Fried fish, beach glass and a history of hooligans

This past weekend I took a drive to Ashtabula, Ohio, to explore the old Ashtabula Harbor area. Ashtabula, loosely translated from its Native American origins, means “river of many fishes.” Not long after Eastern settlers came to claim land in this corner of the Western Reserve, it became clear that the area nestled between the beaches of Lake Erie and the mouth of the Ashtabula River could be an excellent port serving the growing shipping industry on the Great Lakes.

By the latter half of the 1800’s and early 1900’s, Ashtabula was a very rough and tumble boom town. Immigrants primarily from Sweden, Finland and Italy swarmed to the area to work on the docks, each group vying to get assigned to unload the ore ships that stopped there. As many as 150 burly men were needed to unload a ship of coal or ore, repeatedly filling a wheelbarrow then manhandling it over to railroad cars parked on the spur heading south to the mills in Youngstown and Pittsburgh.

A colorful Bridge Street for the 21st century

A colorful Bridge Street for the 21st century

Bridge Street, the main drag, was bustling with shops and bars and brothels. A descendant of the family that built one of the earliest stores there, Ren Carlisle, said that the original Carlisle’s store made a healthy profit on its sales of linoleum. Apparently, after the Swedes, Finns and Italians settled their scores with knife fights and brawls, it was easier for saloons and brothels to install new flooring than to clean up and make repairs after each brouhaha.

Carlisle's today, flanked by DeFina's and Harbor Perk

Carlisle’s today, flanked by DeFina’s and Harbor Perk

Lift Bridge Landing General Store

Lift Bridge Landing General Store








If you visit the Harbor today, you can still shop at Carlisle’s – or I should say, you can shop there again. Today’s Carlisle’s is a delightful store with stylish housewares, gifts, wall art, books and jewelry.  I rarely walk out empty-handed when I visit, even if I’ve only purchased a beautiful greeting card from a line you can’t find in the chain stores where I usually shop.

Next door to Carlisle’s is another unique and high-end home goods and furniture store,   DeFina’s. And other stores along the street offer Lake Erie beach glass jewelry, women’s clothing, handmade chocolates and even a delightful general store, Lift Bridge Landing. There you’ll find local, and many locally made, souvenirs, as well as grocery items you might carry back to your hotel or bed & breakfast for a light lunch or snack.

Speaking of snacks, you’ll find a nice selection of restaurants, too. Stop for tasty barbecue at Briquettes Smokehouse, indulge in fine dining at the Bascule Bridge Grille, or visit    Hil-Mak Seafood where I get a kick out of the throwback-to-the-60’s atmosphere while feasting on some of the freshest, tastiest Lake Erie perch around.

Stop here for a tasty lake perch sandwich to go!

Stop here for a tasty lake perch sandwich to go!

I only shared a tiny taste of my sandwich with the dogs

I only shared a tiny taste of my sandwich with the dogs

Rather than sitting in the restaurant, I decided to swing by the tiny Hil-Mak’s Seafood Market on West 5th Street, just off Lake Avenue. In addition to having a nice selection of fresh fish and seafood you can take home to cook, the friendly ladies who work there will fry up a fresh perch sandwich for you that is out of this world. After grabbing my sandwich, I drove down to a pretty little parking area by the river to watch the boats go by. Heavenly!

View of the river during lunch

View of the river during lunch

There are some interesting historical places to visit, too. Across the street from the park where I savored my sandwich is the Marine & Coast Guard Memorial Museum. I like the photos and old nautical memorabilia on display in what was once the lighthouse keeper’s home.

I only recently learned of nearby Hubbard House which was one of the last northern stops in Ohio for the Underground Railroad. Those who miraculously made it to Hubbard House would wait until dark to walk the quarter mile to boats docked on the Ashtabula River that would take them safely across to Canada. I didn’t have any luck finding out how far it is between Ashtabula and Canada, but since I did learn that it’s 54 miles from Cleveland to Canada, I would guess it can’t be more than half that distance. Regardless, how brave of those people to attempt that journey! And thank goodness for those who sheltered and transported them to freedom!

Can you spot the mast of the sail boat right under the lift bridge?

Can you spot the mast of the sail boat right under the lift bridge?

When a device for mechanically unloading boats came into practical use in the 1920s, it didn’t take long for things to quiet down considerably in harbors like Ashtabula’s. Most of Bridge Street’s stores and restaurants eventually closed and fell into disrepair, until the once-busy thoroughfare was all but a ghost town. There wasn’t much commerce for years, but it continued to be a picturesque, if industrial, scene. One of the last working lift bridges in Ohio continued to raise and lower (I enjoyed watching it in action during my visit – see photo) to allow the high-masted sail boats and other larger boats access to the lake from their docks on the river. Ashtabula Harbor also has long been home to an important Coast Guard station on this Northeast corner of Lake Erie.

But Bridge Street is kind of like the Little Engine that Could. It never completely gave up and kept struggling along for close to a century since its first decline when shipping practices changed. Thanks to local businesses and organizations like the Ashtabula Harbor Lift Bridge Community Association, it’s great to see how the community has been on the upswing for the last decade or more – and getting stronger every year.

When the bridge is down, cars can pass over the river to Bridge Street.

When the bridge is down, cars can pass over the river to Bridge Street.

