Santa and sand may be a nice alliteration, but the two words will never go together in my mind. Tropical Christmas trees and sleighs on the beach just don’t seem right. But on Gran Canaria, one of seven Canary Islands off the West coast of Africa that’s just what you’ll get–along with 75 degree weather and plenty of friendly Spanish hospitality. So with much of Europe in a cold spell, we decided to spend our final European adventure in the continent’s southernmost outpost.

A glittering coin in the Atlantic, this round island is home to almost a million people. But you wouldn’t know it from the sparse moon-like landscape along the south coast where we stayed. A few scrubby aloe plants dot the rocky arid hillsides and a large swathe of golden dunes does a nice impression of the Sahara –never mind the two days of rain we experienced!

But the sun and constant temperatures bring the tourists. Our charter flight was packed with more gray hair and orthopedic shoes than bingo night at the local VFW. Katie and Lizzie single-handedly lowered the average age at our resort by a couple of decades. That’s probably why they were so puzzled when an evening’s entertainment that promised rock and roll classics turned out to be a tribute to Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and Little Richard. “Who’s Jerry Lee Lewis?” Katie wondered. I asked the same question after listening to the Spanish singer pronounce “Gooness grazias, gray boas of fur.”

The northern half of the island boasts greener vistas and the island’s capital city. Originally a Spanish military garrison and host to Columbus on his way to the New World, Las Palmas hosts a number of interesting museums and shopping districts. We stocked up on a few last minute Christmas presents and marveled over the pre-computer age practices of some of the shops. In a paper store with fifteen foot ceilings we were invited to browse through the back room, a maze of packed shelves and half open boxes holding decades worth of merchandise. Board games tucked near the ceiling were all faded a uniform powder blue, reams of three-ring binders and composition notebooks blocked the passageways. Yet the clerks were constantly busy servicing a steady stream of customers. Two efficient ladies bagged your purchases and sent you to an old curmudgeon in the corner who manned the single cash register, calling out the prices in sing-song Spanish across the room–no scanners or electronic beeps here!

Our visit to Gran Canaria was a fine coda for our three-year European adventure. A bit of sun, foreign foods, a new culture. Throw in some history and some centuries old buildings and what more could you ask for?

In January we will be returning home to Minnesota, back to our old house in Edina, back to old friends and family. We’ve had a wonderful time here and enjoyed sharing it with you. Time now for new adventures.

Merry Christmas to you all!


It’s an unlikely pairing, a world class art museum and one of the Netherlands largest national parks:: Van Gogh and wild boar, Renior and shifting dunes.

De Hoge Voluwe is located about an hour east of Amsterdam near the city of Apeldoorn.  The park’s 5,500 hectares consist of scotch pine forests, lakes and scrubby grassland that seem transplanted from an African savannah. We kept expecting to see a giraffe or zebra scoot by, but instead it was the occasional white bike off to the side of trail. Free for use by anyone in the park, the white bikes are stationed near each of the entrances. There are over 1700 of the simple, gear-less bikes, but they easily get swallowed up by the miles of trails. There are a number of large animals: Deer, Big Horn Sheep, and wild boar, in the park, but they kept themselves hidden during our visit.

The park was once the private playground of the Kroller Muller family. A huge hunting lodge/summer house rises magestically near a lake in one corner of the park. The families art collection served as the basis for the Kroller Muller Museum, an unobtrusive building in the heart of the forest. With dozens of Van Gohgs and works by Picasso, Seurat, Mondrian, and hundreds of others the art historians among you might recognize, the museum is impressive. It’s not so big as to be overwhelming and is laid out in small easy to navigate galleries.

De Hoge Voluwe may not be one of the better know Dutch attractions, but for a wonderful day of Arts and Grass, it simply can’t be beat.

Gliding, Gliding

Gliding, Gliding

Where are the Animals?

Where are the Animals?

This is for babies!

This is for babies!

The signs began early, the first, rough and hand-printed not long after we crossed the border.  “Zimmer” proclaimed the square of cardboard tacked to a tree like a yard sale come on. A few miles later, a less ephemeral wooden plank pointed the way to a “Soba”.  “Room” announced another just down  the highway. Apartman, Camere, Pokoje…The notices  sprouted like weeds in an untended garden, the message the same regardless of the language–Rooms to let. There are few hotels in the area, but every other house seems to have a spare room that will happily take you in.

There are no cities of towns of significance, no historic ruins or grand cathedrals. So what draws over a million tourists a year to this area of Croatia two hours away from the spectacular coast and only a few miles from the Bosnia border?

