Chocolate, Waffles and Waterloo – Napoleon Part 1

BELGIUM 2, UNITED STATES 1

So ended the 2014 World Cup run for the United States US Men’s Soccer team. The build up to the big game involved getting back in touch with our Belgian friends Olivia and Pascal. We exchanged a few friendly barbs in anticipation of the big game, as I wondered why Prince Harry was playing for Belgium and he shared a meme of Captain America being defeated by a Red Devil. (The Red Devils is the unofficial nick-name of the Belgian national team.) Besides chocolate, waffles and fries, Belgium is perhaps most famous for being the home of Waterloo. It was at Waterloo where even Tim Howard couldn’t save “The Little Emperor” Napoleon Bonaparte’s army in 1815. We were fortunate to visit the Waterloo battlefield site with Olivia in 2012.

Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily. – Napoleon Bonaporte

Modern day Waterloo is a suburb of Brussels with a population of just under 30,000. The Waterloo battlefield and working farms on the edge of the city offered a nice change of pace in comparison to the hustle and bustle of Brussels.  The Waterloo Battlefield site is a tourist destination, offering tours of the battlefield, an interpretive center, wax museum, and views from the top of the Lion’s mound.

The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemies. – Napoleon

226 steps lead to the top of Butte du Lion or the Lion’s Mound. The monument was ordered to be built by the King of the Netherlands at what was thought to be the exact spot where his son, the Prince of Orange, was wounded. The mound was constructed from the dirt where the actual battle took place.  The view from on high offered an awesome perspective of where the sides approached one another.

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photo Clare & Olivia at the top of the Lion’s Mound

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Tourists packed into the rear of this modified truck to take in a guided tour experience. Pre-recorded audio in French, and sometimes English, attempted to provide a retelling of how Napoleon was out-manned and out-maneuvered by the 7th Coalition.Today the battlefield remains as working farm fields, as it was in 1815. As the tour progress, it was apparent crossing the field roads that the vehicle had little suspension, giving the passengers an unexpected roller coaster ride for their money.

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At the top of Lion’s Mound and elsewhere on the grounds battlefield maps assist visitors envision how the lines advanced on that fateful day.

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A Statue of Napoleon and a monument to the men who died at the Battlefield Site.

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The upper level of the interpretive center was a 360-degree panorama of a painting similar to French painter’s Clément-Auguste Andrieux’s Battle of Waterloo. Simulated audio, complete with bugles, gunfire, explosions, and the pounding of horse hoofs surrounded the room for effect.

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The battlefield site also houses a wax museum, showcasing the military attire of the day and also a death mask taken of Napoleon after his death in exile at St. Helena.

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The Waterloo Battlefield only tells the story of Napoleon’s final military defeat. Napoleon’s stories are present in nearly every corner of Europe, including the corners we walked before our visit to Waterloo.

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From Russia, With Luge

Courtesy AP

“I want to go to Sochi!” was the proclaimed our seven-year old in the midst of the Olympic hype that grips this country, even when the games happen on the other side of the world (or in this year’s example, our teams are not very good.) Children of the Cold War may still call Russia “the Soviet Union” or believe it is still us versus them in world affairs. The children of today look at Russia with a much different lens than the Cold War generations. Russia might as well be any other European country, the adversarial threat of nuclear armageddon  between the US and the Soviet Union has been replaced by a new world order that the Cold War generations find uneasy.

I am not going to fill this post with ponderings of the post-9/11 world order, no today’s Russia on full display in Sochi is much different than the Russia I visited in 1995. When my group of fellow trainees stationed in Helsinki, Finland visited St. Petersburg in the Summer of 1995,  the country was firmly mired in the malaise following the fall of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin was president, it’s colonial empire had been disbanded, the nation’s infrastructure was badly neglected and to add insult to injury to this proud country,  the US $100 Bill was the preferred tender for any sort of transaction above buying a liter of vodka. Our group traveled as tourists in a pleasant modern motor coach for the five or six hour bus ride to St. Petersburg from Helsinki. Additionally there was a sense of danger for a group of foreigners traveling to this large and seemingly down on its luck city that was not present in any of our other stops in the region. Therefore our visit lacked the full cultural experience that many of  our other adventures in 1995 possessed. We wanted to be good ambassadors, but we wanted to travel smart. I had my trusty 35mm point and shoot camera along for the ride and was able to capture a few grainy images that told a bit of the story of our visit.

