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Even Buddha’s eyeliner needs a touch-up now and then

Cambodian Temples 101 (sort of)

Cambodian Temples were built from the late 6th century through the 12th century at a feverish rate of expansion that would have been the envy of Starbucks. The largest surviving concentrations of temples were built in the Angkor region where Siem Reap is located.

Cambodian temples were built for the usual reasons; conquerors showing off, civilizations being formed, deities being worshipped and displays of aesthetics.  Many are called jungle temples in reference to their locations and the growth that overtook them after the demise of one civilization or the other. (Things can go to hell quickly when no one is left behind to pay the landscapers.)

As with other parts of the world with mysteriously extinct civilizations, laser technology is  bringing new information that may upend long-held theories about what happened to civilizations who erected ancient temples and then seemingly vanished. Laser technology suggests that Angkor Watt was not overrun by invaders and abandoned but may instead have failed in part due to climate change and its effects on the water supply.

Angkor Wat – a city of temples

Angkor Wat the temple- the world’s largest religious monument 

The city of Angkor Wat is about 154 square miles and includes forests, an assortment of temples and current inhabitants. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Center and that standing has helped bring it back from near ruin. Being a UNESCO site is often a blessing/curse situation as it is for Angkor Wat.

The funds that came with the designation allowed the area to be restored and preserved. But the popularity of the designation also brought hordes of tourists who are taking a toll. From when it was constructed until modern times, Angkor Wat has been through a lot. It has suffered from a consuming jungle growth, having many of its antiquities looted and being filled with land mines by the Khmer Rouge.

To enjoy this most well-known of the Cambodian temples you need several hours and comfortable, sturdy shoes to wander around and explore the grounds. Blonde’s trip was with Viking River Cruises on their Magnificent Mekong itinerary and, as always, they provided an expert local guide.

A view over some of the interior of Angkor Wat temple and the surrounding areas (this is a very steep climb up narrow stairs with zero safety precautions)

The guide also taught Blonde a new word she has just spent an inordinate amount of time trying to remember and Google. The word is palimpsest. Aside from being a great word to use in Scrabble, it means (in an archaeological context) a site with features from many different time periods.

The guide explained that Angkor Wat began in the 12th century as a temple to the Indian god Vishnu but over time it was converted to a Buddhist temple with the Hindu imagery remaining.

A bas-relief depicting meal preparations in daily life – bit of a crowded kitchen!

Our guide also explained a lot of the bas reliefs and there are enough for many days’ worth of explanations. They tend to fall into the categories of mythology, history and daily life. The number and intricacy of them are over-whelming but take the time to study at least a few of each category.

Ta Prohm

A tree that has overtaken part of one of the temples of Ta Prohm – with a soundtrack this could be a missing outtake from Fantasia (alternatively it could be Blonde’s foot before a pedicure).

Ta Prohm, also in the city of Angkor Wat, was built in the 12th and 13th centuries as both a temple and a monastery. It’s a complicated layout of concentric galleries, corner towers and gopuras which are towers over entryways. The temple was built to honor the mother of the king of the Khmer Empire, Jayavarman VII. He was a king who liked to build temples, highways, hospitals and other public structures that he probably didn’t envision being visited by tourists with selfie-sticks.

Pay attention to where you’re walking in Ta Prohm – it’s probably best to only see Cambodian hospitals from the outside.

Ta Prohm has been intentionally maintained in its “natural state” as it must have looked in the 19th century when it was rediscovered. Maintaining it this way has been complicated in terms of preventing further collapse and consistently clearing enough vegetation that it can be entered. (It’s kind of like that “no make-up” look that involves layers of make-up.)

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei is a beautiful 10th-century Hindu temple complex built primarily from deep red sandstone. Banteay Srei means Citadel of Women. It’s called this because it’s said that the reliefs on this temple are so delicate that they could only have been carved by the hand of a woman.

The well-preserved relief carvings on the central buildings depict scenes from ancient Hindu tales. Our guide knew so much about Hindu gods, allegories and symbolism that we were fascinated even as we realized that we would probably have zero recall later of what he said.

A sweaty tourist also constructed in roughly the 10th century (not the kind of woman who does intricate carvings)

Kampong Cham’s hilltop temples

Buddha statuary at the base of the Twin Holy Mountains outside of Kampong Cham

We only spent a little while at this site outside of Kampong Cham but it was bright and a stark visual contrast to the ancient temples we had seen elsewhere in Cambodia.

From the top of the hill you can see across to Phnom Pros and Phnom Srey, Man Hill and Woman Hill. The story of the hills is that long ago the Cambodian kingdom was controlled by a queen named Srey Ayuthea. At that time, no man dared to ask the queen to marry him. So the queen chose one man she loved to marry her. (As part of the story he had to accomplish a myriad of impossible tasks so it wasn’t purely love – she was a practical girl too.)

All the women followed her lead and asked the men they chose to marry them.  Later after the queen’s reign, women wanted to change this custom. (Why????) They invited men to take on the duty of proposing but the guys were hesitant to do so. Hence a contest was set up and a condition had to be met. If the men lost they would be put in charge of the whole proposal business whether they liked it or not.

The condition was to create a hill from the surrounding countryside from sunset to sunrise. The group that produced the taller hill got their wish. Men were sure they would win so they agreed. After both groups labored for many hours the women made a small lantern and put it up in the direction of the morning star. The men believed it was the morning star so they went to sleep. The women continued their work until the real morning star appeared. So the women won the competition. Since then men have asked women to marry them. No official report as to whether anything improved as a result of this change.

Statues on a bridge in Angkor Wat – clearly she’s done a better job of keeping her face clean than he has.

What to keep in mind when you visit Cambodian temples
  • Slather on your sunscreen and wear a hat and sunglasses. If you’re in Cambodia in August as Blonde was, know for certain that you will need a thorough shower and change of clothes before dinner.
  • Take plenty of water to drink and don’t pass up a rest room opportunity even if it isn’t exactly optimal.
  • Go for sensible footwear or spend the vast majority of the day in a deep state of painful regret.
  • Women need sweaters or tops with at least short sleeves to go into temples – a scarf thrown around a sleeveless top won’t cut it.
  • Men and women should cover their knees.
  • Suspension of disbelief makes the legends more enjoyable (not a good time to be overly literal)

If you couldn’t have figured this out without the sign maybe you shouldn’t wander around the ancient temples at all.

The post Cambodia’s temples and their (abbreviated) history appeared first on Blonde Brunette Travel.

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The best way to travel is with your sister!

What’s the best way to travel?

We talk to people who stress that they always travel independently and it’s the superior way to travel. And then we speak to others who have no interest in independent travel. They think it sounds like a hassle, could be dangerous, and they want to leave all of the planning to others.

So who’s right? As is so often the case in life it’s “neither one” or “it depends”.  (How unsatisfying.)

