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.