.  Having a very good standard of living as well as the best health care system in the world really does make a difference in the way you experience your life.

Stories

We took the first class train from Brussels and arrived into the Gard Du Nord, (North Garage), on a high speed train that had WIFI available. (Dan was elated to have a decent internet connection).  Also, I should note that traveling by train first class is much easier and worth the extra couple hundred dollars you will spend.  We felt comfortable immediately in Paris because we were able to study the map to easily locate our accommodations. It was just a short walk from the station and on a quiet side street. Like something out of a movie, our host actually greeted us by name as we walked through the door.  He was incredibly nice and very helpful. He  made a point to give us plenty of good advice about where to find things like wipees, diapers and where to go to eat. Our room was small, but smartly decorated with the latest interior design textures and colors. Another thing that was nice, it used the limited space well.  All of the necessary amenities were to be found in it’s new bathroom , including a hair dryer, towel drying rack and the latest deco style sink.  The bedroom  had a work area with a desk and a solid internet connection, something you don’t always find when traveling in the EU. The windows looking out over the street really reminded you of the Bohemian Paris we have seen on the big screen.  We relaxed in the room for a couple hours before leaving to find our dining spot.  We both remarked how it was amazing to think that earlier that day we had been in Brussels and took two trains. It was a weird feeling.  Because of the closeness of all of the countries in Europe, we realized we had visited four countries in two days.

Our concierge gave us the name of a restaurant down the street that had tasty traditional food and really good service.  Our magical Parisian adventure began there when we sat next to two sisters and their brother at the communal eating table.  We began sharing stories and practicing our French with them. They spoke a bit of English, which made things fun. It seemed that the more wine the group consumed, the better everyone understood each other.  Certainly this was a tradition that was well proven all throughout Europe for the last several thousand years and probably helped to keep things peaceful most of the time between the different cultures.

After a couple hours of eating and making merry, we told them we were to meet a friend from California at the L’Arc de Triomphe at 11 a.m. the next day.  Emmanuelle, one of the sisters, said she would meet us and take us all on a bit of a tour.  She then divulged how much she loved the city and has written two books, both in French ,for the first time French visitor to Paris.  I know my eyes must have widened.  We were so excited because these were the only two days we had booked in Paris and we were concerned about having enough time to get a good overview of the city.  We were stunned by her generosity and couldn’t hardly wait to see where we would be exploring.

The next morning we wandered down to the metro and jumped a train out to The Arc. Every person we talked to was very friendly in helping us find our way around. An old man was so pleased he helped us find our way to the stairs to go to under the road to the Arc.  He said, in French, that he used to live in Florida for about twenty years and then moved back to Paris.  The L’Arc de Triomphe is quite large and is decorated with statues from many places.  We met Greg and Emmanuelle under it.  Both Dan and I thought that it seemed so surreal to actually be there. It had been a life long dream to visit Paris and it was already surpassing our expectations.

French Deli
French Deli

Our route around the city included a walk down to the Champs Elyees from the Arc and then to the Obelisk. Our new friend, Emmanuelle, took us to a small garden that was her favourite. It was a lovely little garden with plenty of colorful flowers. We also wanted to experience a local lunch meal. So, we went on a bit of an adventure on the Metro, to the little restaurant, across from the oldest home in Paris, which served whatever the chef wanted to cook that day. It was very good and really inexpensive for the quality and amount of food. Our meal included your choice of three entrees, a piece of fantastic chocolate cake and a drink for about 8 euros.   Please take notice that this place was so hidden that we would never be able to find our way back there without Emmanuelle.

We headed back to the Metro and found ourselves at the Lourve.  We walked through the courtyards in awe. The old palace was quite a building. Like most buildings it was between three and five stories high. It was covered in statues and windows. We passed through the few courtyards to get to the riverside. We found that it was just incredible how big this museum is in comparison with any other building around it.

Next it was on to Notre Dame where we explored a bit and took pictures of the statues.  Dan found it quite dark inside.  I stayed outside with our little girl. It was definitely a Paris landmark that needed to be seen. On the river below the church we took a boat ride up to the Effiel Tower and back.  We should have taken the Hop On / Hop Off boat so we could have gotten off there but there weren’t any available.  I would say to call ahead for that activity as they do book up quickly.

Back at Notre Dame we got off the boat and decided it was a good time to to head up to Montmarte and the Sacre Coeur Cathedral. We stopped in Montmarte and our Parisian Guide left us at the bottom of the hill. We promised to keep in touch and thanked her for the wonderful tour of the city.

The view from the cathedral is amazing and you can see a great deal of Paris from up there. The artistry on the roof of the cathedral is beautiful. Back down the hill a little ways there is an artists area where painters and sketchers were doing portraits. It was a bit touristy area but we sat down for a meal anyways. The meal prices were definitely a lot more up here then what we had so far.

