27 Aug

Worst Travel Day Yet

We left Ireland, and Europe, a little wistfully. Our final two weeks in Laytown had been perfect; filled with nothing more than early morning walks along the beach, afternoon pints at the small local pub, plenty of cat cuddling (well, as much as he would endure anyway), and meals that we actually cooked ourselves. It was chilly though. Wearing long sleeves and a poofy coat chilly; it’s no wonder the Irish have such alabaster skin – I fear they never see the sun! And so we looked forward to finally getting to Mexico and warming up.

Most of the flight had been uneventful but as we neared the Canadian coast, ready to touch down in St. John’s for a few hours, the clouds began to thicken and the plane began to bump and roll.

The seatbelt sign went on immediately; beverage carts were quickly stowed away, seat-belts were checked, and I slowly entered into the first steps of my ‘flying system’. Earphones in with favourite song playing; check. Game at the ready; check (it was Spider Solitaire this time). Definitely NOT thinking about the worst case scenario; check.

The captains voice soon muffled its way into the cabin. I love it when the captain acknowledges that the plane is dipping and diving. It makes me feel that he knew this would happen; that he wasn’t surprised by it and he has it all under control. Crazy, I know, but it’s my head so my games. He apologized for the turbulence (how Canadian is that?!) but explained that we would have to wait it out as the storm was much worse down below and the rain was too heavy to land.

So I relaxed, not exactly happy to still be up in the air but happy to know that the captain had it all well in hand and that we would soon be landing safely. For about 2.48 minutes, until the plane started to lose altitude and it became clear that we were going to land in it after all.

It wasn’t pretty. Oh, I’m sure it was as safe as all get-out, but the bumping and rolling, and dipping and diving, coupled with the rain streaming against the window and the zero visibility beyond was too much. I put the full system into place but still adrenaline shot through my body making me sweaty, with heart beating wildly and on the verge of tears. Definitely not pretty.

We, of course, landed safely. Everyone clapped. We went to the bar.

It was to be the start of one of the worst travel days we’ve ever had.

Our next flights were uneventful and we landed in Cancun, Mexico tilting our faces to the sun as we exited the plane and soaking in the humid heat that had been so long in coming.

We are not those people who get nervous at customs and immigration. We have no contraband, we follow all the rules, and generally believe that this will hold us in good stead. So our smiles were genuine as we greeted the young Mexican immigration agent and handed over our passports and immigration forms.

Flipping through our paperwork she asked how long we planned to be in Mexico. Our answer of 72 days raised her eyebrows. She looked up and asked if we had an outbound ticket. No, we nervously replied, our plan is to exit overland by bus. She asked if we had an itinerary, looked at our notes on our phone as to our plans for the next few weeks, and then, asking us to stay there, she took our passports and disappeared.

Cue anxious smiles, encouraging statements about how she just needed to check with her supervisor and that we would be just fine, and shuffling of feet for five long minutes.

Returning, she silently stamped our passports, smiled at us, and welcomed us to Mexico. Whew.

Our One Giant Yucatan Road Trip plan, of course, required us to have a car. So off to the rental agency we trooped.

Jason came out of the office, folded the signed rental agreement into his shirt pocket, and said we were all set. Perfect, I said, how much did it end up being? Forty dollars a day, he said as he acknowledged the young lot worker sent over to check the car out with him.

I looked at him with my eyes wide open mentally doing the math converting between pesos and dollars and multiplying by the number of days we had planned. And then doing it again before I said anything…just to be sure.

That’s almost eight hundred dollars, I quietly said as calmly as I could manage. Seven hundred and sixty four to be exact, he replied, turning to check the car over with the lot boy.

Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god…my mind raced. Eight hundred freaking dollars. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.

I was stunned. Paralysed. What the f*ck was he thinking?! What made him think that we could afford eight hundred dollars? What made him think that I would agree to this? My mind cast back to the conversations we’d had as we planned the road trip. The ones where we gleefully plotted our course unbelievably happy that renting a car in Mexico could be so cheap. Where on earth was eight hundred dollars considered cheap?!

I said nothing, tasting blood as I bit my tongue and climbed into the passenger seat for the 2 hour ride south to Tulum. He must have a reason, I thought to myself, but I couldn’t talk to him about it as he drove a new-to-him car in a foreign country for the very first time. It was a very quiet ride as I went over and over our conversations and mentally noted all the things we wouldn’t be able to do in the next few weeks because we were just instantly eight hundred dollars poorer.