In addition to the retail, restaurants and places of historic interest, the group has created a number of increasingly popular special events to introduce even more people to the Harbor each year. In June there’s a Beach Glass Festival; in July, an arts festival; in August, the Wine & Walleye Festival (FYI, Lake Erie is known for the best walleye fishing in the world); and later this month there’s a “Bridge to Bridge” half marathon and 5k run.

The Ashtabula Arts Center moves its theater activities down to nearby Walnut Beach in the summer for its “Straw Hat Theater” productions featuring remarkably talented local actors. And of course, there are those lazy summer days lying in the sun and swimming at Walnut Beach. If you’re lucky enough to know someone with a boat, perhaps you’ll be invited to go water skiing or help crew during a sailing regatta on one of the many sailboats that make their home at the Ashtabula Yacht Club.

As I write this, I realize we’re heading into winter – not the optimum time to visit Ashtabula Harbor or much of anyplace in my neck of the woods, to be frank. I love all the festivities of the Christmas season here in Northeastern Ohio, but not many want to brave the weather for a visit between January and April.

So, tuck away this idea for next spring or summer. The charming Michael Cahill B & B is on Walnut Boulevard, just up the hill from Bridge Street if you want to spend the night. It gets nice reviews and I’m sure Google or Trip Advisor could give you additional ideas if you want to come and stay.

Note to my girlfriends:  let’s plan a day in the Harbor next summer!

And happy travels to all!



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Ginny’s going to Germany!

Half the fun of traveling – at least for me – is planning the trip. This morning I spent a delightful half hour or so (okay, so we talked for almost two hours) on the phone with my dear friend Ginny discussing her upcoming trip to Germany.

Later this month Ginny and her husband Todd are going to Esslingen, located on the outskirts of Stuttgart, where their son Will is spending the fall term of college. While Will is busy with his classes during the week, Todd and Ginny would like to take two or three days to explore interesting places within a reasonable driving distance.

So as we were chatting,  I Googled a map of Germany and saw three cities I’ve visited that I think Ginny and Todd would love:  Rothenburg, Nuremburg and Bamberg.

Streets of Rothenburg

Streets of Rothenburg

Rothenburg could be their first stop, since it’s only about a two hour drive from Stuttgart. If I remember correctly, the drive to Rothenburg is on the “Romantic Road,” which was nice but I’m not sure where the romantic part comes into it. I would call it the Bucolic Road. I just remember farms. It actually looked a lot like Ohio. But I digress . . . .

When my hero Rick Steves discovered and featured Rothenburg in his books and television programs a number of years ago, his admiration of the ancient walled city inspired countless other travelers to visit this picturesque town. Rothenburg became a “must see” for Steves’ fans visiting that part of Germany, and every day tour buses fill the parking lots outside the walls while their passengers swarm the city from morning to late afternoon.

So, I’m thinking if Ginny and Todd decide to drive over a little later in the day and spend a night there, Rick says evenings are much quieter and there’s a wonderful tour every night conducted by the city’s Nightwatchman. Decked out in medieval garb and sharing the city’s history in a wonderfully entertaining fashion, the Nightwatchman’s nighttime stroll would be memorable, I think.

Click on this link to Rothenburg’s tourism website for more information about this fascinating city.

Kathe's Christmas!

Kathe’s Christmas!

Note to Ginny:  Park Todd at a friendly pub for a beer and make a beeline to Kathe Wohlfart’s Christmas store. It’s November –don’t miss this! I’ve never seen so many Christmas ornaments and decorative items in one place in my life. Bring plastic!

Note to Ginny and Todd:  Do not be tempted to try the Schneeballs (snowballs) you will see in every bakery display case in Rothenburg. They look cute, but have the consistency of sawdust. Seriously. Go for the strudel, instead.

Next morning, drive on to Nuremburg. Now, here’s the deal. I’m not exactly a WWII history buff and what little I remember about Nuremburg was that trials for war criminals were conducted there shortly after the war ended. I did not have high expectations for Nuremburg, since I’m more apt to get excited about Christmas stores and art museums and cathedrals. However, being a naturally curious person, I was certainly open for whatever I might come across there.

Well, Nuremburg is amazing. Amazing! I suggested that you find a half day tour to learn the history from a good guide and I know you’ll be looking into that, possibly with Viator (a handy source for tours of different lengths in cities all over Europe – and maybe even around the world, but I don’t know beyond Europe, personally). I mention Viator, which has worked well for me, but just Googling tours or guides for any city will open up many interesting options.

Hitler's Colosseum, opposite Third Reich parade grounds

Hitler’s Colosseum, opposite Third Reich parade grounds

Standing where Hitler reviewed his masses of troops goose-stepping by, arms raised in the infamous salute and faces turned toward their fuerher? Well, it was just chilling. We’ve all seen the old news reels of those terrifying times. Going to the actual place where so much of this happened, accompanied by a knowledgeable guide, is an unforgettable experience. A good guide will bring it all to life and tell tales of the Third Reich and its leader that will simply astound you.

Looking out from atop Nuremburg Castle

Looking out from atop Nuremburg Castle

Hopefully your tour also will include a visit to Nuremburg Castle, once one of the most important imperial castles of the Holy Roman Empire. The castle is perched above the city and you will enter it through ingenious tunnels designed to deter any armies attempting to storm the gates. Sharp turns made it impossible to maneuver long pikes or logs to ram the doors, and hatches could be opened above to pour hot oil (or other harmful and/or disgusting substances like hot URINE – yuck!) down over the marauders.