As we passed through the tent to our seat I saw the crepes being served. They looked so good that I was thinking about getting one. My wife took the lead and ordered me pasta instead while I was out walking the little girl. This was a bit annoying since we head to Italy the next day for 3 weeks and I wanted to get in as much of the local dishes as possible. I sent the pasta back and got my crepes with the egg on top. It was enjoyed!

Unfortunately, one of my traveling companions left some important items in the restaurant’s seats while I was out walking with the girl. Although this traveling companion does not agree at all. It is still a point of contention. My hat, later to be known as Wilson, was lost in Montemarte for a day. It missed the train to Florence.

We wished our friend from California good night and took the metro back to our hotel. It was a wonderful 2 nights in Paris.

The next morning we caught a taxi early in the morning to Gare du Lyon for our journey into Italy.

Arc de Triomphe

The Arc de Triomphe stands in the center of Place Charles de Gaulle at the western end of the Champs-Elysees. It is an arch that honors those who fought for France during the Napoleonic Wars. It also houses underneath the tomb of the unknown soldier from WWI.

The Arc displays young french nudes against chain mail bearded German warriors. It is the second largest triumphal arch in existence at 162 feet tall and 148 feet wide. It is so large that a plane was able to fly through it and was captured on video. It was commissioned in 1806 after a victory of Napoleon at Austerlitz.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame first stone was begun in 1163 has been updated and modified each century since. The North and South Tower were completed in 1240 & 1250 respectively. The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

This model of Notre Dame is a scaled and is set with every detail as the real one. Reviewing this allows you to see the detail work that you are unable to see from the ground.

Lourve

Classical statues fill this gallery which is one of the few rooms that can be seen without paying an entrance fee to the museum. As heard in the audio this would be a great place to have a scene from a James Bond movie.

The museum is located by the river Seine in Paris and is the world’s most visited museum. It has an exhibition area of over 60,600 sq meters. The building was extended and added onto many times. It started as a fortress in the 12th century which is still visible. The latest addition which is the glass Pyramids give light to the lower reception and ticketing area.

Napoleon’s Obelisk

This obelisk was originally erected in front of the Luxor temple in the 13th Century BC. It was transported in the 19th century to Paris. Although it was attributed to Napoleon it didn’t arrive in Paris until 1836. This is one of the three obelisks that were given to the great western cities of New York, London and Paris.

Sacre-Coeur

The view from Sacre-Coeur Basilica is located at the top of Montmarte which is the highest point in the city. The basilica finished in 1913 has become a focal point for people to relax after a busy day and listen to music on the steps to enjoy that view.

Brussels

We walked out of the train station and were thrust into the heart of the multicultural city. Brussels is beautiful, small and fast paced. Our friend nearly got run over in his wheelchair! Purely by chance did Naia say something just in time. So if you are going to Brussels, keep your eye out for drivers who might not be looking for you, whether you are on foot or on bike.

One of the “Wow” moments of all our traveling in Europe was when we saw the Grand Palace and the overall staggering amount of gold in the city of Brussels. Because of thievery, the gold you see in most artwork and architecture is now maintained with gold paint where there used to be gold leaf, like on their government buildings, and if you’re looking for it you’ll see it in other less conspicuous spots as well. Honestly, each time we turned a corner it felt like the architecture was almost morphing into something out of our dreams about what that era must have been like… each building was more amazing than the last building we had just drooled over, and they just kept coming with each new block. Ah, Brussels!

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Stories

Like France and Italy, Brussels’ small streets contain many small, family-owned cafes and restaurants of distinction and impressive quality, offering a cornucopia of delight for every palette. Given the fact that we only had an afternoon in the chocolate and waffle capital of the world, we felt a wave of excitement when we realized we had to begin sampling right away! Plus, we could resist the dalliance of the scent of freshly cooked waffles wafting past our noses no longer and were drawn to a little roadside cafe. We immediately decided on beer and waffles. Ok, truth be known, the boys, Dan and our Dutch friend, Freek, had the alcoholic libations while Naia had a silky-smooth, coat your throat with divinity, perfect drinking temperature hot chocolate, which was one of the things on her list to experience while there. She liked it. She liked it a lot. She had to kick Dan under the table to keep him from drinking all of her cocoa, which meant it had his seal of approval! Naia took a sip of the beer which was a nice light/medium lager but didn’t go too well with the cocoa, however it went well with the waffles, according to Dan and Freek, (pronounced ‘Frake’).

Matter of factly, the waffles were excellent. Our friend started Van’s Waffles and described them perfectly to me one time. “Slightly crispy on the outside and heavenly on the inside.” They felt so light and fluffy it made us wonder if we were in a dream… and then came out the strawberries and cream on the side! Perfection on a plate. A lovely time was had by all. Naia had decided to make a short list of a few things we could try while in Belgium. Some rich, dark chocolate covered almonds would prove to be a more difficult find than the perfect hot cocoa. Apparently dark chocolate powdered nuts are all the rage in Brussels. Naia was looking for smooth, shiny, dark chocolate covered almonds. They are naturally lower in fat, sugar and guilt!