An increasingly jolly wine-tasting in South Africa where all we did was hire the driver on a trip we planned independently

Pros of independent travel

We believed for many years that the independent route was clearly the best. We enjoyed putting together our itineraries, Brunette researched everything thoroughly and we had a strong sense of adventure (at least at the beginning of the trips..). Luckily we never had anything of consequence go wrong and we had lots of fun.

Here are our pros of independent travel:

  • Control over our itinerary. No need to go to that fish farm if we’d rather troll for impractical white linen blouses we won’t end up wearing very often. (It’s not as if we would have started a fish farm either.) If we want a quick side trip to another country we can take it – even if it does turn out to be a dumb idea. We can even be so bold as to have days with no plans!
  • Control over our airfare and the route we take –  We care a whole lot about price but if it’s only going to save us $200 and take 7 hours more, we keep on looking for options. We aren’t restricted to any particular airlines or airports and there can be great freedom in that.
  • More opportunities for spontaneous adventures – when it’s just the two of us we get into more unanticipated (and often inadvisable) situations than if we’re part of a group. We’ve done plenty of dumb things but we’ve also made some great memories and laughed ourselves into comas.
  • Building new neural pathways – Whenever we have to figure out something difficult and actually do it we tell ourselves that the value was that we built new neural pathways. Rumor has it that’s important as people age (not that we know anything about that).
  • No risk of travel companions who annoy us. – We’re immune to each other.
  • Get up when we damned well please. – Unless Brunette goes all bossypants or Blonde finds out about an early morning sale on something she wants.
  • Less likely to come home sick. – This is not the same as unlikely.

An inadvisable, yet memorable, situation involving a Belgian fire and rescue team – not the sort of thing we would do on a group tour (probably).

Cons of independent travel:
  • Can waste a lot of time – Recently, while looking over notes from a trip we took to Spain for 6 weeks, we realized both how much fun we had – who doesn’t love a ride with a flatulent turtle?- but also how much time we wasted. How about the day our pre-purchased train passes for the Spanish railway Renfe caused us to spend 7.5 hours in the Barcelona train station for a trip of less than an hour? Or the home we stayed in that had unknowable appliances, uncertain electric and none of the promised wifi?
  • No one to come to the rescue – We made two trips to Fiji in two years and two times we ended up without a hotel room booked for the last night.  It would have been nice to have a travel agent or company protect us from our stupidity about the International Date Line.
  • Costs tend to end up higher than expected – With the group trips and cruises we’ve gone on we know the prices of the trips, extra excursions and estimated tips before we leave home. When we wing it we tend to come home somewhat dismayed by the unseemly happiness of our credit card companies.
  • Don’t learn as much about the history and culture – Unless we hire our own guides we basically learn what might be in a guide book or on a museum wall.  We form our impressions of a country largely by observation and experiences. In group travel (with a good company) we learn from local guides who are skilled at telling us about a destination in an interesting way. We also get to ask them lots of nosy questions about the culture, economy, education system and their personal lives (OK, mostly Blonde does that but Brunette tends to feed her the questions).
  • Risky reliance on the kindness of strangers – It’s quite likely this applies more to us than to other independent travelers. We have gotten into the cars of strange men (and we don’t mean Brunette’s husband) who don’t share a language with us and who we hope will drive us to where we think we’re bring taken. We have ridden with such men in Turkey, South Africa, Abu Dhabi and Mexico – places where unaccompanied American women are encouraged to throw caution to the wind. And then there was the time we couldn’t find our parked car (at midnight) in a hard core Mafia town in Sicily and a man we didn’t know drove us to it as Brunette planned how she could strangle him with her scarf if he tried to attack Blonde…(she couldn’t have – end of story.)

Truthfully, if our blog hadn’t somehow managed to get enough of an audience for us to get offered free group travel we would probably still be traveling independently (if ineptly). But it did and we are very happy about that! We have been fortunate enough to travel with top tier companies such as Viking Cruises (both ocean and river) and Go Ahead Tours. In doing so we found new pros and cons.

Painting tiles at the National Tile Museum in Lisbon. This is something you can’t do on your own but can through Viking River. (Finished product was more impressive.)

Pros of group travel
  • Experts plan the itinerary – We don’t plan to see a museum on a Monday when it will be closed. We know we can get from Point A to Point B without having to cobble together the “how” by asking questions on travel forums and spending time staring at maps (for those of you under 50 you can ignore that last comment). Everything we choose to do will happen and if for some reason it can’t, that is someone else’s problem to solve. There can be great peace of mind in knowing that.
  • Costs are known upfront – Admittedly our cost is “free” which is one we highly recommend. But we know what to budget for tips and how many meals we will be eating on our own. It isn’t the free-range spending of independent travel.
  • Can efficiently check reviews before booking – We (“We” is Brunette) check on hotels, restaurants and even day trips when we travel independently. For group trips we just look at the reviews relevant to that company and itinerary and save ourselves/her many hours of time on the internet. (We use the saved time on other internet activities such as online shopping for new wardrobes for the trip.)
  • Someone has our back – If the company has booked our flights and a problem arises they deal with it and just give us the solution. If we get sick they find us a doctor who speaks English.  We  always have lots of questions about where we’re going and what we’re seeing and they provide top-notch local guides.
  • People responsible for us have been vetted much better than we ever do for ourselves. – We doubt that the travel companies we’ve used have just asked strangers in cafes at midnight to please take us somewhere. (At least we hope that hasn’t happened.) Of course this is only a “pro” if you use a reputable company you’ve done your research on – they are definitely not all equal.

If you don’t behave yourself on a cruise they throw you overboard.

Cons of group travel
  • Everything happens on their schedule – All of a sudden we have to get up way earlier in the morning than we would on our own. If we want another evening in a destination and that isn’t part of the itinerary it won’t happen. And if we get somewhere we don’t like we still have to stay there until the scheduled departure. (To be fair this last one really hasn’t happened with Viking or Go Ahead.)
  • Airfare choices can be limited and lousy – That whole “airfare included” thing is very attractive. At least until you find out that they only have agreements with a couple airlines that may be wildly inconvenient for you in terms of airports and total travel times.  Personally we suggest finding out what they offer and then comparing it to what you can get on our own before taking it.
  • Other people – We meet a lot more nice people than annoying ones on our group trips. Even so there’s always going to be the couple who never shows up on time, the person with the juicy cold and poor hygiene habits and the nonstop bus-talker. Thankfully we are never the annoying people.
  • Come home sick – See “other people” above.

With neither independent or group travel being the one clear winner it’s best to weigh the pros and cons and see how much different things matter to you. If you see more “pros” in one, even if it’s the one you have doubts about, at least try it on a limited basis to see what you think. (This means an 8 day river cruise, not an around the world ocean cruise for your first try with a company.)

Sometimes one is better than the other. Maybe you work full time and don’t have the extra time and energy to do your own planning. You should consider a group tour.

Or maybe you want to go on a trip to find your roots (Blonde goes to CVS when she finds her roots) and you need to develop a customized itinerary.

One “pro” of either option is that at least you’re traveling and that’s the most important thing of all!

The post Pros and cons of independent versus group travel appeared first on Blonde Brunette Travel.

