Ecuador: it’s been an experience. Not always a good one, but this moment of silence at Laguna Quilotoa was a high point in more ways than one.
On our recent Texas road trip, we spent time both going and coming in Fredericksburg, an old German-influenced town in the Hill Country near the center of the state. Even before I moved to Texas, I had always loved the soft patina of Texas limestone, the predominant building material in this area. Paired with rough wood siding and beams, the pale yellow stone has a naturally weathered look that I’ll always identify with central Texas. Equally weather-worn is the split wood siding on a few historic log homes and even a few newer doors and walls.
Speaking of weathered …
Always seeking a quick hike wherever we are, here we decided to climb Enchanted Rock, a huge dome of pink granite that rises from the earth just outside Fredericksburg. A billion years ago, this rock was a pool of magma, parts of which pushed up through the earth’s surface, cooled and hardened, and turned into granite. Over time, the surface rock and soil wore away, forming the domes here today. We were fascinated to read that the domes are but a tiny part of a huge underground sea of granite. The entire batholith covers 62 square miles, but most of it is underground.
Enchanted Rock has numerous eroded layers, with pieces expanding and falling off even today on the curved surface. At the high point now, the main dome is 425 feet high, and the entire exposed rock spans 640 acres.
And that’s it for our three-day getaway a few weeks ago. I’m on my way to Ecuador now for some much higher climbs, so stay tuned!
Buffalo Bayou Park was the first thing I fell for in Houston when we moved here in early spring. Less than a mile from my house, it was my walking, running, and biking track until the Gulf Coast summer humidity put an end to extended outdoor exercise. We still took visitors to the park for a stroll and a view of our shiny city rising up from the greenery, but I had taken a temporary break from the park a few months before Hurricane Harvey hit in late August.
Now I’m hoping the current state of this beautiful riparian playground is just as fleeting. Harvey’s floodwaters, as well as the emergency release of upstream reservoir contents, wiped out the banks of our urban stream, uprooting trees, drowning plants, stripping away ground cover, and coating the lower paths in a thick layer of silt and sand that has yet to be fully shoveled away two months later.
The dog park was annihilated, and the kayakers have disappeared. Plastic bags cling to dead tree branches, steep banks have collapsed into the water, and the always-murky waters have turned an even muddier brown.
At the Shepherd Drive Bridge, pictured below, the water was nearly 40 feet (yes, FEET) deep inside the park and washed up to and over several of the pedestrian and vehicular bridges that cross the bayou.
As in many places all over this resilient city, though, life is returning to Buffalo Bayou. Ducks and blue herons tentatively paddle and perch on those felled branches, ferns and mondo grass spring from ragged ground, new green growth pushes up insistently from the sand mounds, and people on foot and bicycle have re-emerged to take advantage of perfect fall days in the park.
It’s great to be back in the park.
You’ve met the older, more famous siblings– Vienna, Budapest, and Prague – in a previous post, but let me introduce some of the little sisters of Central Europe. They may not have the same prestige, but they’re distinctive and appealing in their own right and are well worth a peek.
Bratislava, Slovakia (pop. ~ 425,000) – our first little city stop – has a bit of an unnecessary inferiority complex. Our Free Tour guide must have said five times that she figured we were all there because we’d been in Vienna, an hour away, anyway. Umm, not us. We had actually planned a longer stay in Slovakia than we did in Vienna, and we were pretty psyched about our cool but affordable hotel in Bratislava (with a brewery onsite) and spending more time here than the typical day trippers.
Like many Central and Eastern European cities that used to be under the Soviet thumb, Bratislava has an older, more colorful history that was partially bulldozed by the Communists’ dreary utilitarianism. That means the pastel-tinged Old Town and the red-roofed castle grounds are bluntly divided by a futuristic bridge and dull highway that wiped out an old synagogue and a huge chunk of the old city’s narrow, twisting streets. It also explains the hulking concrete apartment blocks across the Danube River and the overbearing monuments in other parts of the city.
The good news is that this with-it city is both bent on changing its image and taking the Soviet changes in stride. There is an unmistakable pride in the unique, modern bridge, and that helps offset the frustration of losing a cherished old part of the city. Those massive residential blocks are now painted in a rainbow of colors; our guide aptly called it Lego town, and it’s a great example of turning lemons into lemonade. There are trendy brew pubs and Mac-filled coffee shops in both the old and new parts of the town, and even the manholes have an quirky, artistic touch.
As we drive from Hungary to western Austria, we pass through nearly the entire width of Slovenia, one of the most exquisite countries in Europe, in my opinion. Although I’ve already raved about the capital, Ljubljana, in a 2014 post, it fully deserves another song of praise.
This enchanting city is even smaller than Bratislava, with fewer than 300,000 residents. The core of the downtown is pedestrian only, which makes things very pleasant after you’ve found a place to drop a car. Both sides of the tree-shaded Ljubljanica River house vibrant shops, hotels, restaurants, bars, street markets, and a seemingly endless number of outdoor tables.
Bikes whiz by, performers sing on the corners, varnished wood boats glide along the river, and it appears that every single person in town is either eating ice cream or drinking a beer as the autumn sun warms the last hours of the afternoon.
Overlooking the maze of brick walkways and buildings is a medieval castle, a staple of so many of Europe’s old towns and one of the fortress triplets of today’s profiled cities. Even if you’ve seen enough castles to last the rest of your days, the towers of these hillside edifices are the very best way to get the lay of the land, and in Ljubljana’s case, that vista includes a succession of terracotta roofs, green fields and woods approaching the mountains, and the Julian Alps themselves off in the distance. Talk about a view!
Our last city stop, the smallest but perhaps best known of the three, is Salzburg, Austria (pop. < 150,000). This visit really is just a peek. We’ve had so much fun trekking in Slovakia and Slovenia that we arrive rather late in Salzburg and have to press on to our next hiking base soon after.
Husband J remembers this town as a real charmer, and he is eager to show it to me for an afternoon and early evening. As we walk into the city along the river and view it from its castle above, it does not disappoint. Up close, too, it’s a handsome and cultured little metropolis; I’m infatuated early on with the soft stone walls and the wrought iron signs, the sparkle of the water and the impeccable wool fashions everyone is wearing. I’m obsessed with the ubiquitous stag motif and drool over the giant pretzels for sale in a few semi-busy squares.
Suddenly, though, we are in pressing crowds and discover that we are part of a St Rupert’s Day celebration, an event that looks and feels remarkably similar to Oktoberfest. Those couples I thought were so cute a few minutes ago are bothering me now that they’re listing into me; she looks silly with her bosom billowing out of a dirndl bodice, and his lederhosen appear ill-fitting and stained at close range. The pretzels now seem obscenely expensive (and dry – we discover after foolishly buying one), and the shops a bit ostentatious with their Bavarian designer hats and fancy accoutrements. We beat a hasty retreat up the hill to the castle to get away from the noise, disorder, and conspicuous consumption.
Upon our descent and escape back into the quieter streets, I do another 180 and decide maybe I do love the look of the boiled wool jackets and hats on the local families, and wish I could buy both of those items, plus a stag scarf, a couple of pins for my hat, and maybe some very pricey suede boots. (I desist.)
I admire the setting sun on the bridges, conjure up Mozart and Salieri as classical music wafts out of hidden courtyards, and drink another beer as J eats a giant weisswust dinner in a cozy biergarten. Just like that, Salzburg is back in my good graces, completing a trifecta of small town visits on our Central European road trip.