Wondering what to do after our little culinary distraction, while outside the Grand Palace, we spotted the post cards. It was obvious that there is a love of statues here. Surprisingly, you can tell a lot about a place from the postcards. Let us just say that Belgians are distinct from their other EU neighbors. They will put up a statue of a little kid taking a leak and like magic, somehow it becomes a national landmark. Go figure. So, given this oddity, we had decided that our grand quest of the day was to find a statue of a peeing boy. Our not so grand, but would still be fun to accomplish, quests were the dark chocolate almonds and to experience some regular Belgian food. The boys also had their quest to be a little groggy from all of the grog by the time we had to get back on the train, which proved later to be a bit of a challenge. Not the drinking part, but the getting on the train part!

After finishing such a not-so-healthy treat, we needed to walk off the evil, but tasty, sugar, fat and calories. We went off on our adventure, the three of us and Asha. Overall, the city center was well planned out and easy to navigate. Thankfully, there were signs directing us to every place we wanted to see and a map was not necessary. Amsterdam could take a lesson from Brussels in making it user friendly to the tourists! It’s very easy to get lost in Amsterdam when you are just visiting. We headed down to the Grand Palace and saw the bar that has 2001 different Belgian beers. The boys thought they should leave it for the next visit or they might have to call a cab! The LIttle Peer, as Naia dubbed him, was next to a shop where we got our chocolate almonds and, had we known this, we would have found The Little Peer a lot sooner. We spent about an hour and a half with Naia going into every chocolate store on the way to the peeing boy but no such luck. It was only after we found him and threw some pennies into the fountain that we scored the chocolate! Good thing we’re not superstitious!

Finally, the third quest was to be fulfilled. Ah… success! Freek, (pronounced ‘Frake’), took us to eat french fries but Belgian style while we were waiting near the train station. We were early. Naia nibbled on one, just to say she had them, while Dan and Freek devoured the dish. All three of us concluded that they were indeed tasty and also completely unhealthy. Perhaps next time we can explore the healthy chefs of the EU instead? Hmmm?

Train Station

Oh and by the way, there is one thing to remember when traveling by train in the EU, or just about anywhere these days for that matter. The station you arrived at when coming to Brussels isn’t necessarily the one you will use to leave Brussels! Hahahah! Yep, we were waiting outside the wrong station! Simply make sure to check the train tickets for which station train departs from so that you don’t miss it. Our train to Paris left from a different station than our arrival. We didn’t realize this and we were waiting for a train that was never going to come since it was at a different station! Many European cities have more then 1 train station, depending on which direction they are traveling. It was a bit of a crazy journey but we made it to the correct station and caught the train just in time. It was the only train we took in our seven weeks in the EU that had wifi access. Aside from getting some emails done, Dan really liked it because he could map out directions to our hotel, which really helped make us feel more at home when we walked out of the Gare Du Nord in Paris. Leave it up to the Belgians to do the finest things in life just a bit finer.

Food & Dining

Small streets lined with restaurants cafes and pubs are like barnacles on the bottom of a boat… literally one on top of another! There is barely enough room to get through and it goes on for many blocks in every direction and it’s delish!

Shopping Arcade

This glass covered shopping arcade is the oldest in Europe. Sint-Hubertus gallery was built in 1846 is just northeast of the Grand Palace. Eight of these galleries were built but only 3 has survived. The lower level has shops and the upper levels have apartments and condos.


 

Central Square

The Central Square is the heart of Brussels. It contains the Grand Palace and often hosts a busy market. It is claimed to be one of the most beautiful town squares in the world. In 1695 the square was bombed to ruins and was rebuilt completely by the commercial guilds.

 

St. Louis´ Other Wild Side

Japanese Garden

Immersed, I took in the sounds of screeching birds and pushed huge leaves from my path as I made my way to investigate the bursts of color that were still just a blur in the distance. I pressed on. After dodging the occasional puddle, I discovered the tropical pink pineapples, deep violet banana blossoms sprouting from their tree top perches some 25-feet above me and bright white orchids, all sprinkled with water droplets. The air felt even more moist than the flowers looked and I realized it was at least 20 degrees hotter than only just moments ago, yet somehow the sound of rushing streams made it seem less sweltering. As I wiped the sweat from my forehead, I almost forgot this was early March in downtown St. Louis.