St Petersburg Canal The flowing canals ushering the Neva River through St. Petersburg is remind many of Paris.
St Petersburg Bridge One of the bridges over the Neva includes a monument to Russia’s victory over Napolean’s France. The sculptors of this bridge are said to have carved Napoleon’s image into a unflattering part of the horse’s anatomy.
St Petersburg St Peter Paul The St. Petersburg port to the Baltic sea sits on the Gulf of Finland. The St. Peter & Paul Cathedral is featured in the distance on this photo.
St Petersburg Waterfront A Russian navy ship can be seen in this photo of the opposite side of the water front.
The Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is a classic 16th and 17th century Russian church with the ornate onion domes and exquisite details on the outside of the building. The church was built on the site of where Alexander II was fatally wounded by early forces opposed to the imperial family.The locals call it “Church on the Spilled Blood.” St Petersburg Church of the Resurrection
St. Isaac’s Cathedral is a most impressive and massive cathedral. Far up by the dome you can see tourists whom look like ants enjoying the view of the city. St Petersburg Cathedral of St Isaac
The Cathedral of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God is yet another of the massive orthodox cathedrals in St. Petersburg. The large columns enclosing a plaza give the cathedral a Romanesque feel. St Petersburg Mother of God
St Petersburg Pushkin Front St. Petersburg was the imperial city where the Russian czars (or is it tsars?) lived. Like every European monarchy, the Romanovs had a Summer place to enjoy all 10 days of sun enjoyed by those of us in the far northern hemisphere. Pushkin was the Summer home to the czars and was just outside of St. Petersburg.
St Petersburg Pushkin Garden If the gardens of Pushkin could talk, they would no doubt include stories of Catherine the Great and her many ‘friends’ who frequently enjoyed their mutual company.
St Petersburg Hermitage The Hermitage is considered one of the great museums of the world, in the same conversation as the Louvre and the Prado. Like the Louvre, the Hermitage was converted from a palace following the deposing of a imperial regime. The collections of French impressionist art in the Hermitage were amazing. I fondly remember sitting in the Monet room (yes there was a full room of only Monet’s) and being overwhelmed with amazement and emotion from the most amazing artwork I had ever witnessed with my own eyes.
The World War II monument in St. Petersburg remembers the 10 million military members killed during the war. St Petersburg WWII Memorial Front
The Soviet Union lost the most life of any country during World War II, losing another 26 million civilian lives throughout the war. St Petersburg WWII Memorial Side
St Petersburg Lenin A few relics from the Soviet Union remained in 1995, including this statue of Lenin located in a government plaza. No account of St. Petersburg’s history could be complete with out mentioning that St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd, then Leningrad, before reclaiming the original name of St. Petersburg in 1991.
St Petersburg Rubles In 1995 the Russian Ruble was trading at between 4,000 and 6,000 to 1 against the US dollar. Meaning that this 10,000 note was worth a cool $2USD. Russians gladly accepted US dollars in storefronts as they had lost confidence in their own currency.

Have You Been Hugged by a 90 Year Old and Other Deep Thoughts for the New Year

Have you ever been hugged by a 90-year old relative or someone close to you? If you have, you know that words can not adequately describe the moment. It is a moment filled with joy and sadness, but mostly joy. The thoughts that this could indeed be the last moment the two of you will ever share quickly transition towards a serene thankfulness for the moment you do have.

2013 was a year of mixed blessings, as we were afforded the opportunity to travel abroad for a second time in two years and it ended with me once again seeking new career opportunities. I enjoyed working for my last employer and am disappointed in not being there to help the team overcome some significant hurdles in their business. I have chronicled some of our 2013 visit to Spain on this blog in the past year and ‘resolve’ to include more in the near future. Yet, as I recently reflect upon our visit my mind is brought back to the events back home in Minnesota and in Rome, Italy that coincided with preparing to return home.

On June 19, 2013 my mobile phone buzzed twice. I was expecting a text from the airline notifying that our flight would be on-time. It was from my buddy back home, notifying me that actor James Gandolfini had died while in Rome of a heart attack. While not a surprise that my buddy would text me when celebrity dies, (it is our thing, I will leave it at that 🙂 ) it was a bit more shocking when I received a text hours later stating that noted Minnesota author Vince Flynn had died of cancer at the age of 47. While I was only a casual Vince Flynn fan, I enjoyed his local media appearances and took pride that ‘one of us’ was a world-renown author. My only first hand encounter with Mr. Flynn was giving him the ‘where do I know you?’ stare at a bookstore in the MSP airport. He kindly blew me off, but yet his passing really hit home, age 47 is far too young to go.

As we were finishing preparing to leave Spain, my mind began to wonder. I began to process our visit, the new and old friends met, and the incredible sites seen. I honestly wondered for the first time if we would see them again. In the fifteen minutes that eclipsed after picking up that text and finishing the packing of my bags, the inevitability and invincibility of youth left in my mind seemed to be gone. In a moment, the tears in our friends’ eyes as we left their homes in France in 2012 and Spain in 2013 made perfect sense to me. This could be the last time.

While there are no guarantees that we will travel to Europe again, there really were not any guarantees that we would be there again after my visit in 1995 or either of our visits in 2002 and 2012. We were blessed to have these opportunities and even more fortunate that we embraced everything in our visits, leaving no regrets of what we should have done or seen. My hopes for 2014 go beyond travel and into life. Embrace it with thankfulness for that moment, realizing that another moment quite like the one you are in is not inevitable. Embrace it, like a 90-year old would embrace it.

Grave Encounters

Americans are fascinated by how steeped in history European countries are in comparison to the United States. The buildings are not decades, but hundreds of years old. The signature design of most cities includes a medieval old city at the center. The city grew around its medieval center, keeping the rich history and remembrance of the past. The old buildings are kept intact no matter how dark and dank the building may be, as it is part of the history and part of the present all at once. Intertwined with the rich attachment to the past is the presence of the dearly departed. Cemeteries, pantheons, sarcophagus’s, and tombs are everywhere. In historic buildings, in churches, in neighborhood cemeteries, the departed are never far away, part of the past and present all at once. In our travels, we sought out the final resting places of a few of history’s notable people, but also came across others by surprise!