Although it’s a mantra that we have used for many years it is our friends at Married With Luggage that put it into words for us; always assume your mate has the best of intentions. It has, for us, always proven to bear true and this time, again, held up to the test.

Arriving at the beach I said that we should probably talk about the car and figure out how we had suffered such a MASSIVE miscommunication. It wasn’t like us so something had obviously gone terribly wrong. It turned out to be just that; a massive miscommunication where each of us clearly thought that the other was on the same page. No malicious intent. No mean-spiritedness. Just a complete misunderstanding of what was expected.

We quickly came up with a plan; we would return the car and take the bus back the 120KM from Cancun and continue on with our road trip by bus. As soon as we could, we called the rental agency to see if we could return the car after only one day. They agreed to let us break the contract and said they would only charge us the one days rental we had used. And the One Giant Yucatan Bus Trip was born. Whew.

Heading to the hostel we realized that we had absolutely no Mexican pesos on us. We had completely forgotten to stop at an ATM to withdraw any money. Tulum is small so we were grateful to find an ATM at the local grocery store. Except it wouldn’t work. Neither would the one at the gas station. Or the Scotiabank building. Or the HSBC bank. Or the OXXO corner store. Shit. Now we’re newly best friends again but tired, and hungry, and thirsty, and with no money and no idea why our card isn’t working. Shit.

Time to call the bank and find out what’s going on. Sure enough the banks security system was fine with us gallivanting from country to country to country around Europe for the summer but the switch from Ireland to Mexico wasn’t sitting too well and they had frozen our account. I am grateful that such security measures are in place; they have saved our asses more than once when our card has  been compromised so I’m happy they are so vigilant. But it was not what we needed on this day. Fortunately it was easily resolved and we were off to the ATM as soon as we hung up the phone. Whew.

As dusk closed in we walked to the closest restaurant we could find, ordered tacos and beer, and put our worst travel day yet to bed.

This is the only picture we managed the whole day. It’s on the beach in Tulum, after we had ‘the talk’. There is no other evidence of the Worst Travel Day Yet.

 

 

20 Aug

What’s Next: A Mexican Road Trip, An Overland Bus Journey, and Nicaragua!

After four months of pedalling, eating, and drinking our way around Europe, it’s time to leave.

Winter is coming to this hemisphere (even if it never really felt like summer anyway!) and, as we vowed not to spend another day in the cold and icy grip of Old Man Winter, it’s time to find the sun.

So tomorrow (or today, or yesterday, or three days ago, depending on when you’re reading this) we fly to Mexico!

I dreamed of Mexico all last winter. As we braved (ok, ‘braved’ is a probably a term better saved for those around me who had to endure all my snivelling and whining about how cold it was), the -20C temperatures and snow-banks-as-tall-as-me in southern Ontario, I dreamt of white sand beaches, palm trees, fresh lime margaritas, spicy tacos and, of course sunset beers.

Clichéd, I know, but damn it was cold last winter!

VivaMexico

Talk about cliched!

We’re not sure exactly where we’ll end up in Mexico. I want a place that is near the beach and quiet, yet close enough to a town so we can pop in for a beer and meal once in a while. We had thought that Playa del Carmen would be it but I have been worried that it might be too developed and ‘touristy’ to have what we’re looking for.

And so the One Giant Mexican Road Trip was born. Our plan is to pick up a car at the Cancun airport and spend a few weeks driving around the Yucatan Peninsula searching for the ‘perfect place’ to settle in for a couple of months.

It should be fun and having a car will mean we’ll get to see parts of the peninsula that we wouldn’t normally see. We’ll be able to really look around the places we visit and get a sense of what it might be like to live there for a while. We may well end up finding that Playa del Carmen is the perfect spot for us but we’ll have battled the FOMO by checking out some of the other great spots first.

Our Big Plan (in so much as we have any plan at all!) was to spend the whole winter in Mexico, hence the worry about finding the ‘perfect spot’, but opportunity came knocking and, in the spirit of saying ‘yes’ to whatever we can, we stepped into it.

My friend Darlene runs the most amazing photography tours to Nicaragua. This time she, and her husband, are interested in staying for a while (to also avoid the dreaded Canadian winter) and asked if we would be interested in travelling farther south to share a house with them in Granada for a couple of months.

Nicaragua!! Who knew?!

So, plans change, time frames are adjusted, and the research starts! How do you get from the Yucatan Peninsula to Granada, Nicaragua? I’m guessing it’ll be One Giant Overland Bus Journey. Stay tuned!