Plitvice National Park

Imagine pools of crystal blue water so clear you can count the scales on the fish ten feet below; lush forests of beech, fir and spruce; soaring canyon walls riddled with caverns and dozens upon dozens of frothy, bubbling waterfalls, cascades, rapids, torrents and cataracts. Old Roget’s doesn’t contain the words to describe the breadth and variety of falling water to be found here. Stretching for eight kilometers along a river valley, Plitvice is simply stunning. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park gently guides tourists along a series of pathways and wooden boardwalks. Spectacular wide angle vistas mix with misty, behind-the-scenes close ups. Throw in a boat trip, a bit of simple spelunking, and a brief cloud burst(conveniently occurring while we enjoyed lunch under a thatched roof open air shelter), and you couldn’t ask for much more.

Later, as we sat outside our own zimmer, we nibbled on fresh produce from the market stand up the highway and watched clouds drift past the forested hills. The breeze scattered velvet petals from climbing rose and after the sun set we watched Croatian fireflies flit through the moist air.

Plitvice National Park

Plitvice National Park

Plitvice National Park

Plitvice National Park

Plitvice National Park

Plitvice National Park

It’s easy to overlook Slovenia. Reactions when we announced our summer vacation destination included:

“You’re going where????”

“Must be getting to the bottom of your list.”

“What would you want to do that for?”

“Didn’t that used to be part of Czechoslovakia?”*

Formerly the northern-most province of Yugoslavia, Slovenia often gets lost next to it’s larger neighbors and the drum roll of newish Balkan states. Austria to the north and Italy to the west evoke old world grace and beauty. Croatia and Bosnia to the south get more news coverage, not to mention war correspondents and diplomatic missions. Even Hungary to the east was at least once the second half of a major European empire.

Despite the long shadows cast along its borders, little  Slovenia manages quite well. Independent since 1991 and part of the European Union since 2004, it’s two million inhabitants are prosperous and friendly. Guidebooks describe the country as a combination of Austrian efficiency and Italian joy of living. There’s certainly truth to that, but I think Slovenia is more than just an amalgam of its neighbors.

For a start it’s probably the most beautiful country we’ve visited in Europe. It’s a beauty that sneaks up on you and seeps into your soul. It’s not spectacular like the Swiss Alps (though Slovenia does have it’s own Juilian Alps) or dream-inducing like the hills of Tuscany, but a cumulative effect. The longer you are there, the prettier it seems. Take a trip in any direction from the tidy capital of Ljubljana and you find yourself relaxing into the landscape, as if every road in the country was mapped out with the dotted green line indicating a scenic byway.

The green rolling hills, lush forests and cute villages are only part of the appeal. The obvious care and affection the Slovenians lavish on their land is also apparent. Immaculate vegetable gardens grace nearly every yard, flowers bloom in profusion, tiny vineyards line the hillsides. And throughout it all, there are far fewer of the tourist come-ons–knick knack stands and cultural demonstrations that overwhelm more famous locales. It feels more like a home than a theme park.

I could go on, and probably already have, but here are a few photos to whet your whistle.

*Former international relations expert G.W. Bush once made the same mistake, mixing up Slovenia with Slovakia when he came to visit. You say tomato…

Blood really is thicker than water. Even when that water is as wide as the Atlantic and the blood thinned by  four generations  and  100 years of living two continents apart.  We stepped onto the rain soaked tarmac of Ljubljana airport with some trepidation.  What would our “cousins” think of us? Would we have anything to talk about? Were those old letters I found in a great-aunt’s belongings enough of a connection?

We needn’t have worried. From the moment Tomaz greeted us at the arrival gate, we were thrust into the bosom of the family.  Home after home was opened to us. Third and fourth cousins, removed only in name, were introduced. Slovenian culinary specialities–Pogaca(welcome bread) Prsht (cured ham), homemade wine and numerous varieties of our childhood favorite Potica–were placed before us. We were escorted to the village festival and introduced to friends and neighbors. We quickly learned that “come in for five minutes” means at the very least a glass or two of wine and more likely plates of food and and a review of old family photos.

Cousin Tone brought us to the houses where each of my great grandparents were born, still owned and occupied by family members. Cousin Amalija and Vasilij led us up windy gravel roads to their family vineyard–complete with plenty of samples, of course. Cousin Vasko pulled out an ancient looking wooden ladder and climbed a cherry tree, filling a pail with ruby fruit that Katie and Lizzie quickly made disappear.  Gregor instigated an impromptu soccer match much to Katie’s delight.

At the end of two days we felt overwhelmed with kindness and generosity. We could have easily gone home and felt our vaction was complete, the remaining week completely unnecessary.  But a few days later Tomaz phoned us and invited us to visit them once again, this time at their vacation apartment on the Croation coast, putting an exclamation point our best European adventure yet.