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A masseria (fancypants farmhouse) our guide found out in the middle of Puglia. We went here for a cooking class.

Our review of Go Ahead Tour’s Puglia and Southern Italy itinerary

This was our second trip in less than a year with Go Ahead Tours and we thoroughly enjoyed each trip (last year’s was to Croatia and Slovenia). The vast majority of the travel we have done over the years has been independent  – we’ve planned it all, arranged our own transportation and figured out everything else. So when we initially tried group travel we were skeptical. This was our first time in Italy with a group so it was an interesting experiment as we had each been there 5 times previously. So what did we like and were there things we didn’t like?

Ease of planning

Maybe we’re just getting lazy  (there’s some supporting evidence for this possibility) but we were perfectly happy to have someone else figure out the schedule, where to stay and what to see. When we went over the itinerary before finalizing the trip we saw that it hit on all of the places on our “must see” list except for one (more on that later). We decided to add the extension to Rome as Brunette had never been there.

One of the most time-consuming aspects of planning a trip is selecting hotels. We spend hours pouring over reviews, making sure the locations are convenient and trying to make cancellable reservations as much as possible. We were very pleased with all (but one) of the hotels on the Puglia and Southern Italy itinerary. They were clean, comfortable, had  wi-fi and  a/c that worked (no small feat in Italy), good breakfast buffets and locations that were convenient for walking to town in our free time. Our luggage was always delivered to our rooms soon after our arrival and we always got the two beds we requested (we were keeping a spare in case George Clooney showed up).

Bari, a very appealing city where we had a fun afternoon and evening on our own (after a comprehensive tour).

 But not over-planned

We don’t like to have all day every day planned and one of our favorite things about the Go Ahead Tour of Puglia was that they gave us free time at every destination. In some small towns it might only be half an hour but you can have a good chunk of the afternoon and evenings in many places. When there is free time, if you aren’t sure what to do, the guides always have plenty of suggestions. Our guide, Linda, grew up in the region and was very knowledgeable about what there was to do and was very frank in her opinions which we liked.

Having free time let us select restaurants that appealed to our tastes (we can’t eat seafood) and get in some shopping. One time we just took the afternoon to hang around and read our books.  Another time we had a swim in a hotel’s rooftop pool. We would like to say we used the time to go to museums, but we didn’t. Oh, and sometimes we wasted our time (mostly because George Clooney didn’t show up).

This was an optional cooking class and was a highlight of the trip. (Clearly Brunette is scared to look at what is in her hand and is having impure thoughts.)

Well-selected optional activities

We did them all – literally.  And we truly enjoyed them all. But when we made ourselves decide which were the top two that really made our  trip memorable we agreed that they were the day trip to Capri and the cooking class. Capri’s charms are self-evident but if you aren’t a cook, why the cooking class?

Because the cooking class is just part of the experience on that outing. First you walk around a beautiful masseria where the owner is welcoming, speaks good English and has an interesting story to tell about the place. The cooking class itself is very non-threatening even for people who can barely make a cup of coffee.  Several men who may have been there semi-involuntarily ended up having a great time. There was lots of humor, fabulous food (not the stuff we made) and if you screwed up enough the adorable chef would put his arms around you to show you proper technique (wink wink). The few people who didn’t go really wished they had so if you suffer from FOMO don’t miss it!

And, if you do the Rome extension, the Vatican tour was excellent. We had a very small group and the guide was able to make some changes to show us a few lesser known galleries that were of interest to us and where the larger groups were not going.

If your budget can handle it, do all of the excursions because they’re interesting and add to your overall enjoyment and memories.

We enjoyed this optional afternoon trip to Herculaneum – a city covered by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius which preserved many of the artwork and buildings.

The guides

Go Ahead Tours deservedly gets lots of kudos from their travelers for the quality of the guides. Our guide was the person who developed the itinerary in the first place. She has a lot of pride in the region and a sense of ownership to make sure we all had a great experience. A few things she did really stood out to us.

One person had a strong sensitivity to gluten. Linda not only made sure she always had a gluten-free meal but also several times bought  gluten-free snacks for the person. (Remember, this was Italy!)

And remember how one place we really wanted to see wasn’t on the itinerary? Brunette asked about it on the first night of the trip and the next day it had been added. It was a beautiful, seaside town everyone enjoyed. Linda’s flexibility and desire to give us a special experience made it happen.

What impressed us the most was an incident where someone lost her wallet. The traveler thought she’d dropped it at the gift shop in Herculaneum (of course the rest of us thought she’d been robbed). Linda got hold of the gift-shop manager (after-hours) and found out the wallet was indeed there. We were all on the way to our next destination already so there was no turning back.

The bus driver’s brother went to the shop and retrieved the wallet which had all of the cash and cards still in it. He somehow got it to his brother-in-law who, several days later, jumped out of a car at an intersection and ran over and handed the wallet to Linda in our bus. The whole thing was so above and beyond the call of duty that the group was astounded. If the wallet-loser had been traveling on her own or with a guide who didn’t have a feeling of personal responsibility she probably  would never have seen her wallet again.

There are also local guides at each destination and they were all people with strong personal ties to the places. In Matera the guide’s family had lived in the caves. That kind of local perspective makes a guide more than just someone who gives you factual information.

And we have to mention our bus driver who was friendly, kept an immaculate bus, didn’t smoke and, most importantly of all, was a very safe and skillful driver.

The proprietor of a family run shop where our guide arranged a private tasting of regional specialties.

Our advice if you go to Puglia and Southern Italy with Go Ahead Tours Select the time of year thoughtfully

We went in late May, early June and had very good weather overall. It was  cooler than we expected by the sea and at night (duh) so we each wished we had taken a couple sweaters.

You may read that Puglia is undiscovered, and compared to the Vatican that’s true, but it has been discovered. In general we avoid travel in Europe in August because of the sheer numbers of “regular” tourists plus all of the Europeans who are also on vacation. Go Ahead gives you helpful trip planning information in their FAQs for each trip.

Download the Go Ahead app before you go

Their app can be used offline which is a huge plus for seeing what you’re doing the next (or same) day and seeing a lot of other information. Yes, the guide will give you the same info but we found the app to be handy several times.

Follow their packing guidelines

But throw in a sweater, rain jacket and at least two outfits you would like to wear to a nice dinner or entertainment. Take to heart the recommendation to only bring comfortable footwear. Also, believe them that there is a lot of walking and some of it is on moderately challenging terrain.

One of many beautiful fields with olive trees that are over 1,000 years old. We aren’t sure the gate is super effective.

Consider doing some of your own research ahead of time

Whatever you do don’t tell Go Ahead Tours, but we tended to like the restaurants we found on our own more than the ones recommended by hotel concierges or even our guide (shhh…) Although it’s important to note that Go Ahead Tours did a very good job of selecting restaurants for our group dinners.

And if you are hoping to see something very specific  – wine drinking dolls made of olive trees, for example- find out where that might be possible. The guides are smart but they can’t know every specific interest anyone might have and be able to address it on the fly.