One of Germany’s oldest and largest Christmas Markets is held each year in Nuremburg’s huge main square. It will be too early for the market when you’re in the area, so after checking out the city’s other sites maybe you could have a meal at the Bratwurst Roslein restaurant. This restaurant has been serving rustic Franconian cuisine in the Old Town since 1431 – before Columbus even discovered the New World! Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

Bamberg Rathaus, bridge through building connects old town to new

Bamberg Rathaus, bridge through building connects old town to new

My last suggestion is to visit Bamberg, north of Nuremberg in Upper Franconia (doesn’t that sound like a place where the Marx Brothers went?). Bamberg was recorded as a settlement on the Regnitz River in 902 and its charming historic city center is a UNESCO world heritage site. I especially love the bridge that tunnels right through the rathaus, or town hall, and over the river to connect the old town with the new.

This is where I learned that Germans celebrate Halloween. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was. And I don’t know if the kids go door to door, trick or treating, but on the Saturday afternoon that I was in Bamberg the local children could buy and carve a pumpkin in the market square. Pop music played over the loud speakers and the rest of the square was filled with stalls selling everything from flowers to scarves and mittens.

Happy Halloween in Bamberg!

Happy Halloween in Bamberg!

Has anyone else reading this post spent any time in this part of Germany? Please share here if you’d like to recommend a place you think Ginny and Todd might enjoy.

Oh, how I’d love to go back and see these beautiful places again – not to mention visiting so many other spots I haven’t yet explored! Like Geigweis. Why Geigweis?

Well, Geigweis is also known as Dachshund Village and practically every home has a kennel. You’ll find short hair, long hair and wire hair dachshunds. You’ll find minis, tweenies and full size dachsies. And if you don’t have a dachshund of your own, you can borrow one to take for a walk around the town while you’re visiting!

My sweet Mick says  to give his best to his cousins back in Geigweis

My sweet Mick says to give his best to his cousins back in Geigweis

To be honest, this is seriously old information I ran across on the internet a while back and I have no idea if Geigweis is still the home to all things dachshund today. But seeing as how it’s only about a three hour drive from where you’re staying, please bring me back a surprise if you happen to visit there, okay?

Happy travels, my friends! Love you!

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What this is

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about what I’m doing here, and what it means to be a blogger. Blogger. The name still cracks me up.

I am a writer and, thanks to this wonderful 21st century medium, I am able to share my thoughts with others in the form of a blog. There’s no pay and infrequent feedback, but even if it’s just me, clicking away on the keyboard and occasionally chuckling at something I think is funny, it’s a place to share my stories and thoughts.

When I named this site, my intent was to write primarily about European travel, since I love it so much. However, since I don’t have the time, nor even close to enough money, to travel to Europe as frequently as I’d like, I’ve come to realize that I need to be a little more flexible in my subject matter. After all, even my hero Rick Steves has branched out to report on his travels to the Middle East!

Man does not live by trips to Europe alone. (Although, I could. I really could.)

Plus, The Boys hate it when I leave. I rescued Mick about two and half years ago and Richie a year after that, so now I have to add the cost of dog sitting when calculating my travel budget. An added expense, but they are so worth it. Meet my sweet pups:

My boys:  Mick Jagger,the long haired, rock star dachshund, and his brother from another mother, Little Richard

The Boys: Mick Jagger,the long haired, rock star dachshund, and his brother from another mother, Little Richard

So 2014 will be the first year I haven’t gone to Europe since my son Chris graduated from college in 2005. That October I went with my cousin Carole and friend Carol (I kept thinking of Darryl, Darryl and my other brother, Darryl, from the Bob Newhart show – remember?) on the fabulous 17-day Rick Steves Tour of Italy. I’ve been kind of bummed about not heading to Europe this year, but . . .

Looking out over Verona, nine years ago today - October 3, 2005!

Looking out over Verona, nine years ago today – October 3, 2005!

But . . . I will be going to Florida on business next month and have decided to rent a car and spend a few days exploring Savannah, GA (just a four hour drive from Orlando) and St. Augustine, FL. I’ve been to Savannah and loved it and can’t wait to see more. And I’ve always wanted to visit St. Augustine. This will be my vacation for the year and I can’t wait to share my adventures with you when I get back!

One of Savannah's iconic squares

One of Savannah’s iconic squares

Whether any travel destination is new or exotic, near or far, depends completely on where you’re starting. (Did I just hear you say, “duh?” Fine. You’re right.) Coming from Ohio, traveling to Georgia and Florida is a relatively short, domestic trip. But if you’re reading this and live in, say, Brazil, this is a BIG ASS foreign trip that requires multiple long flights and some serious vacation time away from the job. It’s all relative.

And visiting interesting places, whether in the next little town or halfway across the world, offers an opportunity to reflect and share. What more can a writer wish for?

Actually . . . another thing writers wish for is that people will read what they’re writing and enjoy it. Most of the time when you’re blogging, you just kind of throw it out there and hope for the best. Sometimes my mother or a friend will comment and I so appreciate that. Encouragement is good for the soul!

And every once in a blue moon, a stranger will comment and that just blows me away. Yesterday a lady named Christel wrote something nice about last week’s post and that was just the boost I needed to plant myself back in front of the screen today and write this week’s post. Thank you, Christel! You made my day!