This is likely my last post on our Central European road trip, which turned out to be a perfect combo of big cities, a series of excellent hiking stops and rural stays, and many smaller towns in between. For information or stories about the trip, see the following posts:
How delectable it is to wake up and have a whole day stretching before us with no set itinerary. We eat a leisurely breakfast, stand on our patio overlooking Wolfgansee (Lake Wolfgang) in western Austria, and rejigger the plan we made last night. The morning is misty and cool, so we decide to postpone a hike and instead drive to a nearby town.
Not just any nearby town. Hallstatt, Austria, is a place that has grown so famous and so congested that some experienced travelers refuse to go there, and we are very close to skipping it ourselves. Even our hosts in St Wolfgang have warned us away, saying that people the world over were so obsessed with Hallstatt that the Chinese decided to build an exact replica of the town so that couples could take their engagement photos, wedding pictures, anniversary and birthday snaps, and unimaginable numbers of everyday selfies there without leaving Asia. In spite of the negative reviews, we figure it’s early in the day and not particularly nice out yet, so we spurn the naysayers and jump in the car for the forty-minute drive.
With this less-than-auspicious introduction, we are hesitant, but we arrive and park before the hordes descend, and to our delight, we have the shores of the lake to ourselves, except for a few swans, as we approach the village. Like overrun tourist attractions everywhere, there is a good reason for the throngs. Our first lakeside views take in a diaphanous scene of mirror-smooth gray-blue water, a mini-castle on the far shore, and the spit of the town itself, an impossibly perfect little concoction of spires, rooflines, docks, summer flowers, and wooden boats, all perched on the limpid lake. A ribbon of morning mist threads in and out of an inlet, adding an ethereal touch to the panorama.
By the time the streets start to fill up with the first of the day’s visitors, we are climbing high above the town. Small, tasteful signs ask walkers to refrain from photographing the private homes along the route, and we whisper softly as we pass doorways and gardens. A little later, we come back down and scoot out of town just as the sun begins to peek out from the fog and the multitudes start to arrive.
Back in St. Wolfgang, the day has blossomed into a cool and sunny brilliance. We grab our backpacks and set off for Schwarzensee, a lake high up in the mountains above our little resort town. The trail is alternately steep and flattish, with views of the vaporous Lake Wolfgang off to the right though portholes of evergreens and deciduous trees.
It’s a woodsy walk, with birch and evergreen trunks rising high above the needled brown paths. I trudge behind J, who is always the pace keeper, and get lost in my own thoughts for long stretches. We are nearly alone; on rare occasions, we pass a couple or two, and on the way down, we smile at a rowdy little family of parents and young kids cavorting up the hill.
Schwarzensee appears before we know it. After our long and difficult climb in the High Tatras of Slovakia a week earlier, today’s ascent goes fast. We are now starving; it’s after 2 pm and we’ve been gone since early morning. Lucky for us, these mountain trails often have some sort of refuge up high, always with beer and better food in the middle of nowhere than even a busy roadside stop in the U.S. We order a couple of dark brews, salads, and bread, and spend some time sitting in the sun at a picnic table, batting away bees and appreciating our mid-hike good fortune. We bounce with a slight buzz back down the trail and arrive at our lodging in record speed, sated and tired in a most satisfying way, ready for our next Alpine adventure.
The Julian Alps stretch along the border of northwestern Slovenia and Austria. They are an impressive but accessible range, and on the Slovenian side, they provide the snowcapped backdrop for the fairytale setting of Lake Bled and its island church. Here, on another quiet morning, we walk briskly around the 4-mile lake trail, viewing that idyllic little clump of land from every vantage point. You can pay to paddle out there on a tour boat, but I’ve eschewed that outing twice, preferring to see the water- and tree-ringed bell tower with its mountainous backdrop.
This time, we also forgo the medieval castle looming above the lake, instead making a number of stops on the stroll, perusing the Olympic rowing facilities, checking out one of Tito’s many summer villas, and stopping at the Park Hotel on the way back to the car for a slice of their famous cream cake.
There are higher summits, rougher peaks, scarier climbs, and more exotic mountain cultures around the world, but for my money, the Alps are the torch carrier for highland hiking day in and day out, the winner of the prize for “Most Well-Rounded” of mountain ranges, if you will. The countries that are caretakers of this range, and the people who make these slopes and meadows their home, have created a system of paths and services that are hard to beat. From our post-college backpacking days, to our first serious experience hiking the Mont Blanc circuit a decade ago, to the day hikes we sprinkle into our European trips, we have returned time and again to these green hills full of cows, streams, trees, and fields. It’s always a good day for an amble in the Alps.
My packing list for most trekking trips, whether they’re going to be day hikes or multi-day marathons, is pretty simple: hiking shoes or boots, a few layered tops, athletic tights or maybe a thicker hiking pant, some cold and/or rainy weather gear, a trusty baseball cap that has seen better days, and … that’s about it. Most of those layers are more than a decade old, but I know they all work, and I can pack all the right stuff while half asleep.
On one of my earliest outings with strangers years ago, I met my first Haute Hikers. These upscale, stylish ladies had more than one nanopuff jacket buried in their overstuffed duffel bags, the better to coordinate with multiple pairs of figure-enhancing pants. They had decorative scarves and neck gaiters that matched their expensive little tank tops, jaunty caps (one had a feather), fancy watches (with altitude readings, naturally), and snazzy boots that were so new they got blisters the first day. I did covet some of their stuff, I have to admit, but I was pretty happy to avoid those ridiculously heavy duffels and backpacks. Being underdressed had benefits I appreciated, both logistical and psychic.
Let’s switch channels to European day hikes in the mountains, specifically the ones I took on our recent Central Europe swing. I am equipped just about as I described above. I’m in the same clothes I’ve worn in other parts of the world, and I’ve got a light daypack with water for the day, a snack or two, a rain jacket, and a hat. But now I am clearly overdressed, too sporty for the trails, and way too amply supplied in general.
You see, in the mountainous parts of Europe, hiking is such a part of life that it requires no special apparel or gear. In the High Tatras of northern Slovakia, on a trail that chewed me up at times, cute young women in capris and sandals – several with heels – sauntered past me, stepping up and over the jagged rocks as if they were power shopping on Fifth Avenue. The men wore basic pants and t-shirts and kept up a blistering pace that allowed them to stop for a smoke and still pass me again fifteen minutes later. Did anyone even have a backpack? I don’t think so. Six hours for them must be a morning constitutional – no snacks or extra water necessary.
In the Austrian Alps, we trundled down from a high mountain lake one afternoon to see a family with toddlers, all seemingly dressed for the playground, scampering up the steep path toward us, as carefree as could be. Dogs joined their owners on many a trail – not big tough dogs, but little fashion dogs, white yippy things that bounded over tree roots and mossy stones with their 4-inch legs while I heaved my taller, stronger (I thought) body over the same obstacles.
There were actually a few European hiking beasts who carried more than I did. But their bulky loads were their children, from infants on up strapped onto their backs, with the little ones’ legs and arms dangling and swinging wildly as their parents maneuvered down rock piles and mud chutes. Look, no hands! the adults might as well have proclaimed as they careened by my pokey self crawling like a baby down some scree. I couldn’t decide if I admired these risk-takers or found them mildly (or wildly) irresponsible …
Even if I scale up my gear program and buy some newer, more attractive apparel, I’m never going to be a mountaintop model; I value comfort and carry-on convenience way too much. At the downscale end of the spectrum, I can’t quite see myself tackling serious climbs in clothes I last wore to a casual picnic either. I think I’ll just stick with my dependable old middle-of-the-road hiking attire and save the other two ends of the scale for a blog post.