The Lizard King

The grave of Jim Morrison’s is perhaps the most famous grave site of an American found outside the United States. We visited the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris in 2002 and sought out the grave of the legendary front man for the classic rock group The Doors. In the grand scheme of history and culture, fellow luminaries interred at Père Lachaise Oscar Wilde and Frederic Chopin offered more cultural significance, but for some reason Jim Morrison’s grave is the magnet that draws in people from all walks of life. It is the only grave in with Père Lachaise constant security and visitors pay their respects with flowers, cigarettes, pieces of clothing and in other non-traditional ways.

There was an undeniable vibe around the grave site. While we visited, there were ten to 20 people gathered around, all of us under watchful eye of a nearby security guard. I wasn’t sure how long one should pay homage to the Lizard King, but after snapping a few shots and taking in the scene, it was time to move on. Père Lachaise was a bit too confusing for us to find the graves of Chopin or Oscar Wilde, but I could cross visiting Jim Morrison’s grave off my bucket list.

Jim Morrison’s Grave – 2002
Père Lachaise – 2002
Père Lachaise – 2002

The Emperor 

The Invalides of Paris today serves as the French military museum. It houses monuments and museums, but is renown for being the final resting place for Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon is entombed in a red quartzite sarcophagus in a primary atrium. The enomority of Napoleon’s legacy was on full display as it was a shoulder to shoulder, capacity crowd in the atrium on our visit in 2002. Several of Napoleon’s family who commanded under him are also entombed in the Invalides, including his son, Napoleon II.

Napoleon is one of the icons of world history. On the International stage, his legacy is mixed. Napoleon is credited for breaking the back of the Roman Empire, breaking the cycle of feudalism in Europe and to Americans he sold us Louisiana! He also rejected democracy in France by establishing himself as Emperor, quelled a slave rebellion in Haiti, led France into costly wars, and finally left his country bankrupt and barren of her colonies.

With his defeat in Belgium at Waterloo, Napoleon was deposed for the last time until his death in 1821. The Waterloo monument wax museum displays a wax mold taken of Napoleon following his death.

(Fore shadow for future post. 🙂 )

Napoleons Tomb - 2002

Napoleons Tomb – 2002

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Waterloo – 2012

Napoleon II Tomb – 2002

Jules Verne

In 2012 as we mapped out our journey from Normany to Champagne in France, my wife suggested we take the route through the city of Amiens to see the renown Cathedral, but to also find the grave of the famous science fiction writer Jules Verne. The guidebooks listed the remarkable stonework and design of the tomb as the second highlight of Ameins. I was game for the adventure as Verne’s 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea is one of my favorite classic novels.

As I’ve chronicled in past posts, our ability to get from point a to point b is largely limited to our GPS and the information we feed into it. The guidebook listed the incorrect address for the cemetery, but somehow, someway we found the cemetery. The cemetery was located on the fringes between a residential area and the business part of the city, much like one would be located in the United States. We did not see a legend or map of the cemetery available, so we just started walking, and walking, and walking.

There was no sign of Jules Verne’s grave anywhere. Then as we took a turn to make our way out of the cemetery, there it was. This most unique tomb, fit for the godfather of science fiction. The sculpture adorning his tomb illustrates an image of Verne himself pushing aside the slab to emerge from the grave!

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Jules Verne’s Grave – Amiens, France – 2012

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Jules Verne’s Grave – Amiens, France – 2012

Normandy Cemetery

Visiting the American Cemetery in Normandy is a moving experience. I considered it my patriotic duty to visit the cemetery and found myself on a whole other journey following the discovery of a grave marker for Albin B Hagen.

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American Cemetery – Normandy, France – 2012

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Grave of Unknown Soldier – Normandy, France – 2012

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Grave of Pvt. Albin B. Hagen, Normandy, France – 2012

Christopher Columbus

The massive cathedrals of Europe are often the final resting place for esteemed clergy, bishops, cardinals and even saints. It was in the cathedral in Seville, Spain where we stumbled across the tomb of another historic icon. Seville’s cathedral is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral and the third largest in the world! (Just what is the difference between a Gothic cathedral and any other cathedral, we’ll get to that in a later post.)

As we made our way through the cathedral, there was an usually large crowd gathered around a very impressive monument. I listened in to an English speaking tour guide speaking to a crowd of American students to see what was going on. I have to admit I had not done any homework on the Cathedral and what were going to see. I was amazed as I overheard the guide’s description that this monument was actually the tomb of Christopher Columbus!

Well, at least the tomb contains part of Christopher Columbus. Many claim that Columbus is buried in the Dominican Republic. However, the curators of the Cathedral point to Columbus’s remains being moved from Santo Domingo in 1795 to Havana when the Spanish lost control of the Dominican Republic, with the remains coming back to Spain in 1895. The tomb may only contain part of Christopher Columbus, but I am still amazed.

The Cathedral in Sevilla

Tomb of Christopher Columbus, Seville, Spain – 2013

The Cathedral in Sevilla

Tomb of Christopher Columbus, Seville, Spain – 2013

Tomb of Cardinal Juan de Cervantes, Seville Cathedral – 2013

Signs, Signs

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind


I found the French autoroute system to be remarkable. The road ways were pristine, even with manicured medians and ditches. The system is every bit the equal of the United States Interstate system, complete with 120km/h (approximately 75mph) speed limits and dedicated rest stops comparable to the overhead oasis rest stops we from the Midwest would find enroute to Chicago on I-90/I-94. Our travels took us nearly exclusively from the South of France, through the Loire Valley, Normandy, and Champagne on the autoroute system. I can say that it was a treat to drive on such nicely maintained and convenient roads. Despite the wonderful driving experience, there was something missing. There was not a commercial billboard or advertisement sign to be found along the autoroute, not even a “McDonald’s ahead” sign.