Follow Go Ahead Tours on Facebook

They often have good promotions you might not know about otherwise and they actually publish interesting stuff.

Feel free to ask us questions

Our first piece of advice will be to do this itinerary. We are always happy to provide additional opinions and the occasional fact!

A major complaint about this trip – not nearly enough gelato!

Disclosure:  Our trips were provided for free by Go Ahead Tours which is why we occasionally behaved better than we might have otherwise. Occasionally.

The post Why we liked visiting Puglia with Go Ahead Tours appeared first on Blonde Brunette Travel.

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The Viking Mekong setting sail the first evening

The Viking River Magnificent Mekong

We love Viking’s European offerings and last year pushed the definition of Europe to include a river cruise in Russia. But deciding to go to Southeast Asia somehow felt like a whole different kind of decision – it’s a lot farther away and more foreign in its culture than Europe. But we’d heard great things from other Viking travelers we’d met so we decided to go for it.

Quite unfortunately, the day before we were scheduled to depart on the trip Brunette had the misfortune/nerve to get sick and wasn’t able to go, so Blonde went solo.

Although the experiences in Vietnam and Cambodia were unlike anything in Europe, the Viking characteristics of exploring culture and history in the company of exemplary staff were consistent.

Well that’s great but would you enjoy going on the Magnificent Mekong itinerary? You would if you enjoy these things:

A family home we visited on a small island in Vietnam (this is a very nice home for a rural family).

Learning about different cultures Day-to-day life

We had several occasions to visit rural homes in Vietnam and Cambodia and talk to the families. Yes, these families have been selected by Viking so they’re probably better off than their neighbors. But their willingness to show us around and answer nosy questions seemed to be genuine.

Admittedly, the poverty can be hard to take. Even Blonde had a twinge of discomfort about using a $900 phone to photograph someone’s home with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing or electricity.

But, without romanticizing the poverty, it’s impressive to see how the people live with so little. They use all of everything – literally. Even if you think it must be over after they’ve used the wood from a tree for cooking it isn’t – they collect the ash to use in their fields.

A (not really) baby-proofed nursery. Grandma does household work and watches the little ones.

The importance, and rigidity, of roles in families can be hard for Westerners to comprehend. Typically several generations live in the same dwelling and it’s basically not up for discussion what each person in each generation is expected to do.

Hearing about the lives of the various guides and their families absolutely fascinated Blonde.

Buddhism

Monks having lunch which has to be eaten by noon and is the last meal of the day.

Both Vietnam and Cambodia are Buddhist countries. Buddhism is technically not a religion but a belief system (so you don’t have to go church on Sunday). Buddhism has many aspects and teachings that our guides explained to us (more than once because we kept needing to be reminded). A basic tenet is that suffering is universal and the result of attachment.

Time and again – when talking about the genocide in Cambodia – people made it clear that the past is the past and they don’t think about it. (Where’s a good old Irish grudge when you need one? Not here.)

They are not attached to the past in ways that can be hard to fathom. People are literally friends with others who may have killed family members in past conflicts. It seems to hard to argue that their lack of attachment must reduce their suffering.

This almost felt like Buddhist Disney World with its colorful statues and well kept grounds. (They didn’t sell $20 pretzels so it wasn’t Disney World.)

On a more shallow note Buddhism makes for lots of pretty temples, statues, and stupas which house the remains of the deceased.

Food

Blonde eating (some of) a tarantula. This is optional and tends to follow alcohol consumption with a side of bad judgement.

OK, that picture was for shock value. The crickets and tiny frogs were good but skip the tarantulas. And no, they aren’t a meal that anyone is expected to eat although many people do eat them (in real life, not so much on the ship).

At each meal there were options to try the regional cuisine. After a few meals in the beginning of ordering things like a BLT Blonde finally decided to get with the program. It turned out that choosing the regional selection was always a good idea. There were excellent soups, noodle dishes, spring rolls, fish and salads. The cuisine was a very pleasant surprise.

A guide showing us how a man would go down into one of the series of tunnels in Vietnam where the Viet Cong hid and where soldiers – “tunnel rats” – performed underground search and destroy missions.

Exploring history from different times and perspectives Recent

In Vietnam we saw places that were interesting and very sobering.  We went to places where history was made – the “Hanoi Hilton”, the Chu Chi tunnels, the avenue in Saigon where North Vietnamese tanks invaded and the site where the last Americans were air-lifted out of Saigon in the days before it fell. Our guides, as well as speakers and films Viking presented, gave us balanced perspectives on the war and made many of us realize how little we knew about it.

Blonde came home just as the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary on the Vietnam War began to be shown on PBS. It is an excellent series in it own right but seeing it after also visiting the country made it even more interesting.

Skulls from victims of the Cambodian genocide

In Cambodia we went to one of the Killing Fields and the infamous detention center, S-21 which is now the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. Again, our guides, especially the local ones whose families had been personally affected by the genocide, gave it a face and a sense of the horror in everyday life that you can’t get from books or films. We even met one of the survivors of S-21 – a place where 14,000 people were taken and only 7 survived.

The picture of Angkor Wat that every visitor is required to take (well, maybe not literally..)

Middle Ages

Angkor is a UNESCO designated temple complex in Cambodia and one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. The Hindu temple, Angkor Wat, is the largest religious monument in the world and was built in the 12th century. It was a bucket list destination for Blonde even though it was so hot she thought she could have filled the bucket with her sweat!

The bridge leading to the Angkor Thom – an ancient city that was once the longtime capital of the Khmer empire

Seeing the smaller, less well-known temples in the area was actually more enjoyable as the crowds were smaller and there was some shade. If it hadn’t been for the heat it would have been nice to spend even more time exploring some of the many sites.

Like a variety of settings Hotels

Part of Blonde’s room at the Reverie Hotel in Saigon

The Viking River Magnificent Mekong is a river cruise that is only about half on the river; the rest is on land. The hotels we stayed in were all very luxurious and we spent 3 nights in each. They were in major cities and had excellent spas (a girl has to do her research) and breakfast buffets.

The ship

A very poor picture of Blonde’s cabin on the ship

The ship is not owned by Viking and does not have the balconies, interior passageways or feel of the ships that they own. It does have everything you need  – comfortable beds, air conditioning, a good-sized bathroom and wi-fi (most of the time). The restaurant was excellent, as always.

On every Viking River cruise Blonde thinks this is the best staff ever and she felt this way on this cruise too. It’s a total mystery how they find and train the wonderful people who work for them. As clichéd as it may sound, having friendly caring people can make a stay “luxurious” in ways that even upgraded surroundings can not.

Blonde’s shipboard BFF who brought her cappuccino as if by magic

Blonde also liked the size of the Viking Mekong. It holds fewer than 60 guests so you really do end up feeling as if you know everyone at least a little (whether or not you want to).