So here’s what this is:

I’m going to keep writing about places I visit, near and far, since my near may be your far, and so on and so forth. Sometimes I’m going to write about books and other travel stories that I think are fascinating and fun and that I want to share with you. And sometimes I’ll write about travel-related topics. Having just introduced you to The Boys, I’m thinking some folks might be interested in how I prepare the dog/house sitter to take care of everything while I’m away. Maybe a check list of what they should know?

And that’s it for today. If you’re reading this, thank you. If you want to share my blog with others who might enjoy it, I’d be grateful. And as you’ve already gathered, you know I’d be thrilled to hear from you!

Have a wonderful weekend and may all your travels be fascinating, whether you’re heading across town or across the sea.

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California, oh no I didn’t

I am sad to say that I did not get to California last weekend to visit Sue. As it turned out, I came down with some sort of very nasty virus en route to Las Vegas last Wednesday and was so ill, I ended up paying a small ransom for a seat on a direct flight home on United Friday morning.

Well, poo.

What do you do when you get sick while traveling?

That son of a bitch next to me just sneezed on my tray table!

That son of a bitch next to me just sneezed on my tray table!

In my case, I ended up arranging for a wheelchair to get me through the huge Las Vegas airport because the virus caused me to be dizzy, short of breath, joints aching, etc. I’ve said this before and will say it again – if you’re feeling lousy, don’t be embarrassed to get a wheelchair to get through the larger airports. I knew I wouldn’t need one in Cleveland because there are golf carts available to give people rides. If you’re not sure about an airport you’ll be flying through, check it out online or call airport information in advance.

Buy a nice big bottle of water to bring on board. Flights are dehydrating anyway, so it’s even more important to push healthy fluids while you’re sick.

Be considerate. In such close settings, there’s only so much you can do. I wasn’t coughing, but I avoided breathing directly on the people around me to the best of my ability. No shaking hands and saying, “Hiiiiii! I’m Kaaaaaaaaate!” Not that I usually want to talk with anyone who is invading my personal space, even if unintentionally. How do you talk with a stranger who is six inches from your nose? I have a hard time with that, plus it’s another good excuse to bury my own nose in my book.

At any rate, I even felt guilty just touching the tray and buckling the seat belt – but what are you going to do? Start traveling with disposable rubber gloves in your bag? That seems a little creepy . . . .

Take that as a warning for yourself – you never know if someone sick was in your seat earlier in the day! Never put your hands or fingers to your mouth or eyes while traveling until you’ve had a chance to wash off germs with soap and warm water or at least use a hand sanitizer to kill some of the creepy crawlies.

That’s all I’ve got folks. Want to share travel tips for sickies? Comment below. Stay healthy!

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California, here I come (and no whining)

Remember last week when I was moaning about not having a trip to Europe planned for this year? I know. Wah, wah. What a whiney baby.

Well, I’m just a little bit embarrassed by that now because I have to tell you that I am spending this coming weekend with my friend Sue at her home in Aptos, California. Yes. A long weekend in California. Not exactly the activity of some poor, deprived soul, right?

This makes me very happy and I know I’m very lucky. Sorry for the whining.

But I still really, really, really want to get to Europe this year, even though I had a very strange dream last night about going to Bologna with my friend Carol. We checked into a huge hotel that had once been a train station, or something equally grand and cavernous, and I was given a room opposite a very busy bar. The noise was terrible, with people laughing and talking and someone playing a piano. And to make things much worse, the room was actually just a cubicle so that tall people walking by could peer over the wall into my room. I woke up as I was about to stomp back to the lobby to demand something quieter where people couldn’t watch me sleep.

Maybe my subconscious doesn’t really want to go to Europe. Or maybe just not to Italy. Or maybe not to Bologna. Maybe it’s a reminder that there are wonderful things about going to Europe, but with my budget, the hotel rooms I can afford are not usually part of that pretty picture.

Anyway. Here’s how I happen to be spending a weekend in California.

I had to book a trip to Las Vegas for business and since I am not at all fond of “Sin City,” planned to jump on a plane first thing the next morning and hightail it back to Ohio. It always seems like a waste to fly so far for such a short period. Sometimes I visit my sister in nearby St. George, Utah, but after seeing Sue at a class reunion last month, I was delighted to learn she was free for the weekend and willing to spend some time with me exploring her corner of the central California coast.

Sue told me I should do some research, as I would for any trip, and let her know what I wanted to see while I’m visiting. As much as I love San Francisco, I’ve been there several times, so I decided to focus on learning more about the area where Sue lives, south of that gorgeous city.

Aptos, I learned, is not actually a town but a Census-Designated Place (CDP) perched above the pristine beaches that curve between Santa Cruz and Monterey. If you look it up on the internet, please let me know what you think a CDP is and why such a thing exists, okay?

Aptos does have a Chamber of Commerce (if no town) and lists several major tourist attractions including Seacliff State Beach and Nisene Marks State Park. I told Sue I was not willing to do anything that involved wearing a bathing suit or hiking boots, so I started to think I might be in trouble.

The only time I want to admire the Redwood forest is if I stick my head out the car window on my way to a winery.

The only time I want to admire the Redwood forest is if I stick my head out the car window on my way to a winery.

Now, I would have liked to see Aptos’ “World’s Smallest Parade,” but that was over the July 4th weekend. I will definitely ask Sue to tell me more about that. I wonder if it’s anything like the tiny Mardi Gras parade of the Krewe of ’tit Rex in New Orleans? That’s another parade I would like to see (get this month’s National Geographic Traveler to learn more about that one).