There was nothing pedestrian about the hike and the landscape we encountered in northern Slovakia last month, except that the only way to see it was on foot, of course.
I first heard of Slovakia’s High Tatras mountains in July of 2015, when a fellow blogger penned a compelling personal account of a hike to Veľké Hincovo Pleso. Her descriptions of both the physical trek and the restorative power of nature resonated with me. It was my introduction to both her and this relatively unknown trekking area, and I resolved then and there to do this very hike someday. In a way, our driving trip around central Europe 26 months later was planned around hiking this one little trail.
We arrived at Strbske Pleso, close to the mountainous border with Poland, after a few days in western and central Slovakia. We had already begun to absorb some of the wild roughness of this country’s natural beauty. Its smaller roads cut through dark forests of evergreens, but a drive up multiple switchbacks to our hotel and a late afternoon stroll around Strbske Pleso itself (pleso means tarn, or mountain lake, for those who don’t do crossword puzzles!) brought home the towering and glowering nature of the area. It was raining more than it wasn’t and when it did cease at times, there was a low-hanging mist and a deep chill in the air. We gazed out the front of our lodging to a valley far below, but at this point we had no idea what jagged heights lay behind the hotel.
The morning of the hike, we rose to a miraculously sunny day – quite cold and crystal clear – but I had a new obstacle to overcome. Stomach trouble the night before had left me depleted, and I was plagued with a sharp headache and weakened limbs from the sickness and lack of sleep. But there was simply no way I was giving up the chance to take this hike on the only sunny day the area had seen or was likely to see in well over a week. I forced down a piece of toast, filched a roll and some cheese from the breakfast table for later, and donned every layer of hiking-appropriate clothing I could find in my suitcase.
We set off with husband J’s idea that I might only make it to Popradské Pleso, the first mountain lake on the route and about an hour and a half up the trail. Truth be told, even before I felt so debilitated, the map of the hiking trails had intimidated me; our ultimate goal lay near the highest peaks of the range, and there was a disconcerting amount of snow on steep-looking ridges on every drawing I consulted.
As we got underway, I had moments of doubt that I’d even make it to Popradské Lake, but as I have on so many treks in the past, I put one foot in front of the other until I fell into a rhythm and pushed my discomfort and worries into the background.
Somehow, even with my slowed pace and frequent camera stops, we made it to the trail junction in less than the posted time. Motivated to keep going by that surprising discovery and a deep drink of water, I insisted that we press on, passing a sign that said we had just a few more hours to Veľké Hincovo Pleso. No problem, I thought, even though I knew that the next phase would involve steeper slopes, fast-flowing streams to cross, and a jumble of rocks to climb. Two hours was nothing to me; I’d taken difficult treks that chewed up ten-hour days, and I repeated them day after day for weeks at a time in some pretty precipitous parts of the world.
Well, I was about to be humbled. Shortly after the turn, we were clambering over muddy tree roots and then a rock-strewn path, both of which felt nearly vertical to my wasted body. I begged J to go on ahead; he hikes fast and usually has no qualms about ditching me. But today he refused, saying there was no way he was leaving me alone when I felt weak and dizzy. I’m not much of a trail talker to begin with, but now I was dead silent, summoning all my energy stores for the next steps, steps that quickly became higher, sharper, and more irregular.
We began to cross several small streams, two with wood bridges and one an easy hop, skip, and jump on the rocks. I was relieved; the fording with a rope over a fast torrent that Julie had written about was no longer here! So what was that sound? That sound of churning water ahead and above, that sound of voices and shouts. My heart sank as we rounded a bend and saw it: a rough and tumble gush of water over half-submerged, jagged rocks – and no rope. People were tottering across, many plunging at least one boot into the rapids.
I was done, I thought. I have great balance and I love a good rock hop, but I was exhausted and suddenly paralyzed. I stood on the near bank, staring and shaking my head. The longer this goes on, I scolded myself, the more wobbly I was going to be. The key to rock hopping is an agile quickness; the more you waver, the shakier you get. J stopped halfway on the biggest, flattest rock and held out his hand. I have to admit it; I am a hiking hard-ass, and I wanted none of that wussiness. I made a few perfunctory, dismissive motions, but I finally hopped in, grabbing his hand, and we scampered the rest of the way across.
J said again Do you need to turn around? There’s still a long way to go, and then we have to get down.
NO, I snapped. I’m not quitting. Spit out as if it were the most terrible word and idea in the world.
How did you end up like this? He laughed and shook his head.
Like what? Competitive? You know I’ve always been this way.
I was thinking stubborn and hard-headed …
That I was. Am. I was getting to that lake today.
The next 75 minutes were arduous, and we walked in silence, J surging ahead and then checking behind him, me talking to myself in the sternest terms and ducking my head every time he looked back. The toil was relieved by the most astounding vistas – sweeping panoramas of the Mengusovská Dolina (Valley) behind us and neck-craning views of the crests on the border ahead.
At ten minutes before noon, a descending hiker said 5 minutes! and all of a sudden the trail leveled out and we were walking into the bowl that holds the largest and deepest tarn in the Tatras.
It was uniquely exhilarating, in some ways the most satisfying “summit” I’ve ever reached. I pumped my fist, J slapped me five, and a rush of energy propelled me out to the glacier-carved pool to fully absorb the arc of sharp peaks standing guard. We had the place nearly to ourselves for a few moments. I sat down alone on a boulder, finished my sandwich, ate a small square of chocolate, gulped as much water as I dared, and stood up.
And then we went down. It was an ordeal, and it took even longer, including a stupid mistake that cost us 45 knee-destroying minutes at the end. But I prefer to end this story at the high place, on a high note, in the High Tatras, by far the highlight of my two-week trip.
We left Bratislava and headed northeast toward Vlkolínec, a UNESCO World Heritage village in Slovakia. It was a particularly dreary day, punctuated occasionally by the squeak of the windshield wipers and the raising and then dismissing of other places to stop along the way. Trnava and Banská Bystrica – nahh, too big. The abandoned castle Pustý hrad in Zvolen – meh, tired of castles. How about a Benedictine monastery in Hronský Beňadik? A unique wooden church in Hronsek? Let’s not bother, we yawned.
Stuck in the middle of my trip notes was the name Špania Dolina. Thinking it was an area (dolina means valley) and not a specific town, I had relegated it to last place, so when we finally looked it up and saw it was a picturesque mining village, home to fewer than 200 people on the border of the Veľká Fatra and Low Tatras forest and mountains, we said Bingo.
We exited the main artery and navigated a heavily wooded, winding road up to the village. Pulling into the main square, we saw no signs of morning life. There was a cute bus stop with library books (but no people) inside, a covered stairway leading to an old church on the hill above us, and through the morning mist, we spied a smattering of stone and wood houses above us. We parked the car, grabbed our umbrellas, and tentatively peeked in the windows around the square. Nothing open.
Let’s climb up and look at the church and the views from there, I suggested, but I’m not going up inside those dark steps! (160 of them, said a sign at the bottom.)