One caveat

Some of us stood in blistering sun for 45 minutes before climbing these steep stairs at Angkor Wat

This is a trip that is only suitable for people who can walk in challenging settings and in the heat and humidity. We never covered major distances and were always given plenty of time but someone who needs assistance just couldn’t do this trip. These aren’t countries or sites that accommodate disabilities – period. Blunt and unfortunate but true. Viking makes this clear in advance but it bears repeating.

If you go

Halong Bay on a cloudy day which meant very few other ships so it was great.

Quick advice:
  • Do the Halong Bay extension (will write about it later)
  • Allow enough time to get your visas and follow the instructions
  • Bring a lot of tops – you can’t get away with wearing anything twice in the heat (they have a laundry on the ship)
  • Bring tops that cover your shoulders and bottoms that cover your knees for when you visit temples. Ladies can’t get away with using scarves to cover their shoulders.
  • Have comfortable shoes that can get wet and live to walk another day
  • Read the tipping guidelines before you go – the guides and staff are so good you’ll want to do right by them.

It looks worn because it’s really useful – read it before you go, take it and bring it back.

  • Read the cruise documents booklet before you go. Yes, the whole thing. This means you.

Still have a thought bubble about whether this is the right cruise for you? Just leave a comment and ask.

Disclosure: Blonde’s trip was paid for by Viking which is why she tried hard to watch her language and keep her political opinions to herself. Most of the time.

The post Would you enjoy Viking River Cruises’ Magnificent Mekong itinerary? appeared first on Blonde Brunette Travel.

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Croatian National Theater in Zagreb

As our Go Ahead Tours bus drove into Zagreb and our guide extraordinaire, Tamara, told us its history and we saw the beautiful architecture we couldn’t wait to see Zagreb’s top attractions.  The fact that Zagreb was on our itinerary had been one of the tour’s compelling features. As hackneyed as it is to say that somewhere is an undiscovered gem it feels fair to say that Zagreb is just that for most American travelers. It certainly was for us.

Zagreb has a classic European look and a lively atmosphere that is probably fueled in part by the large presence of university students. It also has a low crime rate and significantly higher average salaries than elsewhere in Croatia which may all contribute to its cheerful ambiance.

After our bus tour, Go Ahead introduced us to our very perky and informative local guide. She took us on an easy and enjoyable walking tour that you could replicate on your own (minus her interesting patter). Here are the places the guide took us and what we found to be interesting.

St. Mark’s Church – one of Zagreb’s top attractions

St. Mark’s Church

A good place to start your tour is in the upper part of town in St. Mark’s Square. The square is home to Croatia’s Parliament building, their Constitutional Court and the old City Hall as well as St. Mark’s Church.

The church is one of the oldest buildings in Croatia and has a distinctive colorful tiled roof which features the coats of arms of both Croatia and Zagreb. St. Mark’s has had such a difficult existence it must have sorely tried the faith of the parishioners.

The parish was established in the 13th century and the first church was erected. Fires and earthquakes demolished the church and its bell tower so many times that it has been completely rebuilt 6 times. The current structure was a renovation done in the 19th century.

The entrance to the Croatian Museum of Naive Art (see how close it is to St. Mark’s Church?)

The Croatian Museum of Naive Art

Just a few short blocks from St. Mark’s you will come across the entrance to the small, excellent Croatian Museum of Naive Art. If you aren’t familiar with naive art it doesn’t mean that the artists believe in Santa Claus but rather that they did not receive formal art training.

Truthfully other naive art has left us a bit cold but the collection here is very impressive and engaging. Go Ahead Tours had arranged an English language tour of the museum which helped us appreciate what we were seeing.

The museum focuses on the Hlebine School (yes, it’s confusing that they have a school but not a school). The art displayed here is mostly from the 1930s through the 1980s. Some of the paintings are colorful and somewhat extreme portraits that are only broadly realistic. Others are scenic or tell stories such as the – surprising to us – depiction of the so-called “Jonestown Massacre” in 1978. We didn’t expect to encounter that in Zagreb (or anywhere else).

Guiana 1978 by Josip Generalic

Even if you feel skeptical about naive art see this museum. It’s unlike any other museum you’re likely to see in Croatia and gives an interesting perspective on some of their less recognized artistic accomplishments.

St. Catherine’s Church – less impressive from the outside than the inside

St. Catherine’s Church

True confessions – when we were there the church wasn’t open so we didn’t see the interior but it’s pink and Baroque and looks great in other people’s pictures. Here’s a link where you can see it.

This church was built by Jesuits in the 17th century. They appreciated the value of a good location because outside, off the right side of the church, you can get some  of the best views of the city.

St. Stephen’s – only one steeple and the renovations will finally be complete

Zagreb Cathedral (aka The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

We’re giving you a misleading impression of our interest in touring churches and we promise not to mention another one after this.

We were told that Zagreb Cathedral is the highest building in Croatia. Its twin spires can be seen from many places in the city and it’s the most visited attraction in the city. It has undergone extensive renovations (due to earthquake damage and poor quality stone) for years but they seem to be in the home stretch with only one of the spires to complete.

The interior of Zagreb Cathedral

This Roman Catholic Gothic style Cathedral was first built in the 13th century. It covers a number of bases by being dedicated to the Virgin Mary (patron saint), Saint Stephen who was a king of Hungary (a politician who was a saint?) and Saint Ladislaus.

Take the time to go inside and see the Gothic sacristy which is a major part of the Cathedral’s architectural value.

Tkalciceva Street in lower town with cafes, bars, restaurants and shops

Lower town

After you leave St. Catherine’s you will make your way to one of the ancient city gates and into the area known as Lower Town. The main street for dining and shopping is Tkalciceva. Both sides of the street are lined with open-air restaurants and cafes offering traditional as well as international cuisine.

There’s a statue of Marija Juric Zagorka an early feminist, Croatia’s first female  journalist and a novelist.  She’s been dead since 1894 but is still the second most widely read writer in the country. You go girl!

There are stalls on Tkalciceva selling Croatian crafts and other local products. Some of the crafts have EU protective status which is prestigious and restricts would be copycats. There’s a lot of pride in items that have managed to get this designation.

A stall where the things you buy are actually made in Croatia

From Tkalciceva you can walk to the nearby downtown shopping area. We have to confess that we loved Zagreb’s architecture, history and spirit but the shopping (other than for crafts) isn’t something to allot any time to experience. Our most telling moment came in a department store where we went to look at the shoes and nuns were in there buying shoes. No offense to nuns but they aren’t known for their stylish footwear so we knew it was time to head to our hotel!

Zagreb has enough charms for several days. But if your time is limited this easy walk to some of its most interesting sights is enough to leave you feeling as if you got a sense of the city and its history.

Marija Juric Zagorka probably off to go shopping

Disclosure to keep us out of travel blogger jail: We were the grateful guests of Go Ahead Tours. They didn’t tell us what to say or we probably wouldn’t have mentioned shoe shopping with nuns.

The post Zagreb’s top attractions appeared first on Blonde Brunette Travel.