 

 

17 Aug

The Iconic Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral

It was our last week in London and we still hadn’t seen two of the city’s iconic sites so we hooked up with City Wonders for a guided tour of the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral. 

Here’s the thing; I’m usually loathe to hire a guide but lately we’ve been feeling as though we’re missing out and, when we have had a guide, our experiences have been much richer for it.

Marc, our guide for this tour, was a Blue Badge Guide which means that he had to earn that flashy blue I’m-a-tour-guide button hanging around his neck. In fact, it turns out that he had to study for two years in order to get his certification and thus the great honour of having people like us follow him around asking the same questions over and over and over and over and over again.

Works great for us though because:

  1. We didn’t have to do the studying.
  2. We didn’t have to do any research before visiting these historic landmarks.
  3. We could trust the answers he gave to our inane questions – he didn’t have to make up the answers because he actually knows the answers!

Our day started early as we had the chance to witness the Key Ceremony where the Yeoman Warders and Palace Guards officially unlock the gates to the fortress. It is, of course, now a ceremonial ritual – I mean, they don’t actually rely only on that gate to keep those Crown Jewels safe, right?
Tower of London Key Ceremony
Tower of London Key CeremonyOnce the Tower was officially open we could enter deeper into the grounds. Historically the site was a palace; a stronghold of power and economy before becoming a prison, and the site of several executions,  later on in its evolution. Of course I kind of knew all of this but Marc brought it all to life as he spewed dates and names and stories to catch us up on all our lagging high school history lessons. A welcome refresher indeed.

Besides being the home to many a history lesson and ghost story, the Tower also houses the Crown Jewels. It was an impressive display of artifacts and royal regalia that has been used for centuries and is still used by the monarchy today. Seeing the pieces (no photographs allowed) and reading their stories brings to life those television images of the Queen carrying the sceptre or of the newest Prince George being baptized.
Tower of London Crown JewelsAfter getting our fill of gruesome history, a look at armour throughout the ages, and visiting the on-site ravens (who, legend says, must remain or the Crown will fall), we walked along the Thames to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Raven of the Tower of London
London's Thames RiverNow, we’ve seen our share of churches this summer so St. Paul’s Cathedral is not one we probably would have visited were it not part of the tour. Having Marc explain the history, the architecture, and the main players did make a difference though; he described its building, pointed out where the decorations deviate from the original vision, and took us back to World War I when the Cathedral was one of the only buildings remaining in London as its residents kept it safe during the Blitz.

My favorite part, though, was climbing to the top of the dome. The views of London were outstanding and worth the somewhat strenuous climb to get there.
London view
London ViewWe were lucky to be able to stay in London so long and to see so much. It’s a city that I really enjoy and could see spending a ton more time exploring all the neighborhoods (and all the neighborhood pubs!) but, OMG IS IT EXPENSIVE!! Really expensive. Like make me sick to my stomach expensive. We may return one day but we’ll have to be dragging a bag-o-money when we do.
Until then we’re off to a warmer, and more affordable, corner of the world.

14 Aug

Eating Our Way Through Prague

We headed to Prague on a whim. The weather in Munich was crap so we checked the weather channel, and the train schedules, and decided that Prague was perfect for a last minute weekend getaway. I love that about Europe!

Knowing absolutely nothing about Prague, I decided that the best way to get in on the secrets was to connect up with the EatingPrague gang and see the city through our stomachs. Best. Decision. Ever.

We met Mirka, Jan, and the other foodie tourists in Gallery Le Court; a beautiful, shady, hide-away in the middle of the city. That’s the thing about Prague – there are so many little hideaways to discover. Tiny streets curving in and amongst each other, secret courtyards, and veiled sanctums. The city may be humming but these quiet corners offer peaceful respite.

Gallery Le Court

Here, just like you wanted to as a kid, we indulged in dessert first. When I think of apple strudel I tend to think of Germany and Austria so I was surprised to learn that this apple layered pastry is traditional here in the Czech Republic and is, in fact, the most popular dessert. This one gets top marks; sweet and spicy, with soft apples and a pastry that holds together without being tough. A great start to the day!

Eating Prague Food Tour

There is no denying that this part of Europe has a heavy love affair with meat. I know people travel this region as vegetarians, but I have no idea how they do it!  Naše Maso (Our Meat)  is the newest butcher on the block. Modern and compact, with glass walls all along one side so you can have a peek at the skillful preparation of all things meat. The beef, ham, sausage, and meatloaf we tried here were excellent. We watched the butchers’ eyes light up every time a customer had a question; obviously a man taking pride in his work.