We found a lane curving steeply up to the left and in minutes we found ourselves among quaint houses that we later learned were from the 17th and 18th centuries and typical examples of the rustic folk architecture in parts of rural Slovakia. Within view of the newer houses built into a hillside across a small valley, these old wooden homes were lovingly cared for, with decorative windows and neatly tended gardens and flower boxes. We crunched up the gravel road, trying to be quiet in the morning stillness, until we reached the church.
Although J had no interest in peeking inside, I stole up to the door and cracked it open, finding to my complete surprise a congregation in the midst of a murmured prayer. It was Sunday! Oh, that’s why there’s no one out and about. I gently closed the door and rejoined J, and we crept down through the covered stairway to the square, chuckling at our vacation-induced obliviousness and, ultimately, our luck in finding this tiny, authentic place in the middle of the Slovakian countryside.
~ ~ ~
We continued on toward Vlkolínec, which we knew was situated near the bigger town of Ružomberok. We had planned to park in the latter and walk into Vlkolínec, but the rain discouraged us, and we punched the village name into Googlemaps to drive in. We saw a vague sign or two for the village, and got two orders to turn at places where we saw no real roads, so we kept going. Finally, the impatient mapping lady told us to turn where there was a path of sorts, and we obeyed; three minutes later we found ourselves rattling through a meadow full of cows on a track of gravel, destroyed asphalt, and mud.
Cursing my husband (because of course) and GPS inadequacy, I looked for a place to turn around, but there would be none of that. The “road” fell sharply off into pastureland and was barely wide enough for our little rented Audi (which I was now worried about damaging in the 6-inch deep ruts), let alone any oncoming traffic or a turnaround. Four anguished miles and at least twenty minutes later, as the trail became increasingly thin, muddy, and steep, we entered the village of Vlkolínec at its highest point, suddenly confronted by tourists and realizing that we had come in on a bike path and were now driving through a pedestrian village of twenty permanent residents and perhaps twice that many visitors on foot. Oops.
Embarrassed and apologetic, we steered our way slowly down through the village to the parking lot, where our punishment was a drenching downpour the minute we opened the car doors. In spite of the ignominious entrance and wet welcome, we took our time wandering this place out of time. Like Spania Dolina, Vlkolínec contained the wooden houses endemic to this part of forested Slovakia, but here the entire village had been preserved as if in a state of suspended life. These residents weren’t in church; they were probably hiding in the six enchanting log houses the villagers themselves still owned while we interlopers roamed their streets and snapped photo after photo of their water wheels, charmingly composed window vignettes, and wooden totems.
UNESCO’s synthesis of the town’s World Heritage designation notes its roots in the 10th century, its first records from the 14th, and the 55 or so remarkably intact homes of original folk architecture, primarily built in the 19th century. It felt a little as if Vlkolínec were not quite real as we drifted through its streets, but it was still the best kind of tourist spot, an understated place where the visitors were respectful and courteous, perhaps because most seemed to be fairly local themselves. There were families with dogs, couples huddled under ponchos, and intrepid hikers who braved deep grooves of mud to view the farm buildings and terraced fields on the edge of the unpretentious village. We didn’t hear a single word of English.
Back in the car, we felt we had just left the pages of two fairy tales, set in the big dark woods and replete with old stories of elves who helped the miners in Špania Dolina and the solemn but folksy wood figures that watched over Vlkolínec. It was a perfect way to spend a rainy day, and we felt lucky to have been offered a fleeting window into the Slovakian rural life tucked away in this wild and rugged countryside.
At the edge of your seat? That’s what I thought. Here in the U.S., Arkansas does not get a great deal of respect outside its own borders. As one of the states ranking lowest in education, highest in levels of obesity – and perhaps because of the stereotypes based on those two facts – one of the least-visited states in the country, Arkansas strikes some as a sad little backwater full of banjo-strumming, catfish-eating rednecks down south somewhere. Don’t believe it.
I’ve always gravitated to and been a champion of underdog locales, so I’m here to dispel some of the myths about Arkansas, one of the most naturally beautiful states in our country. Yes, it is; it really is! I started traveling to Arkansas a few years ago when my youngest son took a job in Little Rock, a place where he didn’t even want to interview but, once there, he embraced this artsy little city and threw himself into local affairs. Every time I visit, I find more to like, and it begins with the scenic appeal of the undulating, verdant topography.
The Natural State has millions of acres of national forest land, including two mountain ranges, the Ozarks and the Ouachitas. There are miles and miles of streams and rivers, the two biggest being the Arkansas and the Mississippi. Trails and campsites, dozens of lakes, caves, and even hot springs draw visitors and entertain locals alike. Boating, canoeing, fishing, and hiking are accessible almost from border to border with national and state parks galore, including one of the oldest and most visited parks in the country – Hot Springs National Park.
Arkansas’s appeal goes beyond the great outdoors, though. Its capital, Little Rock, is a quirky little city, with quaint throwbacks like a streetcar system and ’50s era drugstores and barbershops side by side with spiffy bespoke tailors and well-groomed suburban shopping malls.
Its distinctive neighborhoods are connected by a few main thoroughfares, and many are worth a drive-through and a stop – perhaps a morning farmer’s market in SoMa (the up-and-coming South Main Street area), then on to a Cajun lunch or taco in tiny Riverdale, a late afternoon latte in boho Hillcrest, dinner in the more stately Heights, then back downtown for a nightcap or some music.
Farther west, the houses are huge and the lawns are manicured, but the hilly roads are a constant, dipping and curving amid the ubiquitous tree-covered greenery, and biking and walking paths are also given all over the city, especially along the Arkansas River.
Little Rock’s compact downtown boasts an array of live music venues, including a picturesque riverfront amphitheater, as well as a few tall corporate headquarters that assert LR is a real city, the usual mix of small local cafes and fancier big restaurants, art galleries, and new tech spaces. Old warehouses have been converted into stylish lofts, chic new condos and apartments are popping up here and there, and everything is a short walk away. For those so inclined, those strolls can take in the Clinton Presidential Center and Park, as well as the impressive Heifer International headquarters building and information center.
Like any river town, Little Rock has a plethora of bridges – old railroad trestles, sparkling new spans, and my favorite (and best-named), the Big Dam Bridge. The latter is an engineering marvel to view and, even better, it’s in an area of woodsy trails and pedestrian bridges just minutes outside of downtown.
There is much more to discover in Arkansas, and I have every intention of doing just that. Tops on my list is the Crystal Bridges Museum, a glass jewel box of American art nestled into the forests of Northwest Arkansas. Nearby is the charming town of Eureka Springs, as well as Fayetteville, home of the state university and a city I’ve always wanted to visit ever since novelist Ellen Gilchrist made it the home of her main character in The Annunciation (and herself in real life). In my mind, Fayetteville is a classic college town of bookshops and art stores, cafes and boutique shops, set amid the same rolling landscape I’ve already raved about, and it sounds like a perfect little base for the museum and hot springs visit, too.
If Arkansas is languishing near the bottom of your travel list, don’t be afraid – it’s not all razorback hogs, hillbillies, and moonshine! Come on down here and check it out – it really is a great blend of small-town charm and natural beauty.
We had covered Argentina from top to bottom, starting way up north at Iguazú Falls and winging it south almost to the tip of the continent to Patagonia. Bracketing those extremes were two stays in Buenos Aires, and this last one, for a few days before we finally flew home, was all about relaxation and absorbing all that we’d seen.