Luxembourg is tiny. Even by the small scale of European countries it’s small. It may not be the smallest country in Europe, ranking well above such waifs as Monaco and The Vatican, but in that favorite game of comparing U.S. states to countries, it would fall below Rhode Island in area and a bit behind Wyoming in population. The capital city,  also Luxembourg (making it easy for you geographically challenged to remember) is home to just slightly more people than Duluth, MN and is three time bigger than the next most populous urban(if you can call it that) area.

Despite the don’t blink or you’ll miss it stature, Luxembourg has much to offer. We recently spent a few days there because of Katie’s track meet. (Here’s where I should insert something about back in my day…having to walk uphill  both ways to school through yards of snow.) The first thing you notice about the city is all the trees. A huge park literally cuts through the middle of town. Located in a steep valley with a castle on one side and a grand cathedral on the other, the green space has a distinctly fairy tail quality.  A small stream, perfect for racing pine cones, winds through the center of the park.

The only thing big about the country is the portions piled on your dinner plate.  Lizzie’s wiener schnitzel and my ham leg with sauerkraut would put the platters at The Cheesecake Factory to shame.  Katie’s quiche lorraine was more reasonably sized, but was accompanies by a huge bowl of fries and a side salad.  I’ve done my eating for the week! Linguistically, the country borrows from it’s two biggest neighbors with most people speaking French and German in addition to the native Luxembourgish which is apparently a mix between the two. I must have missed the options for Luxembourgish studies at University.

A half hour of winding country roads north of the capital is the picturesque village of Vianden. Located in the Ardennes, the area is even more wooded than Luxembourg City.  Home of Victor Hugo during his exile from France, Vianden also contains one of the most beautiful castles in Northern Europe and more than it’s fair share of motorcycles–the girls got bored with counting after hitting one hundred.

Here’s a few snaps to take the place of a couple thousand more words…

I’m sitting on the stone patio of Antico Casale just outside Sarzana Italy. It’s a quiet morning apart from the diligent ramblings of Bambusha, the resident ginger-haired cat and the mysterious rushings about at the unopened restaurant across the terrace. Last night the giant wood-fired oven was primed and the canvas umbrellas were aligned on the patio, but the doors remained locked. Revelers never appeared.

Church bells waft down the hillside. Come all ye faithful. The stone and brick towers lording over cobblestone streets are barely visible from here, their function fulfilled by the ear not the eye. A gentle pied-piper breeze brings garlic. I cross the lawn and round the corner. Drawn, my mouth clamoring for more. Where did it go?

Snow white petals spring from an crooked apple tree dancing through the cool air like exuberant butterflies. Invisible finches and wrens tune their instruments amidst the silver foliage of ancient olive trees. A single swallow reveals itself, a breakfast display of aerial acrobatics. A second chorus of bells, more insistent. The breeze relaxes revealing hints of wood smoke and rosemary to go with the garlic. Intoxicating. Maddening.

A rooster three farms over announces the day. The pitter-patter of not so little feet sound on the limestone path. Time for breakfast: hot chocolate and croissants, cafe american and tiny toasts draped with hazelnut flavored chocolate, burgundy sections of blood oranges. Garlic memories fade. Voices rise, plans are made. Off to Pisa to help the masses hold up the tower.

I’m not certain if it says more about how many places we’ve been to since we moved to Amsterdam, or its position at the crossroads of Europe (the silk road between China and the west passes through, as does the Amber road from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, and the yellow brick road is just a few miles out of town), but the city of Prague seems reminiscent of many other places.

The architecture sings of Paris, beautiful buildings, graceful bridges, abundant statuary, even a small scale version of the Eiffel Tower constructed only a few years after Gustaf Eiffel built his.  Stand on the sidewalk of Wenceslas Square and you could swear you were on the Champs Elysees.

Take a stroll around the main square in Old Town and you could be in Brugge Belgium, another treasure that thankfully avoided the destruction of WWII that altered so much of Europe’s urban landscape.

The parallels extend to the shops and restaurants.  The former are chock-a-block with nesting Matryoshka type dolls that recall Russia, elaborately dyed easter eggs that look similar to the Ukranian ones my mother used to buy years ago, and Murano style glass like they make in Venice, Italy.  The later offering specials of Goulash, a dish I’ve always associated with Hungary.

One particularly unexpected similarity came from visiting Prague in February, not exactly peek visiting season. We planned for cold, packing multiple hats and mittens and scarves, lecturing the girls on the importance of layering. What we hadn’t really thought of was snow. Amsterdam hasn’t offered much in the way of replicating our Minnesota winters, but Prague gave us a nice taste. The highlight of the trip for me, was wandering out of our hotel one morning, watching huge flakes of show nestle upon the red tile roofs,  church spires and narrow cobblestone streets and then slipping and stumbling up a hill to a huge park where we built snowmen and had a great snowball fight. Priceless!