Ottoman Garden
Ottoman Garden

I thought to myself that a botanical garden was an entertainment option most people don’t take advantage of in the big city. It was then that I realized that St. Louis was more than an arch, blues and riverboat gambling—it could be a natural oasis too. The Missouri Botanical Garden’s Climatron Conservatory hosts not only these plants but also displays an array of exotic animals, like poison frogs and puffer fish, and is just one of the 31 gardens and conservatories that stretch over some seventy-nine acres.

When back outdoors, I followed a walkway through electric blue magnolias and fountains, going from garden to garden and it even afforded me a pass by the 1850s Victorian estate of Englishman Henry Shaw, who founded the garden in 1859.

The English Woodland Garden certainly made up in aroma what it lacked in color. Among the simple green and brown, with only an occasional burst of yellow daffodils, I felt my eyes almost sting from the strong pine scent. The Boxwood Garden was full of walled hedges arranged in a maze I could have easily gotten lost in had they been taller than my knee. Manicured in the shape of an ancient emblem, this garden seemed to be stolen right out of another time. I stayed longer there than I did at any other garden, taking my time admiring the precision and craftsman ship—and resting.

Japanese Garden
Japanese Garden

After a break, I was eager to see the famous Seiwa-en Japanese landscape garden and it wasn’t long before I started noticing the perfectly rounded bushes and carefully drawn lines in the sand around them, known as Karesansui. Amidst the stone walkways and willows exploding in lavender blossoms was an old bridge where I fed the hungry aquatic animals below. I tossed the food over the side and had to laugh as I watched the ducks in fierce competition for my meager gifts of sustenance with the giant koi fish, who were considerably bigger. The downfall of this visit, aside from sore legs, was that I came too early to see the orchid show, which employees say is a favorite among visitors, who come from all over the world. They´ve met people who come from as far away as South Africa. Not bad for $8 a head, leg workout included free of charge.

The next day I found myself wiping my brow again as I entered the tropical conservatory at the Butterfly House in Faust Park. Approximately 60 species of butterflies from all over the world filled the room. Their sizes varied from as small as my palm to as big as my hand. Amongst the huge tropical plants, flashes of blood red, black, lime green, lemon yellow, purple and light and dark blues appeared and disappeared in the same instant right in front of me making the experience as nerve-racking as it was exhilarating, mostly because of the caution signs warning not to touch the butterflies, as it could injure or kill them. I found myself adopting a walking rhythm of slow, leery starts and panicked, abrupt stops when one would dart out in front of me. I regretted bringing my purse too. After a few accidental swings and close calls, I learned to keep it clutched to my side. Elsewhere in the Butterfly House are some not so desirable creatures like giant cockroaches, rhinoceros beetles and millipedes. The House, started eight years ago by Sohpia M. Sachs, is an educational facility, after all. So, though I groaned through it making faces, I figured it is only fair to display a full range of the Earth’s bugs, beautiful or not and I can put up with anything with a mere $6 admission.

The place that was most expensive and farthest to get to may have been the best of all three. The Meramec Caverns, located in Stanton, Mo., an hour outside the city, opened to the public in 1933. Further exploration revealed 26 miles of underground passages and as I found out, those 26 miles held a past full of rich history, natural phenomena and, surprisingly, pop culture.

It was the first time on this trip I was chilly as my tour group entered the first and largest of the cave’s rooms—the ballroom. It is not a nickname. Socials were held here in the 1930s as much as Boy Scout meetings are today. Complete with a disco ball, it houses up to 3,000 people. As green, blue, yellow and red lights lit the way, we were led through winding walkways with some low ceilings and up 58 slippery steps, which the guide later admitted to me was tourists’ least favorite part. One of our first stops was at Loot Rock, where Jesse James and his crew hid out from police. A million scenarios ran through my mind when the tour guide the pointed out the bear dens no more than ten feet away from it. We were also shown secret places where gun powder was made during the Civil War.

Hollywood has even been attracted to the cave on occasion. We were shown the spots where scenes were shot for Lassie, the famous fight between Tom Sawyer and Injun Joe in the film Tom and Huck and an episode of the show People Are Funny, in which two newlyweds got tricked into staying in one of the caves for a ten-day honeymoon.

It is a magnificent cavern that extends 364 feet below the ground and seven stories above it. The most fascinating parts of the tour for me were the formations, taking on shapes of a wine table, a curtain of stalactites up to 70 feet long and Onyx Mountain. This 33 million year old underground mountain is the 3rd largest in the world. While one side glows in peach, white and pale blue hues, the other side was black and dying from a lack of oxygen. Maybe the most intriguing feature of all was what the locals affectionately call Adam and Eve, a stalactite and stalagmite directly aligned and are the closest in the world to meeting and forming a column. On my way out, I decided that I would pay another $15 and do it all over again if I didn’t have to be back home the next day.

These special places showed me people can escape tourist traps and get to see what else there is to a big city other than concrete and congestion. When I looked past the typical big buildings, crowded bars and constant road rage, I found a whole new wild side to St. Louis.