We settled into our bohemian little neighborhood, Palermo Soho, and planned very little for the sultry days and nights we had remaining. We ambled slowly through the narrow streets, licking ice cream cones, drinking wine, and popping into shops and markets at our whim. We photographed the doors and the vibrant street art, napped at the pool, and then ate and drank some more.
For one last outing, we roused ourselves to meet up with a business colleague who wanted to show us the town of Tigre and the Paraná Delta of waterways and islands that surrounds it. The area is a huge tangle of rivers and land covering over 5000 square miles, one of the biggest deltas in the world and one of the few that do not empty into an ocean. Here, the milky, muddy Paraná River splits into innumerable smaller channels and forms an ever-changing pattern of sediment-built, tree-covered islands.
We glide along in our gleaming, polished wood boat, brushed occasionally by willow branches and slipping in and out of sunlight. There are occasional signs that the delta was once both more and less than it is now. Belle époque-style buildings grace the shores closer to Tigre itself, and there are glimpses of larger houses hiding behind some of the modest, multi-colored cottages on stilts that line the shore.
As we chug lazily toward the Rio de la Plata, the river that divides Argentina and Uruguay, the little spits of land become more remote, and we can almost imagine the days when jaguars roamed here, giving their name (tigres) to the area. Tree branches cast their flickering shadows on the water, and the deeper we go off the main streams, the more we feel we’re on a Heart of Darkness kind of journey. All of us are lost in our own thoughts, staring dreamily at the languid water, as we work our way farther into the mysterious estuary and become more and more removed from the frenetic pace of modern life.
As we leave the tour boat channels, we crack one lazy eye open to watch local families spread laundry and other belongings in yards and on docks, and see lithe, sun-kissed children leap like dancers from launch to moorings. Mail boats, water taxis, and grocery dinghies ply these unhurried canals, and rudimentary cafes hide among the foliage; we would never find them without our native friend.
Around a bend in the river, we part the leaves of some overhanging trees and pull up to a weathered dock. We clamber out of the boat, climb the stairs, and are greeted by a man in shorts and little else. Our host knows the ropes and orders quickly for us: a bucketful of icy beers and a couple of margarita pizzas, which arrive with a mound of the freshest, greenest basil I’ve ever seen piled on top.
Sated and groggier than we were when we stopped, we pile back into the launch and begin the hour-long ride back to the marina. As we bob and skim back through the waterways, we awake from our floating dream and reenter the world of bigger boats, river commerce, tourists, and finally, roads and cars. Our lazy day in Tigre and the Delta is our final memory of Argentina and a great way to finish off the otherwise bustling city of Buenos Aires.
This past spring, I left one of the most transient cities I’ve ever lived in; every few years, entire apartments and office buildings turn over, and a fresh crop of hopeful newcomers arrives in Washington, DC. Of course, there are plenty of career folks in town, and people working outside the government, but my take on my year in DC was that everyone was a short-timer, and those transient residents did not want or need new friends. Feeling temporary myself, I made little effort to settle in, and 2016 ended up being one of the loneliest years of my life as I insisted on leaving the city every chance I got.
The funny thing is that I thought I loved impermanence and being on the move. For decades, I dreamed of moving and, even more radically, of becoming nomadic in some form. I am so comfortable traveling and making myself feel at home all over the world that I thought this was the life that suited me best, not the stable, boring, predictable life I had.
Could I have been wrong all along? For that year, at least, I suffered without good friends. I pined for my familiar, tiny grocery store. I became cranky without all my belongings. I realized I had grown roots that were way deeper and stronger than I knew, and when I cavalierly ripped them out of their home soil, I killed something I had undervalued.
So we left DC and resettled more permanently in yet another place, and some of those tethers and connections have begun to repair themselves. I have formed an eclectic group of friends and have grown fond of my house, my neighborhood, and my new city at large. So why am I suddenly, eagerly reading articles about vanlife and people in motor homes with an alarming level of interest? Is that foot that is always poised over the threshold responsible for the weeks-long European road trip I recently put together for the fall?
In the middle of all this thinking about transience and fickleness, berating myself for my grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side attitude, I happened across an article on the so-called “wanderlust gene,” a mutation of the DRD4 gene that helps control dopamine and, thus, learning and reward. If the desire to explore and roam does lie within our genome, it may be the DRD4-7r variant that is the cause of our restlessness, according to dozens of studies that have been published in the last few years, and an astonishing 20% of us might carry it. I like this idea! It’s not a character flaw; it’s in my genetic makeup to seek change and movement!
As I ponder the reasons for always wanting to be where I am not, I leave you with these photos of some of the most transient people on earth – the nomads who live on the Mongolian steppe – and their portable homes. They have moved four times since I left them last summer, and I’ve almost kept up with them, leaving two houses and moving to a third in that time. I plan to stay put for at least another season, but after that anything’s fair game!
I wake up, groaning, in a 35-degree lodge, my stomach in spasms, and my head pounding at an altitude of nearly 14,000 feet, a good week into the Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal. How am I going to do this today, I wonder? Teeth chattering, I dress and stumble out to the small dining room, thinking about how I can tell the guide I can’t possibly go up another 1000 feet or more this morning. And then a guy from Alaska pushes a bowl of warm oatmeal and a mug of coffee at me and gently encourages me to eat. A young woman leaves her mom’s side as we get up from the table and commiserates about my cramps, and our guide slaps me five as we gingerly step into a snowy, misty morning. You’re looking good, Miss Lexie – ready to go? And indeed, there I went, held up by people I didn’t even know when I landed in Kathmandu two weeks before.
Tramping across this Earth has been one of the highlights of my life and, more often than not, I have been introduced to new lands in the company of strangers. Even when I have set off with family members or existing friends, I have collected what I always call “my hiking friends,” people I’ve met on the trail who become fast friends for as long as the trek lasts, and sometimes longer.
On rare occasions, those people become real friends, and some have joined me on future walks. While others do eventually slip away and become simply holiday card recipients or pleasant memories, there is a small circle of us, including a few guides, who will always be connected long after we left the pathways.
My husband and kids tease me about my hiking friends, wondering how I can become so attached to people with whom I have spent a mere week or two. But a week of post-hike beers and dinners gives friendship formation a power boost, and believe me, three days in camps with no showers and one toilet tent creates an intimacy one rarely experiences with friends at home! In a matter of days, we think nothing of sharing our trail food or embarrassing stories, and we take care of each other in ways that belie the brief life of our relationship.
Every step of the budding bond is accelerated when we spend our waking hours chatting on a tough mountain track and our evenings sharing meals, pains, and more life stories. Most of us are in the early-impressions phase of trying to be agreeable and supportive, and friendship blooms quickly and easily with those who are open to it.
In the last decade, I have met my Nepal hiking friends for a ski trip in Utah and reunited with them on the Paine Circuit in Chile, hosted my Tanzanian guide in our home in Chicago, gone back to Peru and linked up with my Inca Trail guides again for some smaller walks on my own, and recently had another Himalayan hiking friend over for dinner here in Houston. They may not be my everyday pals, but my hiking friends and I have a singular connection that I cannot share with anyone else, and my life is richer for them.
It’s a summer weekend several decades ago, and my dad is seeking company for his customary Sunday activity: a drive in the country. As usual, I am the only taker. Sometimes we look at houses, occasionally we explore new areas, but most of the time we just drive out into the country and admire the rustic fences, the barns, the crops, and above it all, the sweeping sky. We chat or we don’t, and we inevitably end up at a Dairy Queen for a twist cone at the end of the day. These yawning days are among my favorite childhood memories.