I just had to show you a 'tit Rex float. Who wants to go with me to New Orleans to see this parade? Sue?

I just had to show you a ‘tit Rex float. Who wants to go with me to New Orleans to see this parade? Sue?

But back to California, I am relieved to report that there are plenty of less athletic things to do in the area in September. Here are a few I’d like to check out:

I would like to visit the towns of Capitola and Soquel. Capitola claims to be the oldest seaside resort in the state, founded in 1869. I’m thinking if we go there early, we could have breakfast at Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria, which was voted the best bakery in Santa Cruz County. Sue already has lunch plans for us at a (literal) hole in the wall taco joint. I’m feeling very optimistic about the food there, already.

Colorful Capitola

Colorful Capitola

Soquel is a little bit inland from Capitola and features an Antiques Row and some wineries. It sounds historic and charming – a town after my own heart.

How cute is this Apple Crate Mural?

How cute is this Apple Crate Mural?

I also would like to check out nearby Watsonville. Maybe we could stop by the Annieglass Wine Bar and Studio for a little vino and to admire the handcrafted glassware that is made and sold there. I’m also curious about the town’s Apple Crate Murals. There are 15 of these murals in locations around the city, at least some of which feature food or beverages, just in case we are hungry or thirsty between the baked goods, wine and tacos.

And as a nod to the Great Outdoors, I was reading that the cliff outside Davenport is a great spot for whale watching. If it’s not the right season or if the whales aren’t cooperating, it’s comforting to know that Davenport has its fair share of art galleries and cafes. It’s always good to have a backup plan.

So there you have it. I know Sue also has some great ideas, possibly including a Sunday morning ukulele concert on the beach in Santa Cruz, a visit to the Saturday Farmer’s Market to buy fresh, locally produced olive oil, and a much-anticipated visit to the entertaining egg dispensing machine. I’m also pretty sure I won’t have to sleep in a cubicle at her house or listen to anyone playing a medley from “Phantom of the Opera” on the piano. Pretty sure.

Have a great week and be sure to join me here next Wednesday to hear all about my Adventures with Sue on the Central California Coast. Ciao!




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Pining for Europe

I have been sad this week. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but I finally decided that I am . . .

Pining for Europe.

This is the first year since Chris graduated from college that I don’t have a trip planned. As each year takes me closer to retirement, I am so very aware that being able to travel overseas isn’t something to take for granted, to put off until there’s more time, or more money in the bank, or name-whatever-excuse-works-for-you.

I had decided that after putting Chris through school, it was finally my turn to do something nice for myself. So I took the money I would have spent for tuition and room and board for the fall semester at Ohio University and signed up for my first trip, a Rick Steves’ tour to Italy. I was so excited. Yay for me! And it was even better than I dreamed it could be!

Here’s a picture I took at our first stop in Varenna, a picturesque town on the shores of Lake Como in northern Italy. I am privileged to have seen such a beautiful sight —

Vernazza, on the shores of Lake Como

Varenna, on the shores of Lake Como

Seventeen days later, I remember finally collecting my luggage in Cleveland after the long flight, via Newark, home. Instead of being tired, I was so invigorated and enthused about all I had seen and experienced, I was on a travel-induced high. I knew that these experiences made my life worth living in a wholly new, exciting and unexpected manner.

And every time I return to Europe, I feel it again. Why this strong connection? I can’t explain it. I am simply enchanted by the sights and sounds, by the history, the architecture, the food, the people. What can I say?

Have you been wanting to go someplace? It doesn’t have to be Europe. Maybe seeing the Grand Canyon is on your bucket list, or hiking in Nepal. What’s stopping you?

Here’s what I believe, with all my heart:  all your possessions will eventually get old, or break down or even just go out of style. Having “things” offers only a fleeting pleasure. But experiences and memories are priceless and yours to keep and enjoy forever. Travel lifts us right up and out of our day-to-day lives and feeds our hungry souls.

So, let’s plan a trip, okay? I don’t care if it’s a Sunday afternoon exploring a town you’ve always meant to check out that’s less than 50 miles from home, or finally booking that once-in-a-lifetime, 10-day tour to New Zealand.

As Donato the Rick Steves tour guide called out as we followed him toward each new adventure, “Andiamo!” Let’s go!

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Church of the Skeletons, or things to do in the Cinque Terre if you don’t want to sweat and hike

My first trip to Italy was on a Rick Steves tour called the “Best of Italy in 17 Days.” Tour participants flew into Milan, then traveled individually by train to meet the tour guide and others in the group in the exquisite small town of Varenna on the shores of Lake Como.

(Though I was disappointed not to run into George Clooney, we were somewhat compensated by being led by a dashing tour guide named Donato.)

Anyway – as you can imagine, spending seventeen days going from one spectacular sight to the next is a whole lot of wonderful on top of wonderful. The wise people at Rick Steves Tours (maybe Rick, his very own self?) realized that even the most intrepid traveler might start exhibiting signs of Bella Italia Overload about midway through the trip, so they scheduled a “vacation from your vacation” in the calm and breathtakingly lovely Cinque Terre.

Grazie, Rick. Grazie.

If you were approaching by helicopter from the west, you’d see the Cinque Terre as five tiny villages, a little like adorable pastel Lego towns, clinging to a stretch of steep, rocky hills plunging into the blue and white Mediterranean Sea. Hikers from around the world lace up their boots and grab big sticks to stride from one village to the next, enjoying unforgettable views of vineyards, olive trees, the tiny towns and the magnificent ocean below. It is truly lump-in-your-throat beautiful.