Eating Prague Food Tour

Eating Prague Food Tour

And then it was time for dessert…again. You know when you’re heading to a place called the Choco Cafe that things are going to be good. Believe me, there was no disappointment! Crispy wafer tubes filled with the freshest whipped cream dipped in a pot of warm, melted chocolate. Need I say more?

Eating Prague Food Tour

Did you know that beer prices in the Czech Republic are regulated? Regulated in so far as beer is not allowed to be the cheapest item on the menu!! Beer drinking is taken seriously here whether it’s mass produced or hand created in small batches as it is at Novomestský pivovar (New Town brewery). Cheers!

Eating Prague Food Tour

Our next stop was the biggest surprise of the tour. Mirka had told us we would be trying Staro?eská kysela?ka (Sauerkraut  Soup) and, quite frankly, I was not looking forward to it. I mean, how could it possibly be good? I imagined fermented and pickled cabbage in an insipid broth and was already practicing my ‘ooh, it’s good’ smile as we entered the secret location (which I won’t reveal because it’s such a cool space!).

The soup was amazing. Of course it had the slightly sour under-note of the sauerkraut but was rounded out with pureed veggies and potatoes, cream, and basil oil. It turned out to be my favourite dish of the whole tour. I know, colour me surprised!

Eating Prague Food Tour

Our last stop was in the opulent Cafe Imperial. This historic Prague institution is absolutely magnificent inside. Hailing from the Art Deco era it stays true to its roots with stunning tile work, impressive furniture, and well dressed servers. Here we sampled the sví?ková na smetan? s brusinkovým džemem a houskovým knedlíkem – I know, a mouthful, right? It’s braised beef in a cream sauce with cranberry compote and bread dumplings. This is a very traditional Czech meal; we had tried a few versions during our time in Prague and this one was the absolutely best that we had.

Eating Prague Food Tour

As always, it is the guide that makes or breaks a tour. Tasting the worlds best foods, or taking in the sights, with an insipid guide is no better than walking around blindly. Luckily for us Mirka and Jan were absolute gems. They each have an unbridled love for Czech food; they are foodies first and guides second – it shows in their enthusiasm not only for every dish but also for the history of each. Their knowledge of Prague, and its food, was extraordinary. Thanks to them we sampled the best that Prague had to offer in our very short time there.

Interested in taking a tour while in Prague? (and you should be!) Check out the Eating Prague Food Tours website or the EatingPrague Facebook Page for more info.

08 Aug

Pilgrimage to Andechs

Andechs
Climbing up through the forest we were grateful for the shade. The walk isn’t long – more of a token offering than a real pilgrimage now – but it is steadily uphill from the train station below.

*****

There are plenty of places to find a good beer in Germany. Truth be told, we never encountered one we didn’t like – and we tried as many as possible! There aren’t many place, however, where the beer has been brewed for more than a thousand years!

Kloster Andechs is just such a place. Located on a hill about 30 KM outside of Munich, it is surrounded by pastures and fields framed perfectly by the Alps in the background. It is as bucolic a scene as you might expect from German countryside and it’s easy to see why fairy tales were born here – it really is the land of ‘once-upon-a-time’.

Andechs

It is, historically, a pilgrimage church. A catholic monastery built in the baroque style drawing those from far and wide to pay their respects and pray at this centuries-old place of worship.

Andechs

AndechsThere are still modern day pilgrims arriving of course but, today, most come for the adjoining biergarten – as did we.

Andechs

If you’re lucky you might get a seat on the outer patio with views over the countryside toward the mountains. If it’s raining, there is room to crowd inside. It’s a convivial, social, atmosphere so go ahead and share your table with newcomers, introduce yourself, and get to know your new neighbour over a pint.

Andechs

I can attest that the beer is excellent; a light and spicy Weissbier, a double strong dark Dunkel, and a Helles lager. The Weissbier is my favourite.

Andechs

They also have a fabulous selection of traditional Bavarian meal options. Meatloaf, cold cut platters, cheese, wursts (sausages), salads, and, of course, Schweinshaxen; the slow roasted, crunchy, sweet, juicy pork knuckle that goes so well with the beer.

Andechs

Visiting Andechs is one of my favourite things to do while in Munich. It doesn’t get much better than fresh country air, beautiful scenery, great beer, and fabulous food.