Flash forward, and there is still something about an unscheduled Sunday that cries out for a jaunt in the car. Yesterday I answered the call, and we loaded the vehicle with the dog, some water, and a few snacks, and headed northwest from Houston to enjoy a spectacular spring day on the road.
Our destination is the perfect distance away (less than two hours) and has an additional attraction; a town called Bryan, Texas, named after my distant relative, William Jennings Bryan. Three-time presidential candidate (and perpetual loser), secretary of state, famed orator, and attorney both admired and ridiculed, Bryan is a direct ancestor on my father’s side of the family. Hailing from Illinois originally, but a long-time resident of Nebraska (where my grandfather was born), Bryan somehow left his mark quite deeply in Texas, where he owned a winter home and farm.
The journey itself ends up being the enchantment. The sky is a blue bed of white puffballs, and the early crops are a cheerful lemon-green. Rural fences always rope me in, and today is no exception. We see white pickets, split rails, and dark wood dividers on both sides of the road. We get off the main highway as often as possible and keep swerving off onto the berm to photograph the ranch gates, both simple and elaborate, along the way. We follow the web of farm-to-market (FM) routes, observing the network of roads that physically connect rural America to our large cities.
My husband eats a Texas-sized beef brisket sandwich at a popular BBQ joint at 11 am, halfway through the drive out, and is still sated when we arrive home in the late afternoon. We stop at a famous rest stop/gas station to fuel up at bargain prices and peruse the outlandish array of paraphernalia available there, from fresh fudge to hot dogs, homemade kolaches to every bag snack you’ve ever heard of, stuffed animals to camouflage gear, and the “cleanest restrooms in America.”
The historic town of Bryan is closed down on this Sunday afternoon, which is fitting given William Jennings’ religious bent later in life. We wander through the downtown streets for a few blocks anyway and then load the old pooch back in the car and retrace our route back to the big city.
We’ve accomplished little, but we’ve temporarily cleared our heads in all that fresh air and sprawling land. Unfortunately, mine is now spinning with thoughts, reflecting on presidents and populations, of byways and barriers. This is what most of America looks like geographically, even as the majority of our population moves into urban environments.
In Bryan’s day and our recent past, this dichotomy did not seriously threaten our cohesion as a nation; in fact, those FM roads connected more than just farmers and our city tables. But now our differences, the other kinds of fences we have put up at home and around the world, have helped to create the calamity of our current leadership.
While I was piloting and pondering, France was rejecting a vision of the world where a nation can only house one type of person, where only the market-makers matter, and where outside interference can amplify those differences and scare people into a frightening, reactionary decision. We were not so careful or clear-headed here, but my hope is that the strong French results will somehow nudge the world back onto the kind of road that connects rather than divides.
Yolyn Am canyon was a welcome stop in our exploration of Mongolia last summer. We had been on the steppe for over a week, baking under the Eurasian high summer sun, and we were headed to the even hotter Gobi Desert when we boarded a tiny propeller plane for the south and the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains.
From flat, scrubby expanses, we arrived in a deep, cool gorge for an invigorating hike inside towering walls. Yolyn Am (named after the yol, or lammergeyer, a vulture-like bird) is known in part for its ice field that lingers well into the summer, and we saw remnants of this as we criss-crossed a running stream at the base of the canyon.
Although the hike was lengthy and we had to pick our way carefully in some of the narrower stretches, there was only minor danger encountered that day. Nevertheless, we got a huge kick out of all the warning or admonitory signs on our way into the trailhead! Can you determine what to watch out for or refrain from doing here?
Are we nuts? I scowled at my husband, as we boarded the plane and crammed ourselves and three little kids into the economy seats of a plane bound for London. We had put our farther-flung travels on hold for the toddler years, but now it was time to load everybody up and start seeing the world through fresh young eyes.
We soon found we had nothing to fear. From takeoff that summer day, we discovered our kids were born to travel. They entertained themselves or slept the entire flight, they stayed up all the next day until bedtime, and they believed me when I said there was no such thing as jet lag, spending all of day two on their feet, in the tube, in the parks and museums and churches and shops, and they topped it off with a night at the theater. They were 5, 8 and 10 years old; I have to say I was pretty impressed.
We stayed with friends in London and started some great travel memories, the kind of recollections kids have of their trips, not necessarily the kind adults and travel bloggers write about. They remember minding the gap as we rode back and forth into the city, gawking at the torture devices in the Tower of London, snuggling a new Paddington Bear toy, and the sheer magnitude of choices at the food court at Harrods. They remember the crushing crowds at the theater, but not much about the play. They recall it being scorching hot outside Big Ben and Parliament, but nothing about the places themselves.
Paris was next, via the Eurostar train through the chunnel, a ride that is still remembered for the orange juice that was spilled on my daughter’s white sweater rather than for the transportation wonder that it was. Strongest memory of the Eiffel Tower? The awful pizza – who puts weird mushrooms on pizza, they cried! (Who eats in the Eiffel Tower, we should have been asking.) Continental toilets were the subject of many a journal entry; my oldest was intrigued with the different flushing mechanisms, the water flow, the seats – you name it; he cataloged it.
Notre Dame is remembered for its roof and the winding stairs that got them there; back then you could go the whole way up, and we spent well over an hour looking out over the rooftops, but no one has any memory of going inside. Parisian cuisine? They ordered steak frites or jambon et fromage sandwiches at every single restaurant for every single meal (except for that sad Eiffel Tower pizza). We rented a spacious apartment decades before AirBnb, and they remember … the lobby.
The French countryside brought new delights. What kid would not love Mont St Michel and the idea that we could be stranded there when the tide came in? Forget the abbey; that natural moat was the cool part. Dinard was a charming beach town, but here they had the coziest, whitest beds, all three crammed together in a toile-covered room, and that Grand Hotel may still be their favorite hotel in the world. Monet’s garden delighted my daughter, perhaps in part for its flowers and green benches, but mostly because she remembered she had gotten out of a day of preschool to attend the Monet exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago with me years before. And, to them, the D-Day beaches represented the end of a different kind of World War: a huge fight between mom and dad over asking for directions! (To be honest, that hours-long argument and the driving in circles all over Normandy are my strongest memories of that historic place as well.)
Belgium brought panic and a three-way police lookout when we sailed through a toll area without paying the toll (by accident) and the kids were certain we would be arrested, but it also brought one of the most relaxing afternoons we had, meandering though Bruges, eating chocolates and posing on every little stone bridge we crossed.
Our final destination, the Netherlands, where my brother was living with his family, is somewhat properly remembered for our visit to Anne Frank’s house, an evening canal cruise, and the pannenkoeken houses, but what they would say really sticks in their minds is the stone their cousin threw at our youngest’s head in their backyard. Or the porn movie that came on as my brother tried to change the TV channel. Or the girls in the windows in the red light district, which they struggled to comprehend. Or the topless beach near Scheveningen.
Ahem, there is a theme developing there, but it was a different kind of lust that was growing in the kids on that first big trip. Today, those little tykes have a wanderlust that matches their mother’s, and I think all those mundane memories of other countries were the spark. All three kids spent some portion of their college lives overseas, continued to travel with us for many years, have worked overseas in Israel, Ireland, South Africa, Ghana and Malawi, and now take their own road and train and bus trips, wrangling their friends and significant others to step away from home to create more silly, random memories.