Courtesy Web Photo

We inquired of one of our hosts if the French were just big fans of the 1970 classic Five Man Electrical Band song Signs or if there was something else at work. 🙂 As it was explained to us, commercial billboards and/or commercial signage are forbidden along the autoroutes. Commercial signage is found along the French roadside, but usually at the city or village boundary lines. There appears to be considerable debate within France about signage and billboards in general “blockin’ out the scenery.” The Five Man Electrical Band may have figurative with the concern for signs blocking the scenery, many in France are literal with their debate. Signs block nature, the people in France want to see nature and assume that tourists also want to see nature and not signs.

Don’t let me description of the autoroutes mislead you. There were standard road signs along the way displaying the same things that one sees on US Interstates. Speed limits, exits, distances to upcoming destinations, auto stops ahead, and of course my favorite “peage” (yes, the tolls ahead). The only other type of sign were the striking tourist attraction signs intermittently spread along the way. It should not be surprising that in a country known for art, even roadside information signs appeared to be a work of art on their own. Each sign highlighted an attraction in the region.

(Photos courtesy Google Images)

My thoughts wandered about how nice it would be for a tourism driven state like Minnesota to place signs such as these along Interstate 94 to highlight the Lake Wobegon Trail, Original Mainstreet, or a sportsman’s paradise near Alexandria. Very cool.


 “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.” – Charles Kuralt,

Maybe Charles Kuralt was on to why we in the United States do not seem to mind that signs are blocking out our scenery. There isn’t much to see along our Interstate routes. Maybe it is the signs that keep us sane on long road trips across barren land. Who could imagine driving for four or five hours on an Interstate anywhere in the country and not see signage for a McDonald’s ahead? Families pass the time on road trips playing travel bingo, alphabet game or “I Spy” using every piece of signage available. Signs, commercial or otherwise are something we simply don’t think that much about. They are just there.

A visit to the Black Hills in South Dakota show how signs actually become part of the experience. It all begins with the “Welcome to South Dakota” sign as you enter on I-90. Then the kitschy and fun Wall Drug signs start to grab your attention. Where in the heck is Wall Drug? Do they really offer free ice water? 5-cent coffee must be really bad. Then there is this quirky Corn Palace. The signs pointed the way to the Corn Palace ahead as well. Once you make it past Mitchell, Wall and the Badlands, the end destination comes into focus, Mount Rushmore. Signs pointing where the Alfred Hitchcock classic “North by Northwest” was filmed escort you to the monument, then the climatic final sign welcoming you to the monument.


With two quick vibrating blasts from my mobile phone, we were there. We crossed the border into Belgium. We were driving from Northern France North en route to Brussels. I wasn’t expecting a large “Free Ice Water in Belgium” sign, but may be a sign at the border with a simple “Welcome to Belgium,” “Bienvenue en Belgique,” or “Welkom in België.” As it turns out, only good old Verizon welcomed us to Belgium…and that was merely a kind reminder that International roaming data rates are obscenely expensive. How anti-climatic.

Finding Private Hagen – Post Script

My Finding Private Hagen series highlighted the service of Private Albin Hagen whom was killed in France during World War II. Private Hagen was a member of the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate) whom was comprised of Norwegian American and Norwegian troops who were purposed to liberate Norway from the Nazis. I recently watched an impressive DVD that told the story of the 99th from their formation at Camp Ripley, MN, to their mountain training in Camp Hale, CO all the way through the Battle of the Bulge and the eventual return to Norway by King Hakkon. The DVD includes vintage footage and provides a historical context for the contributions of the 99th. The highlight of the production is the interviews with surviving members of the 99th. Hearing first hand accounts of how the 99th fought to their breaking point in Malmedy in the Ardennes and how they were welcomed into Norway as heroes brought both smiles and tears…sometimes simultaneously.  I highly recommend the DVD for not only those with interest in the 99th and for the World War II history buff.

For more information on the DVD, visit the website dedicated to the 99th: http://www.99battalion.org/index_files/Page1452.htm

THE VIKING BATTALION

The story of:

99th Infantry Battalion (Separate)

 

Moore Travel

Whether or not you know who Gordon Moore is, you have experienced first hand the impact of “Moore’s Law.” Moore’s observation that the computing power of integrated circuits doubled every 24 months. This rapid pace of change drove advancements in technology that resulted rapid change, with newer, faster and cheaper advancements arriving every two years. To frame it in the here and now, the computing power in your smart phone two years from now will be double of a new phone purchased today, and it cost about the same or less than today’s phones. Moore’s Law is also on full display with our digital cameras and devices. Photography technology that was in the price range of professionals or high end enthusiasts a few years ago is available today at the consumer level. Thanks to Moore’s Law sharing  your travel photos and telling your stories through photos has never been easier or less expensive.