If you want to visit Andechs you could easily make a day of it. We took the S-Bahn S8 from Munich to Herrsching (about an hour). There is a lake very nearby; you could spend the morning at the lake and then follow the signs to walk up to Andechs from the town. Don’t worry if you lose sight of the signs – just continue up hill and you’ll see the monastery eventually. Work up an appetite – you’ll need it.

 

 

05 Aug

Cycle Tour Europe: The End…But Not The End

Our triumphant, if soaking wet, arrival into Munich; 78 days and 2440 KM after we started in London.

It was bittersweet to reach the end. On the one hand it was a lot of work to be constantly on the move but, on the other hand, we really loved cycling through the countryside seeing parts of countries that we would never normally get to see. We would miss it whenever we stopped for a few days and always had such big grins on our faces at the end of each riding day.

Every day I would be amazed that I was in the middle of absolutely nowhere pedalling my way through a foreign country without a care in the world. Just the wind in my face, the feeling of the bike underneath me, and the whir of my tires on the pavement. I love, love, loved it. There isn’t a single day that I didn’t enjoy. Not even the very first day when I barely made it up the hill to our bed and breakfast, or the day with 3 flats, a broken rack, and a malfunctioning GPS unit, or the day(s) that it rained incessantly and we were soaked. They were all good. Really.

And that’s what I’m going to miss. The riding. The being outside on my bike every day. Wheeling through the tiniest of villages. Wrestling traffic in the big cities. Heading down unmarked tracks. Rolling through farmers fields (we seem to have ridden through an inordinate number of farmer fields). Stopping for a well earned beer. Cresting the hills. And screaming down the other side. Seeing the look on peoples faces when we tell them we rode our bikes here…from London. Knowing that I did ride my bike here…from London. Almost 2500 kilometres. I’ll miss the riding. Every. Single. Day.

*****

My body held up for the most part.

My butt hurt like hell for the first week. Not when actually in the saddle but when I would lift off the seat; the blood would rush back in, the numbing would cease all at once and all the feeling I was missing would return in one fell swoop. YOUCH!! That was the worst of it and it eased after that first week. Thankfully, I never suffered any chaffing thanks to the boy-short undies I wore (no inseams) and the…um…application of vaseline to delicate parts. Messy but way more comfortable. Yep, you can file that in the things-you-didn’t-want-to-know-but-might-find-useful-later bin. You’re welcome. :) 

I had feared my lower back might ache from being hunched over the handle bars all day but it didn’t bother me even once. I guess all those core exercises I did over the winter proved useful after all. I have two rebuilt knees (the result of long ago mountain bike accidents), and I wondered how they would take the constant revolution and pressure but they did amazingly well and only required Advil on the longer days.

Interestingly it was my hands and feet which suffered the most. They became numb from the hours of pressure – we would have to stop every few hours to let the feeling return. Unfortunately it was cumulative and they got worse as the trip went on requiring breaks more and more often. We’ve been off the bikes for more than three weeks now and my hands still hurt when I put pressure on them. Bummer.

It really is amazing what you can ask your body to do and it will just do it. Day after day after day after day. In fact, we’re now in the position of undoing what the biking has done to our bodies. Our quadricep (thigh) and back muscles are very strong but our hamstring (back of the leg) and stomach muscles definitely took the summer off. We’re getting back to running and working out very slowly as we try to build up those parts without pulling something in the process.

*****

As the end drew near, and we were pedalling our last days, we started the ‘last official’ countdown; the last official big bridge crossing, the last official hotel to book, the last official flat tire, the last official picnic lunch, oh nope that’s the last official flat tire, the last official packing of the panniers, and finally, the last official day of riding.

And we officially realized that we weren’t done.

I loved it so much that I can’t imagine travelling through Europe in any other way. Hopping from city to city to city on trains just feels jarring and un-natural. Cycling allows an evolution from countryside to village to town to suburbs to city that just feels right.

Luckily, we don’t have to be done. Well, we have to be done for now (visa rules, and our wallets, say we’re done for now) but we’ve managed to store our bikes and gear in Munich (Jason’s sister just moved there and had room – thank you Tracy and Brian!!) and plan to return as soon as we can to continue on.

Who knows what that will look like, or where we’ll go (although there is talk of riding from Munich to Crete in Greece – how cool would that be?), but it feels good to have the option open and to know that, one day, I’ll be riding again with the wind in my face,  feeling the bike underneath me, and listening to the whir of my tires on the pavement.