After almost a month in Houston, I am surprised and not surprised at how quickly I have regained my happiness. Houston is one of those cities – and Texas one of those states – that elicit sneers and grunts from those who don’t know them. I endured my share of puzzled reactions when we excitedly announced that we would be leaving Chicago and Washington, DC, for the Bayou City, so my goal is to surprise my readers with some of the great things about my new hometown.
One of my favorite first impressions is the incredible outdoor link between my neighborhood and the city. Buffalo Bayou Park is a green space stretching for about two miles from the Montrose neighborhood to the edge of downtown Houston. There are bike paths, walking trails, a skate park, kayak rentals, disc golf, a dog park, and more, all nestled into a ribbon of land on both sides of Buffalo Bayou. Houstonia magazine called the park, finished less than two years ago, “Houston’s new front porch,” and that it is; from morning to night, people ply the paths, sit on the benches, and otherwise savor the outdoors here, just in front of the skyscrapers that stretch for block after block downtown.
My new morning routine is becoming a short walk or drive to the park, followed by a brisk hike, jog, or bike ride within the green confines. I can spend 30 minutes, an hour, or longer winding my way through the spring wildflowers on the banks of the bayou, watching dogs frolic in the Ritz Carlton of dog enclosures, or passing under the Waugh bat bridge, where thousands of Mexican freetail bats emerge and soar against the city backdrop each evening. I can stay low and close to the water’s edge and disappear into nature, or I can ride higher on the paths, closer to street level, and stop at any of a number of sculptures, fountains, gardens, or memorials.
One of the coolest surprises here is that the park was designed with the knowledge that it would flood. In Houston’s tropical climate, rains can be heavy, and the bayous and streets flood numerous times each year. Engineers took into account the fact that waters would rise up to and occasionally above the top of the bayou banks, so they placed electrical lines above the floodplain and used materials like raw concrete and galvanized steel that could hold up under water.
The lower paths are often sandy after a downpour, but the walkways and bike lanes were designed to be easy to sweep clean. Buffalo Bayou Park is built along a natural body of water that is an integral part of the city’s drainage system, so park planners also planted native grasses, trees, and wildflowers whose roots would absorb water underground.
Beyond the practical results of all this planning, the design and flora create a natural habitat for wildlife and make the park feel like a real refuge from urban life. The biggest and most wonderful surprise of all, though, is the moment when you crest one of the graceful park bridges and see before you a bucolic, riparian scene: a trio of kayaks slipping away from a rough, natural shoreline, framed by flowering trees and bordered by shady pathways – all reflected in the shiny spires of the city skyline. The city and nature coexist here in the most surprising and wonderful way, and this park has fast become one of my favorite parts of my new life here in Houston.
I was feeling unsettled about my trip to Cuba even before it was time to step onto the plane a few weeks ago. The inscrutable little island had been near the top of my travel wish list for years. It had originally wormed its way into my consciousness through my reading and the stories of Cuban exiles I knew and admired, particularly my thesis advisor, who is vexed to this day about his native country. Cuba had an aura of impenetrability – both physical and psychological – that made it all the more attractive to me as a travel choice.
Suddenly, though, Cuba seemed to be everyone’s new destination, and I was feeling peevish about that and my own life situation. Getting in before now had required joining a group, and I balked at paying the exorbitant fees and traveling as part of a package tour, so I stifled my desire and waited. As soon as individual entry was allowed, I jumped to make a plan, but after a Christmas break full of sorting and packing, dumpsters and goodbyes, I was utterly exhausted and cranky going into the trip, so that “plan” was quite vague. Basically, we (my sister and I and each of our daughters) had two cities in mind and a few Airbnbs booked. Luckily, this works just fine in Cuba!
My first surprise was finding Havana light on Americans, but perhaps we avoided them with our choice of accommodations and activities. The throngs of tourists I expected (based on fawning articles, recent Instagram photos, and Facebook posts, all brimming with classic cars and peeling paint) did not materialize in our neighborhood or most places we visited. We spent our first three nights ensconced in a seedy building on a bustling local street, our dingy metal door right next to a window with Fidel’s portrait overseeing a small display of outdated ladies underwear. We loved it!
A second (less thrilling) revelation was the need to stand in lines. I remembered, idiotically, that this was actually still a Communist country, and we started the endless queuing before we even left the airport, spending almost an hour waiting to exchange euros for CUCs. We stood outside state-run establishments, and we warily eyed the disorderly hordes outside the Etecsa offices waiting to buy internet cards.
All the waiting, then buying supplies at shockingly under-stocked stores, and then waiting some more – all with no wifi since we stubbornly resisted the crowds – helped us understand the daily ordeals of the Cuban population even as the new, secondary economy grows almost daily. There are so many signs that change is coming or almost here, yet so many reminders that it really is not. As a traveler, I wondered which one I wanted? And then I wondered which one they wanted.
Those three days exploring Havana were my favorites of the trip. Our apartment in Havana Centro was forbidding on the outside, but very clean and comfortable inside. We were able to walk most places, including the Malecón (which we were lucky to see on the first day as it became inaccessible after a fierce storm on day 2),
Havana Vieja and all its charming small streets and plazas,
and central Havana (which included the most unique restaurant visit of my life – chronicled here).
We dined at a classic state-run place that involved over an hour’s line-up outside, made a failed attempt to tour the Partagás cigar factory, and took numerous taxi rides all over the bigger-than-expected city in everything from utilitarian and supremely uncomfortable Russian Ladas to chugging and wheezing 1951 Plymouths or 1948 Buicks with no door handles, seat cushioning, or in one case, windows.
After a foray into the tobacco-growing countryside (future post), we returned to Havana to experience a different part of town. This was to be our splurge – two nights in an old colonial house in what was billed as Havana’s poshest neighborhood. We were giddy with excitement after our humble digs in central Havana and Viñales. We had booked a place that showed white columns, a manicured lawn, a small pool, and huge rooms in the Playa/Miramar area. We pictured ourselves sashaying into Club Havana in cute sundresses and gleefully ogled the few fancy houses we saw from the bus windows on the way back into town.
Expectations are everything, as I’ve cautioned in previous posts, and those cheap places in Havana Centro and rural Viñales exceeded them: Hairdryers! Semi-modern bathrooms! What a deal! About to pay four times as much money, we fantasized about the luxuries we’d get in this fancy house in its stylin’ neighborhood … we would see the pre-revolution lifestyle of wealthy Habaneros up close and personal.
Then we rolled up to the place. The columns looked good from the street, the grass was green, and there were some palm trees,
but we entered our grand house to find mildewy rooms, cloyingly heavy decorating, open showers that sprayed the whole bathroom, NO POOL (filled in with concrete per government edict), no hairdryers, truly bizarre art (think wild cats in Shakespearean ruffles), abominable crumbling structures next door, few commercial establishments, and cold, gray, windy weather (the only part not their fault).
We salvaged the stay, finding another fun state-run outdoor restaurant nearby one night and paying 10 CUCs (US$10) for a day at the beach and pool at Club Havana (which looked nice enough but was eerily empty, with no visitors other than us and a middle-aged Russian lady in a bikini).
After two piña coladas each, we were finally feeling like the socialites and celebrities who’d hummed along to Frank Sinatra here in the 1940s and ‘50s … until our driver rolled up to fetch us in his rattletrap car and we crammed in and bounced our way back to the casa to the beats of 2017 Cuban hip-hop.