My wife and I took our 2001 honeymoon in Montreal & Quebec City, Canada. These were great cities, but unfortunately our memories are just that, memories. We were not early adopters of digital photography by any stretch of the imagination. We actually purchased our first digital camera, a Kodak DX3500 days for for leaving for Canada. In addition, we also packed a Yashica 35mm point and shoot camera with zoom. At that time of your lives (before kids), these cameras seemed good enough for our needs. Capturing and sharing every moment to share had not yet become an important part of lives.

The Kodak (see a 2001 review) only had a 2.2 megapixel digital zoom, not an optical zoom and 8MB of internal storage and used the now obsolete compact flash expansion storage format. To cut through the chase, the wrong storage card was purchased and after twelve shots the camera’s internal storage was full. This was day one in Montreal, with four days to go. Luckily we had the other camera and film. Oh yes, ISO 200 film. We were able to take a few rolls in Montreal, but as we were packing to leave for Quebec City, we realized they were gone. A frantic search ensued in our hotel room, but the rolls in their nice little plastic containers were no where to be found. Those memories of our honeymoon were gone.

This isn’t a cry for us post, it is actually more of a glass half full look. How can there be a glass half full when you lose two whole rolls of film??

For those of us old enough to remember the days of 35mm film photography, we may recall out of a roll with 24 exposures there was a good chance that two photos per roll would not have turned out. Maybe they were under or over exposed, or may be just out of focus. The processing and development model of film photography also impacted how we took photos. Knowing that we were charged for each photo developed by the photo lab, we may take one or two of a subject, thinking that that was good enough. One or two tries really isn’t enough to find that perfect shot. In capturing the great  limestone cliffs of Etretat, France I took somewhere between ten to twenty shots to find the right one.

The film photography experience also meant even if a photo ‘turned out,’ it may not look like the shot you intended. We have prints taken in 2002 in the Louvre in France featuring the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo that are really, really, bad. One can barely make out the subjects of the pictures. The photos remain in our photo album to this day, as they are all we have from these world renown works of art.

Then you had shots that turned out OK or may be even had the potential really good, but an unsuspecting passerby found their way into the photo or worse yet, your photo appears to be more of a passerby’s beer gut than the subject itself. Ugh.

Considering the over and under exposed, the bad, and the just plain ugly, we would have been lucky to have had ten “keeper” photos out of the lost rolls from our honeymoon.


As we geared up for our visit to France in 2011, I researched many cameras in the sub-$500 range. This was to be a two week visit, we were going to see many great sites, so I wanted to make a significant upgrade in the camera department to ‘do it right.’ We already had a Canon PowerShot SD1100, in pink, which was a great little camera as well, but I was looking for something a bit more..um…manly for this visit. decided on a camera highly recommended by Consumer Reports, the Canon PowerShot G12. Consumer Reports recommended the G12 due to a nice combination of superior point and shoot capabilities and features typical of a standard DSLR. It was my experience that the unit lived up to its hype and more.canon g12

Reviews comparing the G12 to the current market of digital cameras miss it’s best feature, simplicity. The smallish, but rugged housing makes the G12 easy to stow or grab to get a shot at moments notice. The G12 is also unassuming. While Europe in general is very safe, in major tourist areas pick pockets and petty thieves prey on tourists. Large camera lenses and even thick camera straps will draw attention from not only camera enthusiasts, but to the petty criminals looking for a quick score. In addition to not having protruding lenses, the G12 helped maintain an understated image with it’s functional plain, black narrow strap without a prominent brand name label.

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Millau Bridge, France 2011, Taken with a Canon SD1100.

The SD1100 also traveled with us and was my wife’s primary camera. The 8-megapixel point and shoot camera with a 3x optical zoom took great photos of the Millau bridge in southern France and many other places along the way. In addition to the advanced DSLR features and rugged housing, the G12 also featured 10 megapixel images and a 5x optical zoom which were each superior to the SD1100. I found a great deal online from Best Buy where the price of the G12 just happened the current retail price of the Canon SD1100. In my mind I had purchased twice the camera, two years later for essentially the same price. I think that Moore guy was on to something. 🙂

When receiving compliments for the photos taken in France and Spain, I usually  give all the credit to the camera. The camera was only one half of my digital photography team, the other have was my trusty iPad. It should not come as a surprise that the iPad is absolutely awesome for traveling. It is easily stowed, easy to use and is truly designed for the photo enthusiast. Each night I took my camera’s memory card  and imported the day’s photos into the iPad via the SD card adapter. From there I would simple delete photos that were not up to par, then crop and save any others that needed editing. I found cropping and saving with the iPad infinitely faster and easier than connecting a camera via USB cable to a PC and importing into an editing program like PhotoShop Elements. These features allowed me to take images that would have been in the ‘meh’ category and turn them into images that tell our stories.

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The Cathedral in Sevilla

The Tomb of Christopher Columbus in Sevilla, Spain, 2013.

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The Monument at Omaha Beach, France, 2012.

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Loire Valley, France, 2012

I created an album within the app for each city or region we would visit to help us remember just where we were.  The native app does not share with Flickr, however the affordable iPhoto app from Apple will not only share photos with Flickr, but it offers a whole host of photo enhancement options and seamlessly work within the context of previously set up albums. The albums on my iPad have taken the place of a traditional print photo album as I simply take out my iPad and use the retina display to show the photos in all their splendor as imaged by the Canon G12.