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Two popular things in Ljubljana, the river and bicycles (not used in combination)

Ljubljana, Slovenia is a small (272,000 person) city where, thanks to extensive initiatives which earned it the moniker of Europe’s Green Capital, you can truly breathe in the city’s beauty.

Ljubljana’s mayor for the last 10 years, Zoran Janković, has implemented an aggressive environmental plan for the city and the payoff is impressive.

One of his early moves was to eliminate cars in the city center. This was clearly something he could do without much of anyone else’s approval as it was not exactly unanimously supported at the time. To aid residents – primarily senior citizens – who are not able to navigate the 15-minute walk from one side of the downtown to the other a free electric car service ferries them to errands or appointments. (We learned that it won’t offer to drive you back to your hotel if you’re tired and look wistful.)

A large underground car garage was built near the city center for those who still must drive in. Bike lanes and a bike-sharing program have also been implemented. Tourists would be advised to keep an eye out for the cyclists – they don’t have the discipline or skill you see from riders in places like Amsterdam.

Ljubljana is also going green in terms of low-emission buses and even underground waste management. And it’s not only new initiatives but making better use of existing things such as the parks that circle the city. Tivoli Park and Tabor Park have been revitalized for increased recreation and for uses such as urban gardens.

When you go to Ljubljana from a more traditional, larger European city the difference is refreshingly palpable. You get all of the pluses minus the honking horns, crazy drivers and fumes.

It would be even better if someone could cut down on the number of smokers but there’s only so much a mayor can do.

The salmon-colored Franciscan church which overlooks Prešeren Square

Things to do in Ljubljana and the surrounding area Enjoy the river

The Ljubljanica River separates the Old Town from the medieval part of the city. There are a number of famous bridges crossing the river with the most famous being the Triple Bridge (and BTW there are clean public toilets down the stairs under the bridge). The Triple Bridge was built of  wood and consisted only of  the central bridge in the 1280s. After an earthquake, it was replaced with a limestone and concrete structure in 1842. The two side bridges were intended for pedestrians and were built between 1929 and 1932. All three bridges are for pedestrians now and they are all home to selfie-taking tourists.

There are also cafes lining the river

It’s very easy to get a cruise on the river and we recommend doing just that. You can either go to the tourist center (on the medieval side of the city at the end of the Triple Bridge) or just walk down some of the stairs that lead to small boat docks. If you want English narration you would do best to check on that at the tourist office and to also not have overly high expectations.  Fortunately, you don’t need skilled narration to see how much joy the locals and visitors get from the river. We saw paddle boarders, canoeists, kayakers, lounging lovers, other boats and several extremely large river rats (which are somehow blamed on Americans).

Ljubljana Castle

Take the funicular to the castle

In the medieval part of town you can easily walk to the entrance of the funicular that will take you up the hill to the castle. The castle and fortress were not all built at the same time. It’s documented that the fortress was originally built in the early 11th century and has looked over the town for more than 900 years.

The ride up is worth it for the views but while you’re there check out the Puppet Museum (a major historical interest in Slovenia), art exhibitions, a Slovenian history exhibition, two restaurants and possibly even the nightclub .  In the summer months you can enjoy cultural events, family entertainment, dance evenings, and open-air film screenings held under the stars.

Check out the market

This is a dispensing machine to fill bottles with raw milk (We hear there’s such a machine for beer too but failed to confirm that.)

We were in Ljubljana with our tour company and they offered an extension to Slovenia. Their local guide took us to the market some of which is open-air and some covered.  There is a market Monday through Saturday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. but go on a Saturday if you can as that’s the big market day.

You can get all kinds of goodies – both edible and otherwise – made locally. There is organic produce, an array of ready to eat foods that can satisfy anyone from a devoted vegan to a determined carnivore, locally made and EU protected crafts, baked goods, oils, honeys and cheeses.

Visit Postojna Cave Park

Go Ahead Tours offered a day trip to Postojna Cave Park so getting there was easy for us. The caves are about 30 miles from Ljubljana. Our tour was well timed to avoid the hordes of tourists (but hardly any Americans) who visit this mammoth system of caves – more than 12 miles, of which 3 miles are open to the public. The caves have been operating as a tourist attraction since 1819.

It’s cold in the caves – around 45 degrees Fahrenheit and sun doesn’t get in to make it feel warmer. Blonde got overly stressed about how cold it would be and rented one of the large dark green wool cloaks that are available for visitors to rent. Not only did it keep sliding off but a fellow traveler said it made Blonde look like an extra in a Polish war movie so, overall, not a tip for others to employ. Just wear any sweaters you have or a jacket.

You go through the caves partly by an open train (don’t sit on the left side if you’re tall) and walk about a mile and a half on foot. There are so many formations your eyes risk exhaustion.  The tour moves quickly – this is not a leisurely stroll. One place – the Concert Hall – can hold 10,000 people and has amazing acoustics. It’s fun to look at all the stalactites and stalagmites and come up with your own opinions of what they look like. Be careful when sharing your thoughts as giggles really echo.

Predjama Castle – it really goes into the cave – it isn’t just built near it.

After the caves go to Predjama Castle

The castle dates back to the 13th century but most of the story of it is focused on the knight Erazem Lueger who holed up there for a year to avoid his captors. Erazem was kind of half of Robin Hood. He was the half that stole from the rich but not the half who gave to the poor.  One of his exploits was killing a Marshall he believed had insulted one of his friends. (This strikes us as perhaps excessive loyalty).

That prank led to the pursuit of Erazem and his holing up in Predjama Castle which, conveniently, was owned by his family at the time. Those trying to capture him were sure he would have to surrender after he ran out of food. They didn’t know that he had a way (and a horse) to escape through the cave at the back of the castle. He easily replenished his food supplies and engaged in a number of fairly childish taunts of his pursuers.

As always the servant who can be compromised appeared in the story (legend is more accurate). The servant told the would-be captors that Erazem used the facilities about the same time each evening (impressive) and that when he was doing so he was unguarded. A candle was lit in the window of the room when he was in there. Guess what? They fired a cannonball and got him in flagrante toiletto.

There were many more centuries of occupation of the castle but none have as good a story line. It’s quite interesting to walk through and see the surprisingly large and even comfortable looking rooms. It’s also interesting to note that the priest slept in the bedroom next to the owners. So much to think about.

The river actually is this color and note the many cafe options that line the banks

Ljubljana and the surrounding area offer lots to do or the perfectly acceptable option of just wandering around enjoying a still lively medieval city. We found Ljubljana to be one of the delights of our trip and recommend it to lovers of everything European.

Required disclosure: We were the guests of Go Ahead Tours on their tour of Croatia and Slovenia but they did not force us to learn to pronounce Ljubljana or even tell us we needed to say nice things about it.

The post Enjoying Ljubljana – the Green Capital of Europe appeared first on Blonde Brunette Travel.

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Matera was the best surprise of our trip to Puglia and Southern Italy with Go Ahead Tours. How had two such amazingly well-informed (and stunningly attractive) travelers as ourselves never heard of this place? We still don’t know the answer to that but want you to know about it because it’s interesting on several levels (in retrospect you will see that that is a pun).