Contrary to some opinions and the fears of those who can’t get to Cuba fast enough, there was little to suggest that this place is going to change inexorably in the coming months. It can be both charming and maddening at the same time, and the quirks that make it that way are not going to be ironed out overnight, for good or for bad. Like one of its famous classical ballerinas, Cuba is turning slowly, carefully, even gracefully, toward its new future – no sudden lurches, no wholesale jumps into a new reality.
It’s a fascinating place, and when I stopped asking myself why and when, or good or bad, it delivered. I was being a terrible travel snob, I realized, and all those colorful car and fading façade photos that had seemed like overblown clichés before I went were authentic representations of Cuban life today. As my daughter said one afternoon as we snapped our 17,000th photo of a classic car against a crumbling building, “This just never gets old, does it?”
Complete coverage of last week’s trip to Cuba requires some additional digestion on my part; the full impact of this enigmatic country is much more confounding than I would have imagined based on others’ posts or my pre-trip reading. One place in particular, though, captured the range of impressions Havana leaves on the uninitiated: the fresh new ideas bursting from ruin, the colors, tastes and sounds that thrive amid decay and neglect, an ambience that is not easily explained or understood.
We’ve been told by numerous friends and other tipsters about an amazing restaurant housed in an older building in central Havana. Unable to book a table for any evening we are in town, we persevere by showing up at the place at lunchtime opening hours. We approach the address on shabby streets and pull up short at a door that exposes a scene of extreme disarray. Scaffolding, piles of bricks and boards, sunlight streaming into cavernous rooms open to the sky, and a staircase that looks as if it might or might not bear our weight. We’re going to eat food here? my sister asks, incredulously.
The building, a former mansion subdivided into what is now a partially abandoned tenement, unfolds from an entry flanked by two thick wooden doors crackling with dried paint.
Greeted by a headless goddess and a view of a forsaken hallway, we take our first steps upward, turning to view our progress from time to time.
At the second level, we stop, mouths agape at a surreal scene of row upon row of flapping white fabric in a vast room of open windows. We feel as if we’ve stumbled on an art installation of some sort, perhaps an entry in the Whitney Biennial, not the simple airing of tablecloth and napkin laundry from the restaurant above, as we discover on closer inspection and a stroll through the fluttering cloth.
We continue our ascent slowly, savoring each surprise as it reveals itself. Ornate curlicues on the banisters (part with handrails, part without), an opening to an atrium, a bulky thing (sculpture?) on a landing, columns and arches, graffiti and water tanks.
On the third floor, we finally reach the restaurant, as surprising in its elegance and finished state as a pearl in an oyster. We are in luck; we can have a table if we finish in less than two hours. We are fast-eating Americans; this is not a problem!
The meal is excellent, the surroundings beautiful and relaxing. But this story is not about the establishment; it is about the unveiling of it. Like Cuba itself at this moment in history, the restaurant rises from long neglect to newfound stardom, from Communist-era living space to privately-owned paladar. The old-new friction can seem raw, and I found myself wanting to keep parts of Cuba covered up, protected from what is coming, preserved in its imperfect, faded, messy splendor.
But that’s not my call, any more than it is to want the opposite – for parts of this inefficient, maddening place to get it together at times throughout my week there. After a week, Cuba is more of a mystery to me than it was before I went, and this building and restaurant epitomize the unpredictable dual nature of the travel world’s new darling. More to come as I try to make sense of my feelings about this bewildering place.
It has long been my practice to avoid naming specific places of business in my blog posts. If you are headed to Havana and simply have to see this marvelous place, please send me a message at my blog email address (in the About section) and I will happily respond!
Is it the nature of things (or simply me and my itchy feet?) that just as I have (semi-happily) settled into my newest environment that I should suddenly find ahead of me a tantalizing new horizon? Its confirmation awaits the final details … stay tuned until after the holidays on this one!
Meanwhile, 2016 – an annus horribilis for me in many ways – is nearing an end. The year started in a fine way, with a trip to Bogota and Cartagena, Colombia, followed soon after by a much-needed solo trip to Nicaragua. Things were looking good – back-to-back Latino-flavored trips in my favorite kind of weather – warm!
Unfortunately, the latter getaway was bookended by (much) less relaxing journeys to take care of my ailing mother. February/March followed up with a relocation from long-time home Chicago to less-than-eagerly-anticipated Washington, DC., and the beginning of multiple back-and-forth drives between those two cities, usually with elderly dog in tow, for the next few months.
I did get a few kicks out of hoodwinking many of you for April Fool’s Day, and I also escaped to Aspen, Colorado, for a glorious string of days in the mountains, even as I struggled with sleeplessness (so not me!) in a bad bed, myriad frustrations in a tiny apartment with non-functional appliances, and a decline in health and fitness in my new urban lifestyle.
Summer brought another series of trips to and from the new DC residence, the old house in Illinois, and the parents’ house in Pennsylvania, but again, the stress of this peripatetic lifestyle, and worries about aging parents and dog, were salved by one of the most amazing trips of my lifetime – to Mongolia – chronicled in an embarrassment of posts in August. Two little side trips to Seoul rounded out that month quite nicely!
I bitched about DC more than I should have (in spite of landing a great new job at American University), lived vicariously through my daughter and her stint in Ghana this fall, and then finally came to terms with Washington by late autumn, just in time to contemplate leaving for greener pastures!
I plan to enjoy my family and our soon-to-be-listed home in Chicago over the holidays and just afterward, I will pop into Cuba for a week before facing head-on the next wave of changes about to wash over me. It’s all good – this time I’m up for the ride! Can’t wait to tell you more about it!
It’s no secret that I’ve been a reluctant transplant to Washington, DC, for the last nine months, and that was well before all the upheaval of the last few weeks. In my brain, I know it’s a beautiful city, but there was something in my heart that wouldn’t let me fully embrace this place.
Washington is filled with limestone facades and mansard roofs I would rave about if they were in Paris. Streets with colorful row houses lined up under flowering trees fill my vibrant urban neighborhood, yet I desultorily snap photos of them and never look at them again. Impressive statues spring from a plethora of green parks, rowers ply the sparkling Potomac in slim shells, and gothic spires pierce the sky from Georgetown to Cathedral Heights. And still I said Meh …
But a month or so ago, a switch was flipped. We started to make a point to get out at least once a week with tourist eyes. I resisted – some places more than others. Great Falls promised and delivered some powerful nature, Rock Creek Park and Roosevelt Island got us deep into the woods in the midst of a major city, and Union Market produced one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches I’d had in a long time!
Languishing on the list, however, was Dumbarton Oaks, a house and garden in Georgetown that my husband had frequented years ago as a student. I pictured a few teak benches and some pedestrian flower beds, a boring colonial house and small parklet of limited interest.
Proving my bias toward international inspiration, I got a comment from a blog reader way over in Sri Lanka (that’s you, Peta!) who gave me the final shove I needed to go see this place. On an abnormally warm, sunny day, we finally ventured through the gates to what turned out to be an enchanted garden of wonder and delight.
Each “room” was a microcosm of magic: Nearly tropical pockets of ponds, flowers and giant leaves.
Autumnal tableaux of pumpkins and pergolas draped with withering vines.
A mossy wall with a tiny Pan and his flute, pointing the way to an oval pool, a long allée, and its vanishing point among a stand of still-green trees.
A pebble garden, geometric latticework, and grassy steps in a worn amphitheater.
Time stopped as we slowly wandered the grounds here and for a little while, I fell in love with my adopted city.