Together, the G12 and iPad make a great traveling companions that I recommend for travel at home or abroad.

Getting There

“Kids, Big Ben, Parliament….again”

Everyone who has ever traveled has had a Griswold moment at some point, whether they are at home or abroad. The combination of air travel, sleep deprivation and simply being in a strange country will make Griswolds out of the best of us. Some of us more than once.


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Narrow, hilly streets in a Lozere village.

We were traveling to a small village in the Southern French department of Lozerein June 2012. Our plans included flying through Paris to a smaller regional airport in Claremont-Ferrand which was approximately an hour and a half from our bed and breakfast in that sphotomall village of Le Villard. Understanding that this was a small village, we took it in stride that the GPS in our rental car was unable to find the address of the B&B in its database.We did what we thought was the next best thing and entered an address in Le Malzieuville, the next village over, hoping there would be road signs or something that would lead us to our destination. It had been a few years, say ten or eleven, since I had driven a car with manual transmission. I was riding the clutch hard, but doing alright, only killing it a few times in lower gear through the narrow, hilly, cobblestone streets of Le Malzieuville. We may have only drove around the village for fifteen minutes, but it felt like an hour. A long night of flying and a four hour layover in Paris had left both us dazed and confused as we searched for any sign of “Le Villard.” Finally we conceded defeat and stopped for directions in a park where an older couple happened to be sitting. My wife got out, explained our situation. (My wife speaks both French and Spanish and I speak neither. Therefore she got the job of admitting we were lost.) My wife contended that not only could the old couple have been not been more nice and we happened to be only a few kilometers away from our destination! Great news indeed!

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The nice old farmer who helped us out.

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Our B&B.

As we found Le Villard, saying it was tiny, would be overestimating its stature. First glance provided us with a view of three, maybe four houses and one farm, but no sign for the bed and breakfast. Where else was there to drive to? The only road into the village ended up in a farmyard. We were left thinking how can we be lost in a village the size of a backyard?? We were again fortunate that a local was out and about. This gentlemen appeared to be the farmer and an old one at that. My wife explained to him that we’ve been driving all over and could not find the bed and breakfast. I assumed that we had taken yet another wrong turn and would be heading back to the main road. As my wife got back into the car, she had quite a different message. We were a mere 50 feet away from our destination. We had passed the bed and breakfast…twice, and by golly there was a sign on the building with the name of the bed and breakfast. After hearing our story of driving all over the next town and the countryside looking for the bed and breakfast. The old farmer, like all old farmers I’ve ever met, shared a nice bit of wisdom with wife, “at least you were able to see more of Lozere.” Indeed we had.


Fast forward to one year later and we move on to Spain. Our arrival story had a very familiar Griswold-theme. We were due to arrive in Malaga at approximately 4pm local time, after a connecting flight in Paris. The plan was to arrive in the city, pick up some food and water, hit our hotel sleep the night and start experiencing Andalucia right away in the morning. Our plans were thrown a bit of curveball due to a three-day French air traffic controller strike. Our flight into Malaga from Paris was delayed four hours, pushing our arrival time to after 8pm. At least our flight wasn’t cancelled. We fared far better than many other travelers we witnessed at the Charles de Gaulle Paris airport. It was not a great start for our travels, but not a catastrophe.The reviews of the Ibis Cuidad Centro Malaga hotel on Trip Advisor completed it as a nice and affordable hotel, but hard to find. Learning from our previous experience, I pre-configured our own GPS with the hotel’s coordinates and even printed a Google map to use as a back up. When we arrived and were picking up the rental car, the experience could not have been more pleasant. The gentleman behind the counter didn’t try to pressure us into buying the collision insurance and offered the option to upgrade our rental for 80 Euros. 80 Euros not only gave us the next size up in car, it was an automatic. It was red and it was a Mercedes. He had us at “it is an automatic,” but a Mercedes B-series was icing on the cake. Things were looking up for a smooth journey to our hotel.

Our Chariot

Our Chariot

We stopped at a nearby supermarket for some food and water, the drove towards the hotel in Malaga’s city center. Our GPS was doing well and it was not yet dark, and off the left our left we spotted our hotel across a

20130714-170208.jpg

The pedestrian bridge to our hotel.

large aqueduct that ran right through the heart of the city. As I was looking for a left turn or roundabout, the GPS told us to go right, so we went right. There must be some turn off that will take us across the aqueduct. As we snaked through the narrow streets, we were going in the wrong direction and further and further away from our hotel. We knew we were off course when the GPS took us right back to the spot where it told us to turn right. And guess which direction it told us to turn? You guessed it. Right. Which direction did we turn. Yes. Right again. And if you are following along, where do you think the GPS took us to this time? If you guess that it took us back in a circle to the exact same spot, you would be correct. We could see bridges over the aqueduct ahead and attempted to take a different turn here or there on the subsequent attempts (Yes there were more than two or three) to find some magical turn that we missed to get towards the bridges. The bridges were a mere mirage, as they were in fact pedestrian bridges and we circled around to end up at the exact same spot again and again. It was now pitch dark, we were mentally and physically exhausted. We needed to get to the left, but could not. We were the Griswold’s….again.

“..there’s Big Ben…Parliament..again. Why can’t I go left..”