So for our two-day rest, Donato split our group to stay in two small hotels in Monterosso, the largest of the five towns in the area. We stayed at the comfy, yet quirky Hotel Pasquale right on the piazza of the Old Town, and here’s the view from my hotel room window:

How would you like to see this from your hotel window? I know!

How would you like to see this from your hotel window? I know!

Now, if you don’t “hike,” there really isn’t a whole lot to do in the Cinque Terre. And that was absolutely fine with me. I wore the last clean outfit in my suitcase and happily sent the rest of my clothes out to be laundered. I have no idea why I thought it would be a good idea to waste an inch of space on that last pair of pants because they were scratchy quasi-sweatpants that chafed – not the most pleasant choice for October in Italy, which can be surprisingly hot (word to the wise).

When I got some wearable clothes back from the laundry, we set out to explore the area in a decidedly laid-back, non-hiking fashion. We took the small train over to the next village of Vernazza for lunch. That’s probably the most picturesque of the five towns and this photo may be as close as I’m ever likely to come to “postcard perfect.”

Bella Vernazza

Bella Vernazza

Then we took a ferry back to Monterosso and set out to explore the Old Town (the new town, by the way, was on the other side of a tunnel running beneath the train tracks and that’s where larger hotels and the area’s only significant beach are located).

There wasn’t much in the way of shopping, unless you’re into inflatable floaties and generic beach towels, but we did find one very cool shop called Fabrica d’Arte. My friend Carol bought a small handmade terra cotta wall plaque and as I write this, I have to say I wish I’d gotten one for myself. Halfway through the trip, I had already bought so much stuff, I finally had to face the fact that future travel would be far less frequent if I had to budget as much for “souvenirs” as for an airline ticket. Now I collect bookmarks.

A little further along, we came across Monterosso’s pretty church, San Giovanni Battista. I do love the dramatic black and white stripes typical of the Romanesque style, so we checked that out for a while, even though we had already seen more churches in the prior nine or ten days than I’d visited in a decade.

As we were leaving, a seemingly deserted and definitely dilapidated church almost crouching next door caught my eye. The church looked abandoned, and yet the door was wide open, so we decided to peek into the gloom. And there we found . . .

The Church of the Skeletons! Oh my goodness!

There were plaster (or stone?) skulls and skeletons carved into every decorative arch and column. More skeletons actually sat in a pew! It was the kind of deliciously scary place your nine-year old nephew would adore. There was no one around to ask about this curious place, though a lockbox at the entrance had a small sign asking for donations to restore the crumbling structure. Carol and I have referred to it as the Church of the Skeletons ever since and I only learned much later that this was the chapel of the Brotherhood of Death and Prayer, the Confraternita dei Neri, “Fraternity of Blacks.”

Church of the Skeletons!

Church of the Skeletons!

This charitable group raised funds to support the widows and orphans of men lost at sea and the “black” was in reference to the clothing worn for their religious processions. The chapel dates back to the 16th century when many of the village men made their living fishing, and also would have been called upon to defend Monterosso from the pirates who rather frequently attacked the comfortable villages on this coast. In fact, pirates had been pestering these folks practically since Monterosso was established in the mid seventh century. Mamma mia!

So, what else can you do on your vacation in Monterosso? Well, the food is great. There’s plenty of fresh seafood and the lady who owns and runs Hotel Pasquale even demonstrated how to make pesto, most authentic to this region of Italy. You could work on your tan on the beach over in the New Town.

Or if you’re young – or young at heart – or silly and in the mood – you might want to join American students for a few drinks at Fast Bar, not far from the main piazza.

Fast Bar has loud music, televisions that play American sports (on the rare occasions when the timing works out) and the walls are papered with US one dollar bills autographed and posted by those who visit. Since students are the primary clientele, you might see bills signed by Jennifer, Hook ‘em Horns! or Brad from NYU! I think I signed mine as Kate, Rustbelt Girl! Something like that. Maybe someone will think it’s from a coed at Cleveland State instead of that little hottie’s granny.

Anyhoo. If you have time in the lovely Cinque Terre, stop by to say hi to the skeletons in Monterosso. Tell them the Rustbelt Girl sent you. Ciao!

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Spin That Globe! – Destination, Niger

I am excited to introduce my new travel game – Spin That Globe!

Not only have I created this new game for our amusement, but it gave me an excuse to order my very own globe from Amazon (I’ve been wanting one for years). Yay!

Spin That Globe! only has one rule:  no peeking. I close my eyes, spin the globe, and wherever my finger falls is where our imaginary trip will be. The only way we’ll get another spin is if we land in the middle of an ocean with no discernible tiny island nearby that we can call our destination.

Our first trip is definitely taking me out of my comfort zone and, presumably, yours as well. The flying finger landed smack dab in the middle of the African country of Niger. Since no part of Africa has ever been on my bucket list of travel destinations, this is unquestionably an interesting first choice for our game.

There's Niger - hot spot smack in the middle of Northwest Africa

There’s Niger – hot spot smack in the middle of Northwest Africa

Niger, which is pronounced something like knee-ZSHARE, is one of the poorest and hottest countries in Africa or, for that matter, the world. Given my penchant for room service over roughing it, this trip will surely be a challenge.