Matera’s History

As the third oldest continually inhabited city in the world (after Aleppo and Jericho) Matera must have more stories to tell than even your elderly aunt after too many martinis.

For over 9,000 years people have lived in Matera. The Romans founded the city in the third century BC and a Who’s Who of invaders conquered and ruled it over the thousands of years since.

From its beginning, people inhabited “sassi” in Matera. Sassi are buildings and caves carved from stone and cliffs. The roof of one building is often the floor of another (is that earlier pun making sense now?).

Many historical accounts refer to sassi as”troglodyte settlements “ which sounds odd and judgey to us.

Photo of a family who lived in Matera. How do you produce 8 kids when you don’t have any privacy? Quietly, is our guess.

Life in Matera in the past

Families of as many as 10 people and their animals would live together in one of the cave structures. People were so poor that at times when they could not afford to feed their children they would drug them with poppies so they would sleep for a couple days. Starvation was a constant threat to life in the area and hygiene was less than ideal.

However, the residents did devise a system of rainwater channels and cisterns dug beneath homes. It was in part this ingenious water system that earned Matera a place on Unesco’s World Heritage list in 1993.

Go Ahead Tours provided us with an interesting and knowledgeable local guide. Her parents and grandparents had lived in Matera before a government program, begun in the 1950s, forced all inhabitants out to live in government provided modern apartment buildings. At the time Matera had been declared the “shame of Italy” because of its unhygienic living conditions and extreme poverty.

The interior of a former home in the sassi. Based on the decor we believe this was an area where the animals were kept.

We were able to tour, with our guide, a former cave home and see how people lived. We’re quite sure it smelled a lot better now than it did when it was inhabited.

Matera has been the site of several films including Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ because the city looks (or so we’re told) like ancient Jerusalem. It was also the home base for the Amazons in the recent movie Wonder Woman but the waterfalls they added in the movie don’t exist. (The Amazons totally exist!)

A new business open on one of the oldest streets in Matera

Life in Matera now

Matera was deserted after the inhabitants were resettled. But in the late 1970s artisans began to come back to the area and over the years a group of young professionals and others spearheaded the restoration of the city.

Today many of Matera’s sassi have been restored and are used as homes, small hotels, restaurants, and shops. Because Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage site the restorations have to meet strict criteria to maintain historical integrity. The government still owns 70% of the land but they grant long-term leases to those willing to invest in restoration.

We’re guessing that the person who buys that loaf of bread sitting on top of the basket isn’t on a low carb diet.

Our guide took us to a small store stocked with high quality, locally made products. We were so impressed that we risked getting home with our clothes coated in pesto from the jars we ended up checking in our luggage.

On the flat above the scassi is the “Civita” – the highest and most prominent area where the richer people lived (upstream in both senses). Matera’s Cathedral which was completed in 1270 is  located there as are quite a few restaurants and some shops.

At lunchtime, our guide recommended ordering an “appertivo completo” if we were in a hurry for lunch. (“In a hurry” in Italy means getting some food in under an hour. and a half.) If you order a drink and an appertivo completo you get a tray with all kinds of food.

It was like clowns getting out of a VW Beetle as they brought out more and more food. We also enjoyed some fascinating people watching with our lunch.

Some (parts that had been eaten before we got around to remembering to take a picture are not displayed) of our appetitive completo.

Matera – You’ve Come a Long Way Baby

In the last 70 years Matera has gone from being the “shame of Italy” to being reclaimed as a place representative of a long and proud history. People who once denied having ever lived there now have celebrity status.

In 2019 Matera will be the European Capital of Culture city; an honor unimaginable in the 1950s. It isn’t only America that loves second acts!

Disclosure: We were guests of Go Ahead Tours and, surprisingly enough, they’re still being nice to us!

The post Matera – European Capital of Culture for 2019 appeared first on Blonde Brunette Travel.

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The Grotta Palazzese Hotel Ristorante in Polignano a Mare- our Go Ahead tour guide managed to get us last minute lunch reservations here.

To us the question was “why not”?  We have each been to Italy quite a few times but as Puglia gained traction as a destination for travelers our curiosity grew and we began to plot a trip to the region.

When Go Ahead Tours offered to host us on their Puglia and Southern Italy tour we accepted with unseemly alacrity.

So why did we want to go there?

The beautiful coastline of Puglia and Southern Italy

A sandy beach among the cliffs in Polignano a Mare

Puglia has the longest stretch of coastline of any region in Italy. If you’re devoted readers (is it too much to hope for a few?)  you know that we love to be in, on, or looking at water as often as possible.

Sometimes we were looking at the Adriatic Sea (above)  and other times at the Ionian Sea but truthfully we didn’t care which was which. They both had water of such beautiful variations of blue that we kept removing our sunglasses to prove to ourselves that the color was real. (It was.)

The coastal topography is karst which we have learned over time is one of our favorites. Karst means it’s made of soluble rocks such as limestone and dolomite. We like the way it makes interesting formations which often include caves and underground rivers.  It generally makes for rocky beaches but in Puglia there are also sandy beaches.

UNESCO sites everywhere you turn

Trulli in Alberobello – the pink bike is out there because the Giro d’Italia bike race which went through town.

Our years of travel have taught us that an easy way to find the most interesting places wherever we go is to check out the UNESCO sites. On our trip to Puglia and Southern Italy we visited five sites.

Our favorites were the trulli in Alberobello. They’re the iconic image of the area shown on every postcard, guidebook or website.

Matera – they put in fake computer generated waterfalls in this setting for the movie Wonder Woman

Our other favorite (if we have to pick) was Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches in Matera. This area has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic period (roughly when Brunette was in high school) and is still inhabited and being expensively and tastefully gentrified.

We were interested to learn that Matera is going to be the European Capital of Culture in 2019 but perhaps more intrigued to find out that it’s one of the locations where the movie Wonder Woman was filmed.

The Passion of Christ was also filmed there and we think Mel Gibson might be lucky he didn’t meet up with Wonder Woman and her Amazon friends.

The architecture

An attempt to look dramatic and moody at Castel del Monte – an octagon-shaped castle ( and UNESCO site)  built in the 1200s

Admittedly, despite having been told many times by well-informed guides, we often can’t tell Classical from Roman but we can usually identify Baroque architecture. We also know Islamic motifs when we see them and all were apparent in Puglia; often in the same building.

Because of the region’s coastal location it has been invaded by a Who’s Who of history. The Greeks, Romans, Byzantine Empire, Normans, Turks, Austrians, Spanish and French have all been in charge at one time or another. That may make for an identity crisis but it also makes for a lot of visual variety.

The food and wine

Woman in Bari making pasta outside her home – the doors to the homes are always left open

Puglia and Southern Italy produce 80% of Italy’s pasta and olive oil. The region also claims to be home to 60 million olive trees and since the internet agrees that makes it true for us!