After a few tense moments, we regrouped to take a left turn prior to the aqueduct and most likely committed the first of many moving violations in Spain. We managed to snake through a new set of narrow streets in the dark to find an Ibis Hotel, but it was not our Ibis. My wife managed to talk to the parking garage attendant of this Ibis who was quite animated in conversing with me wife. From my point of view, I wasn’t sure if he was angry or trying to be helpful. Regardless, his gestures were unmistakable. He was pointing for us to park our car there. Then he marched his two fore fingers on his hand and pointed to building a block or so away, in some attempt to tell us to walk in that direction. My wife confirmed that we were to park there and the building in the near distance was in fact our hotel. I was sick to my stomach and ready to pass out, but once again thanks to a total stranger in a strange land, we at last found our hotel.

The wit and wisdom of the old farmer from Lozere was lost on two cranky and exhausted travelers from Minnesota. We were just thankful that there was no more of Malaga for us to see that night.

Independence

Out of the blue, our seven year-old son asked me over the weekend “what does the Fourth of July mean?” I stumbled a bit in my answer. Trying to stay with why we celebrate and attempted to provide him with some meaning as to why we have a day off to get together with family and friends. From the confused look on his face, my response did little to connect in his terms how declaring our independence from England in the 1776 is the reason why we have fireworks, barbeques and hot dog eating contests.
We are blessed in the United States to have not only generations, but centuries separating today from when the United States were colonies in the British empire. In attempting to answer my son’s question, there is not a first hand reference I can provide to truly relate the notion of Independence or freedom. As I thought about how I could have better answered his question, I was brought back to 1995.

In 1995, Eastern Europe was crawling out from the malaise brought by the fall of the Soviet Union. That Summer I was fortunate to be living in Helsinki, Finland on an internship and cultural exchange following graduating from college. One of the side trips for myself and the other interns stationed in Finland was a long weekend in Tallinn, Estonia.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania make up the Baltic Republics that were occupied by the Soviet Union from 1939 through the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1991. These countries were not set up as satellites, as was the case of East Germany or Romania. They were flat out annexed into the Soviet Union. The history books estimate that up a quarter Estonia’s population was expelled following the annexation and the Soviets repopulated the republic with Russians with hopes of diluting traditional Estonian culture and to keep the lid on nationalistic tendencies.

Estonia is a beautiful country located a short ferry ride from Finland to the North and West, but shares a contentious border with Russia to the East. I have a fond recollection of the Estonian countryside, adorn with tall pines that reminded me of Minnesota’s North shore. As the ferry pulled in to the Tallinn harbor, the onion-shaped domes of the Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral came into view. Someone in our group, it could have been me, made the smart remark “is that the Kremlin?” tallin-cathedral The signature Russian Orthodox architecture and the medieval Old Town were marvelous gems, but eighteen years tallin-old-townlater my memories of Estonia are far deeper than the architecture.
It did not take long to understand that this was going to go beyond sight seeing and be a true ‘cultural experience.’ To be polite, post-Soviet Tallinn was lacking the polish of the West. To be less than polite, this house had the appearance of a foreclosure and not a fixer-upper. The infrastructure of the country was in shambles after years of Soviet rule and neglect. Perhaps 35 or 40 years earlier, Tallinn would have been considered newly minted, with cookie cutter apartment buildings and a modern public transportation system. In 1995, the polish was long gone. Like the former owner of a foreclosed home, without the cash or incentive to invest in the upkeep of the public infrastructure, the Soviet Union simply let it rot in place.
The streets were not filled with current European auto brands, but rather occupied by a large number of Soviet-built cars (yes like a Borat car) still limping their way along. The streetcars or trolleys in Tallinn appeared to be broken down buses that were retrofitted with a boom to connect to the overhead power lines. We were off the ferry no more than a half an hour when I had a true “cultural” experience. A fully packed tram car pulled up to the stop. Our hosts motioned for everyone to get on, as there was no guarantee that the next car was going to come soon or at all. We piled into the car, getting up close and personal with the locals. Not only were we uncomfortably packed like rats, there was a stench in the air that told me that the norms of personal hygiene here were different than my experience to that point. There was also a realization that the ability of the car to take us to our destination was also in doubt. Our accommodations for the long weekend were a small school building in Tallinn, where classrooms outfitted with gymnasium mats for beds. The school had running water and showers, but the facilities were not up to Western, and especially US, standards. And to me, those standards included a general expectation that toilets would equipped with flip down seats. 🙂

Our tour included three night admission to a rock festival called “Rock Summer” featuring bands such as Simple Minds and Mike + the Mechanics. The festival grounds shared an seemingly uninspiring name of the “Song Festival Grounds.”  The grounds were packed each  night with tens of thousands people who were loving every moment, including the strange lineup that included the thrash metal band Biohazard providing the lead-in for 80’s one-hit wonder Simple Minds.
rock-summer-ticket
As we discovered many of the local specialties…such as this and this…we began to loosen up and absorb the history of Rock Summer and the Song Festival Grounds. Music and singing is a long held national tradition spanning decades and centuries. Estonians would congregate and sing national songs to show their patriotism. Throughout the fifty years of Soviet rule, Estonians still got together to sing, but were not allowed to sing their national songs or waive their flag, under threat of imprisonment or worse. In 1988, the tide turned.The cracks in the Soviet Union were showing on the fringes, including Estonia. In May of 1988, what was dubbed the Singing Revolution was born.The people attending a small music festival linked hands and sang along with the first of performance of Estonian patriotic songs since the Soviet annexation in 1939. The Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn became center court for the Singing Revolution. In May of 1988 300,000 people gathered there to sing patriotic songs and dared the Soviets to do something about it. Rock Summer continued the non-violent fight that very August despite the real threat of a Soviet massacre to quell the start of the Singing Revolution.