I also do not like to be hot. Not at all. And since this is a mostly Muslim country, it also will be necessary to cover up very modestly. I’m thinking underwear and a burka may be the garment of choice. At least packing can be light for a change.

These native Wodaabe women are gorgeous - love the outfits

These native Wodaabe women are gorgeous – love the outfits

Traveling to the capital city of Niamey takes about 19 hours from Cleveland. I will book the Air France option that goes from Cleveland to Minneapolis, to Paris, to Niamey. Just to get there will cost $2,000+ for the ticket, and then there are the fees for visas and shots to protect me from scary diseases. This is a lot to pay, in my book, for a trip to someplace most people probably don’t want to visit.

It would cost a little less to visit my son in Brisbane, Australia, though the travel time might be slightly longer. Hmm. Brisbane or Niger?

Oh, that’s right. We are playing Spin That Globe!, so Niger it is.

What will we do there?

To be frank, the tourist options are limited. At the top of the list I found online was to go on a hippo-spotting cruise on the Niger River. I am hoping that the cruise directors make it very clear that actual hippopotami are nothing like the cute cartoon characters we naive Americans tend to associate with this animal. Have you ever played the board game, “Hungry, Hungry Hippo?” You know the marbles you flip into the hippo’s open mouth? Imagine your skull being that marble in real life. Yeah. You don’t mess with a real hippo. I also hope those boats are really big, and really fast. And I hope they serve cocktails on the cruise, but that’s another story.

Scary hungry, hungry hippos

Scary hungry, hungry hippos

The next most exciting tourist attraction is visiting the Agadez Grand Mosque in the northern market town of Agadez. Other noteworthy sites there are the Kaocen Palace, which is now a hotel, and the Agadez Sultan’s Palace. Although Agadez is a market town, I should mention that it is best known for its camel market. Not exactly a souvenir suitable for the den back home. You might find some silver and leather work, too. I could work with that. Probably no t-shirts with the mosque on the front, though.

The Agadez mosque was first built in the early 1500's

The Agadez mosque was first built in the early 1500’s

I always find it hard to pass up the creamy gelato, scones slathered with jam and cream or the warm, flaky strudel in the countries I’m most likely to visit. So I have to say that one plus to visiting Niger is that it should be a great spot to kick-start a diet and exercise program. The typical African cuisine offers highly spiced grilled meats, vegetables and salads. Carbs are usually sorghum, cassava, maize or beans. On special occasions you might get rice or couscous.

Between passing on the cassava paste and sweating in my burka, I think I might drop a few pounds on this vacation. Score one for the fat girl visiting a starving African nation.

Does this sound like I am picking on Niger? I guess I am. When my finger landed there, I thought, why not? I had absolutely no knowledge of this country. It could have been amazing, right?

But I’m afraid that at first glance, I feel about Niger the way many people in the U.S. feel about my own hometown of Cleveland. Or maybe Davenport, Iowa. Or Ogden, Utah. It’s there. It has some things going on. But when it comes to choosing it as my vacation destination? Not so much. I mean no offense to the Niger people (they can’t be Nigerians because Nigerians come from Nigeria, right? I mean, what the – ?)

I’m just saying that Niger and Cleveland and Davenport and Ogden and all kinds of places might have a lot going for them, but when asked where they want to go on vacation, people are not going to choose those places first. Right?

Would you like to learn more about Niger? Google it, babe. Good luck!. See you next week, and join me again one day soon for another trip (hopefully to someplace we actually want to visit) on Spin That Globe!

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Places that call my name

When we start talking about travel, people often ask me which place was my favorite. Much like the Duggar family refusing to name the best kid in the bunch, I find it impossible to choose one favorite travel destination. I love you ALL, my darlings! Truly, I do!

Given the opportunity, I honestly can’t think of one place in Europe or the U.K.  that I would rather not visit again. I’m not sure what that says about me. Easily amused?

Perhaps. But if you were to ask me to name the places that really called my name, places where I could just sink in for a month or two and pretend to be part of the community, four cities come to mind.

The first European place I truly fell in love with was Aix-en-Provence in southern France. I visited for the first time in early December in the mid-1980s. Paris had been gorgeous, but overwhelming. Aix felt welcoming, manageable. Vendors sold Christmas ornaments and Crayola-colored knitted gloves in the chilly outdoor market. Cafes facing the fountain in the main square were golden beacons of warmth, promising a tasty meal and huge, steaming cups of delicious café au lait. Aix had me at bonjour.

Cafes in the piazza, Aix-en-Provence, October 2013

Cafes in the piazza, Aix-en-Provence, October 2013

About 20 years later on my second visit to Italy, my friends and I decided to take the bus from Florence to spend a day wandering in Lucca. This Tuscan beauty isn’t really on the well-beaten tourist path and we chose that day’s destination on a whim. For me, it was love at first sight as we strolled into the old town through the city’s ancient walls. I learned that several language schools operate there and if I ever decide to learn Italian (or try to), my dream would be to settle into a tiny flat for a month or so of studying and exploring this exquisite, low key Italian town.

Lucca 2007

Lucca 2007

On a Viking River Cruise a few years ago we spent an afternoon in the German city of Bamberg. A short bus ride from the ship’s docking place on the Main River took us to this ancient city first mentioned in records from the 10th century. Its Rathaus, or town hall, was built right in the middle of the Regnitz River in 1386. It seemed as if fairies might have magically built the bridges going right through the building to connect one section of the old town to the other! On a sunny Saturday in October, we watched children carving pumpkins in a town square while bouncy pop music played through loud speakers and everything from fresh veggies to household knick knacks were on offer in market stalls.