Of course, Prague has it’s own unique characteristics as well.  I’ve never encountered a place with as rich and varied cultural options. Operas and plays and jazz abound.  We passed by the main orchestral hall to see a sign announcing an afternoon performance of the “Greatest Hits” of Mozart, Vivaldi, Beethoven and Strauss. The city is also a center for marionette puppetry, not to mention home to a multitude of shops selling a dizzying variety of pinochio’s kin.

An even more unique theater experience is the Black Light performances. We attended one such show featuring the songs of the Beetles. Imagine a lurid yellow submarine floating along the stage. Fun, if not a little strange.

The result of this amalgamation is a truly wonderful city. Everyone who heard we were going raved and for once, the problem of raised expectation did not diminish our experience. From the night train we took to get there, to the most gracious hotel we’ve ever visited, Prague was truly a delight.

A few days of below freezing weather may not seem significant to those of us used to a few months(or even more) of winter temperatures, but here in The Netherlands it results in frenzy.

The media goes on alert. People stand in lines for hours, rush to sporting goods stores and even play hooky from work. Everyone is abuzz! The source of all this excitement?

Ice Skating!

The Swiss have the Alps, Canadians play hockey, the Nordic countries do the Biathalon, but the Dutch are absolutely nuts about skating. It was estimated that around 2.5 million people were likely to strap on their skates last weekend. That’s one in six of the country’s population. A Dutch ice skate manufacturer sold almost 75,000 pairs of skates over the last two weeks, selling out it’s entire stock.

We contributed to that madness by heading out to the Bosbaan, a mile long body of water used in warmer times for rowing competitions. It was amazing to see hundreds of people zipping, twirling, stumbling and falling all over the place. Indeed reports suggested that that Dutch hospitals were overwhelmed with skating related accidents–my wrist is only mildly sprained.

An acquaintance provided a couple of reasons for this Dutch enthusiasm. It’s a sign of the age old Dutch struggle with water. Being able to stand on the ice is a tangible victory over their ancient foe. It’s also seen as a cultural touchstone. Look at paintings from the Dutch masters and they abound with pastoral scenes of people skating on flooded farm fields.

But probably the biggest reason is the relative rarity of conditions necessary to skate on natural ice. In other words it just doesn’t get cold that often. It’s been twelve years since the last significant cold snap. It’s also been that long since the last running of the Elfstedentocht, a 200 kilometer skating marathon through eleven cities in the north of the country. Since it officially began in 1909, the race has only been held 15 times. Organizers of the race constantly monitor the temperature and ice conditions, deciding on the spur of the moment the it’s time. Racers generally only have a day or two at most to prepare. Unfortunately, it’s been raining the past few days and it’s looking like it might be at least another year until the next Elfstedentocht.

But of course, winter isn’t over. Today’s rain could easily be replaced by another blast of artic air. And if it does, you can be rest assured that rather than moaning about the cold, the Dutch will head back to their attics and pull out those skates.

Thanksgiving this year was quite an international affair for us. We didn’t celebrate on Thursday because it’s not a holiday here in the Netherlands and it just doesn’t seem all that festive trying to squeeze preparing a meal, eating it, taking a nap and then noshing on leftovers into the three and a half hours after work. So we opted for a Saturday alternative–that is still Thanksgiving weekend after all.

Our Dutch friends and neighbors were happy to oblige our extended celebration, wishing us a happy (or is it merry, asked one neighbor) Thanksgiving for four days on either side of the holiday. I like the idea of having a whole week for a holiday, kind of like the Chinese New Year festivities you read about where the entire country closes down for ten days. And of all the holidays to extend, I think we could do worse than devoting a mere seven days to giving thanks for all we have.

For our Saturday meal, we had a genuine 16 pound French Turkey (ordered a week in advance from the local butcher to much laughter from the clerk who initially wasn’t certain Turkeys could be that large), German ground pork (to go in the stuffing, of course), Dutch whipped cream, and American canned pumpkin (not a typical product here in cheeseland). We rounded things out with mashed potatoes, green beans, a salad and a crusty bread, all hailing from points unknown.

Our guests this year were two families from Australia, not typical celebrants of Thanksgiving, but quite willing consumers of appropriate quantities of Turkey and goodies. I got the impression, however that our Aussie friends weren’t too keen on the pumpkin pie. It’s not a typical sweet from down under. The adults tried a sliver, but the kids stuck to the Australian celebration cake (a fruit cake to you and me), contributed by one of our guests. I wasn’t too disturbed as it meant more left overs–though somehow Katie managed to make even those disappear rather faster than I would have liked.

The only part of the celebration that was missing was friends and family from back home and the Black Friday shopping spree. Luckily we’ll see many of you when we’re home for Christmas and given how crowded the stores here are in preparation for this week’s SinterKlaas celebration, I can hardly complain about the shopping. Well, I could, but who would listen…