One of our daytime visits was to Paldiski, which as the last outpost where Russian troops maintained an outpost until 1994. Spectacular limestone cliffs on a paldiski-limestone-raypeninsula overlooked the Baltic and made the outpost a strategic asset for the Soviets in holding Estonia.The base was used as a nuclear submarine base and even housed a nuclear reactor that remained in Russian hands long after Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union. We arrived in Paldiski after a scary train ride and a considerable hike. The passenger car on the train seemed to shake uncontrollably as it traveled on a single track. In my mind I envisioned a scenario where Estonian dissidents were placed on this train prior to face the firing squad or being forced over the cliffs of Paldiski.


In 1995, Estonia remained in euphoria, no longer in fear of being shipped off to Paldiski or worse. An independent Estonia meant that Estonians could celebrate Rock Summer with infectious joy and without fear. It was clear that the people of Estonia saw their house as a fixer-upper and were more than happy to do the fixing themselves. The new capitalists in Estonia must have found that connecting Estonia with all things American was good business. There were street vendors around the Image2festival grounds selling a number of American themed trinkets that celebrated an Estonian/American friendship. (And they sold things dirt cheap!) imageThe Estonians appeared to view America as a beacon of independence and freedom to which to aspire.
The opening night featured a band called Stiltskin from the UK. At the time, they were a hair metal band hanging on to their fleeting fame in Eastern Europe. They were quite popular in Estonia and the crowd created a scene reminiscent of Moscow version of the Bon Jovi the Dead or Alive video. The crowd near the stage was raucous and yes in the mosh pit there was one guy sitting on a buddy’s shoulders waving an American flag for full display. In between songs, I believe the lead singer of the band said something like, ‘we’re not from America, we’re from the UK.’ Perhaps the guy in the crowd had a case of mistaken country of origin, but I think the lead singer guy missed the point of the gesture. A mere five years earlier, such a gesture would have been a clear taunt of the Soviets and the guy could have been jailed or worse. In 1995 this was a symbolic act in celebration of independence and freedom. The joy and energy in celebrating what this festival represented was infectious and it became clear to me that it didn’t matter who was on stage or what the festival was called or what the name of the venue may have been. This was a spirit of joy in being independent and free.
I think back to the Estonian guy waving the US Flag. When his seven year-old asks what Independence day is all about. His explanation will come quite easily, because he lived it.

Putting the Travel in the Blog Less Traveled

There is an old saying that goes something like this: “it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown.” When it comes to the subject of a photo, I respectfully disagree. I can count on one hand the number photos of myself that I actually like my smile. There is just something about being in front of a camera that I find uncomfortable and would much rather be behind the camera. I remember standing for photos at our wedding day twelve years ago. It was the worst hour of the best day of my life…and that one hour seemed like ten. I have vivid memories of the photographer pausing to tell me to smile, then to move my chin 3 millimeters to the right, then the left, then up, then down. Looking back at it now, it was really comical. I was tense, the day was stressful enough. I didn’t need this photographer on my case! 🙂 Each time I was told to put on a better smile the more tense I became and the harder it was to smile.
Now don’t get me wrong, smiling is good. Smiling feels good. There are few simple pleasures in life that feel better than a returned smile from someone else, be it your spouse or even a stranger. Today’s world makes it hard to smile. Things seem more stressful today. The 24 hour news cycle the feeds a feeling of a crisis around every corner. We check our smartphones on a constant basis. These devices drive an unnatural urge to continually see what our friends and family are up to on Facebook or Twitter. They also tie us in real time to every minor crisis at work regardless if we are “on duty” or not.  It is well documented that all of this noise around us is stressing us out and sometimes makes it hard to smile.
…..
We’ve been fortunate to go on a European vacation two summers in a row. I really enjoy meeting new people in different countries, learning about their culture and way life. Even Europe, one is not safe from the barrage of electronic communications from our smartphones and devices. My phone was tethered to my waist. WiFi was everywhere, allowing us to stay in contact with family and friends via Facebook, Skype, text messages, and email. Despite the tether to digital communication, the time difference allowed me to disconnect from the everyday stresses, recharge my batteries, and, yes, eventually smile. It wasn’t easy, but I eventually go there and even have proof…
Day 2 – This was a goofy smile while still delirious from traveling to Spain Ray
Day 3 – First Day in Priego. The smile still is not there. Ray & Clare in Priego
Day 4 – In Cordoba – Still unable to let go… La Mazquita
Day 5 – This is my “I think I’m smiling, but really am not” smile. La Al-Hambra
Day 6 – Almost there….. The Cathedral in Sevilla
Day 6 – Boom, there it is. Ray
Day 7 – Still Smiling Marbella
Day 8 – Last Full Day El Torcal
This is the first in a new series on this blog to put the travel in the Blog Less Traveled. The posts will go through the practical aspects of European travel, spin in a story or two from our travels and if the inspiration is there, connect with what is important in life today. I hope you enjoy.