Crossing over the bridge, through the town hall, to the other side of Bamberg

Most recently I was completely charmed by the northern city of York in England. This morning on Facebook a Huffington Post story called “17 Reasons Yorkshire is the Wonderland You Never Thought to Visit” by Lisa Miller offered a great snapshot of this picture-perfect city and the stunning Yorkshire countryside.

The magnificent York Minster

The magnificent York Minster

Are you seeing a pattern here?

First trips to any country really do call for visiting the places you’ve heard about forever. London, Paris, Dublin, Rome – fabulous places all, and worth every minute, hour, day or week of your time. But given the opportunity, it’s sometimes the smaller, less famous towns that will capture your heart.

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Sometimes it’s about the ‘dogs and donuts

Do you often use vacation to go “back home” to visit family? Now I live a stone’s throw away from the town where I grew up, but for many years vacation was the time to return to Geneva, Ohio, to see my parents and catch up with old friends.

And a few miles down the road from Geneva was – and is – the village of Geneva-on-the-Lake, a kind of honky-tonk throwback to another era with bingo parlors and miniature golf, ice cream and pizza stands, t-shirt shops and biker bars. When I finally drove through Myrtle Beach for the first time a few years ago, I quickly surmised that it was pretty much just Geneva-on-the-Lake on steroids.

But while Geneva-on-the-Lake (let’s call it GOTL going forward because I’m tired of typing those hyphens, okay?) may be small potatoes compared to Myrtle Beach, Atlantic City, Coney Island or any of those other carnival-esque seaside destinations, this little spot offers two things I challenge any other resort to top:

The incomparably delectable Madsen Donuts and juicy foot-long hot dogs at Eddie’s Grill.

Photo by Ron via Flickr.

Photo by Ron via Flickr.

That’s right. Ask anyone going home to Geneva or the general vicinity and they will assure you that a trip home in the summer would be incomplete without eating at these two places. If you run into an old friend in the grocery store, he’ll say, hey, have you been to Eddie’s yet? Or call your sister in Utah and she’ll want to know how many times you got down to the lake for donuts.

Eddie’s is always packed, but if you’re lucky, you might be able to eat your hot dog and fries at one of the booths that has a little tabletop juke box. Does anyone know if they actually work anymore? I’m not sure, but it used to be fun to drop in a quarter and wait for the songs YOU chose to play loudly for the whole crowd to hear.

Opposite the counter where they call your number to pick up your hot dog there’s a Dairy Queen window where you’ll find all the usual DQ treats along with my favorite, those tart, gorgeous icy lemonades with half a lemon in the cup. You know the kind that gives you a brain freeze because they taste so good, you can’t stop yourself from sucking the ice down the straw too quickly?

After lunch or dinner at Eddies, it’s time to cross the street and walk the block or so to Madsen Donuts, an institution on the GOTL Strip since 1938. You may think of donuts as a breakfast food, but here, the donuts are so good people like to indulge any time they’re within shouting distance of the tiny store.

Photo credit to So hungry I could blog - thanks! Yum!

Photo credit to So hungry I could blog – thanks! Yum!

Remember 20 years ago or so when Krispy Kreme became so popular around the country? You’d hear stories of people lining up outside the shops in places like Los Angeles, anxiously awaiting the latest batch of hot, fresh donuts newly introduced from their home somewhere in the South. I love a good donut and Krispy Kreme is good. But – I can remember trying one for the first time and thinking, man – these can’t hold a candle to Madsen’s! What’s all the fuss about?

And that’s still true today. Donut lover that I am, I’ve tried my share around the country and even on the rare occasions that I could find one overseas. I never met a donut I didn’t like. But Madsen’s? They take the (fried) cake.

I recently learned that when the far-flung members of my friend Sue’s family converge upon their Saybrook cottage (a couple of miles east of GOTL) each summer, her elder brother Rob is in charge of the Donut Contract.

Instituted a number of years ago to avoid donut mayhem during visits, the Donut Contract states that any person in the cottage may have any type(s) of donut in any quantity they wish from Madsen Donuts, but they must commit to it on paper before Rob or another family member makes the donut run to GOTL.

Once you have signed off on your choices, you are responsible for consuming those donuts, and only those donuts. You may not change your mind later and attempt to claim a relative’s duly-contracted donut. There is no change of heart after the contract is signed and the little beauties are on display for all to admire and covet.

Also, there should be no wastage of donuts. If you claim to have room to eat a cream stick, a chocolate-frosted fry cake and a glazed cinnamon twist, then you’d better gobble all three donuts down. Waste not, want not. Or something. While there may be further private negotiations after the donuts arrive, the bottom line is that you are responsible for your donuts. End of story.

By the way, the folks crammed into this family cottage range from 70-something grandparents who have retired to New Mexico, my friend Sue from California, and other siblings, spouses and significant others, to adult and teenage kids and toddling grandchildren. They literally come from sea to shining sea, meeting yearly to eat donuts and burn off the calories by swimming and kayaking in Lake Erie’s sparkling waters.

So what are your “musts” when vacation takes you back home? Do you have your own version of the Donut Contract? Tell us more . . . and enjoy these last few weeks of summer!

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