Our Go Ahead guide arranged for us to visit a high-quality olive oil producer and various local merchants so we could sample regional products. That’s how we ended up with olive oil and pesto in our luggage…

We were also very pleasantly surprised by the wines of the region. We have ridiculously low tolerances for alcohol and getting wine by the glass is often an iffy prospect. But in Puglia and Southern Italy we consistently had good house wines. The region has been quietly  producing higher quality wines in recent years and has even begun to win some international competitions.

For those who enjoy shellfish, you will be very happy. Every menu in the region has lots of options in terms of both type (lots of mussels) and preparation.

Puglia is heaven for pasta lovers – none of that old dried out stuff in a box from the grocery store here!

The relative lack of crowds in Puglia and Southern Italy

Go to Matera and take this picture before crowds of people with selfie sticks are standing in front of it!

Make no mistake – Puglia and Southern Italy can no longer be honestly described as “undiscovered”. However, the region is considerably less crowded than Tuscany and its medium-sized cities aren’t yet as over-run by tourists as Florence, Venice and Rome.

However, it will only get more crowded as word continues to get out so hurry up and go as soon as you can!

OK, at this point the gate appears to be a mere formality, but some of those olive trees could be between 1,000 and 4,000 years old.

Disclosure: We were the guests of Go Ahead Tours but they already knew us and were aware that we sometimes go off-script..

The post Why travel to Puglia and Southern Italy? appeared first on Blonde Brunette Travel.

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This is an Egret but you do see a lot of other creatures with sparse white hair in Florida.

People visit Southwest Florida (SWFL) for many reasons including enjoying the beaches, freeloading off relatives with spare bedrooms and experiencing the area’s nature attractions.

This part of Florida offers a nice selection of nature preserves that are untainted by commercial interests. Most of them are educational and fun places to learn and experience the unique species and habitats of the region. Here’s a brief introduction to two of our favorites.

Nature on display at the Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a place you can visit for the day from Naples, Marco Island, Fort Myers, Bonita Springs and various other towns in Southwest Florida. You will see a varying (by season) assortment of birds, animals, plants, trees and reptiles in the largest remaining stand of ancient bald cypress in North America.

A Roseate Spoonbill (they look even pinker when they fly) at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

The bird you usually hear locals cite in SWFL is the Snow Bird – visitors from cold climates who spend their winters in the warmth of Florida. However, Florida actually has over 500 native species of birds.

At Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary you can see both year-round and migratory birds that fall into the categories of Wood Storks (very dependent on the health of wetlands), Raptors (Ospreys, Eagles, Hawks) Wading Birds (think Herons and Egrets) and Ducks (think walks like a.., quacks like a.., and talks like a..). Although the birds are easy to see as you walk around many people like to bring binoculars and startlingly large zoom lenses to do more personal examinations of the birds. (Should birds in an Audubon preserve have an expectation of privacy? Discuss.)

Alligator getting “hangry” at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

On our recent visit, we saw quite a few alligators and one impressive snake. One of the alligators ate a turtle while we watched in horror/fascination. Turtles are quite crunchy.

It hasn’t been drained yet..

The flora of the Sanctuary is impressive too. In addition to the cypress forest, there is a marsh, a wet prairie (at least in the rainy season) and “Lettuce Lakes”  which are watery clearings for wading birds and snack-happy ‘gators. You traverse the forest by a 2.25-mile boardwalk that is very well marked and has plenty of places to sit down for a rest. (The boardwalk has steps so may not be accessible for people in wheelchairs. Call to ask.)

If you have a curiosity about history you’ll be interested to learn how Corkscrew became a hunting ground for bird plumes for ladies’ hats in the 1800s.  Entire breeding colonies were destroyed before the practice was halted. The area was also nearly cleared of its virgin cypress forests until, once again, concerned individuals were able to stop the plan.  Currently, the wetlands in Corkscrew are threatened by environmental changes and in need of restoration.  A visit here is a reminder of the importance of protecting the environment (whether or not the EPA agrees).

Planning your visit to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

Although it’s fairly easy to get to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary we used trusty Google Maps as our GPS so we didn’t miss the turn-off. Once you see how long it will take you to get there add another 3 hours to give yourself ample time for leisurely exploring.  They’re open every day of the year from 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m but 4:30 is the latest you can enter the park.

The fees are:

Adults: $ 14.00
Full-time college students with photo ID: $ 6.00
National Audubon Society members with membership card: $ 10.00
Student (6-18 years old): $ 4.00
Children under 6: free

There are a number of guided walks and events held at the park. Check the schedule before you go if you want to take one of the free guided walks.

We recommend full-length pants and long sleeves if you want to be sure to emerge without any bug bites. It’s also well worth taking along some bug spray or wipes for ankles and hands if you find yourself there near dusk when the mosquitoes can become quite inspired. Also, bring water (although you can buy it there) and a camera

There’s a cafeteria, restrooms, a small museum an art gallery and a nice gift shop at the Visitor Center where you enter the park. Parking is free which is always a good thing.

And if you go with small children please don’t do what we heard one parent doing; tell the kids the alligators will be afraid of them and won’t eat them. Egad.

The quiet boats that are used for the tours

Boat tours in Everglades National Park

Before we get too much into this topic be aware that this is not an activity that you probably do on the same day as a visit to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The two are about 55 miles apart.

We’re just going to tell you about the boat outings at Everglades National Park but the whole park is well worth some serious exploration. The Park is “a World Heritage site, International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance, and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty”. (Stole that straight from their website – have to admit that we don’t know a lot about the Cartagena Treaty.) The park is 1.5 million acres and you can canoe, kayak, power boat, walk, bicycle or camp there.

But if you just want to spend an hour and 45 minutes on the water and learn about mangrove ecosystems and see dolphins, manatees and a wide assortment of birds, then one of the boat tours will be perfect.

Memorize this snout because it’s the main thing you will see when looking for manatees

Planning your boat tour of Everglades National Park

To do a boat tour you will not go into the National Park or need to pay a Park fee. The concession that has been given the right to conduct the boat tours is 38 miles from the main entrance to the actual park. Sometimes if the Park itself is crowded a boat trip can be a good way to see nature and avoid the crowds who don’t know about these tours.

The tours aren’t exactly inexpensive. Here are the fees:

Adults: $37.63
Children 5-12 years of Age: $19.35
Children under 5 years old: Free

You get a high-quality narration that’s from a person – not a recording – and they go out of their way to make sure you see the wildlife. The people doing the boat tours are so into the area and its treasures that they’re entertaining and informative,

In high season (mid-December to mid-April) the tours run at least 4 times every day. You would be well advised to make a reservation in high season but the website isn’t always very cooperative with that. Right now it says you have to fax a reservation request. Good grief! But if you want to try, here’s the link.

From mid-April to mid-December they run 4 tours a day but only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Don’t worry about a reservation at that time of year.

White pelicans in Everglades National Park

Before embarking on a tour use the restrooms on shore as there aren’t any on the boat. You will need sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat that won’t blow off your head.  We wished we’d taken binoculars and we just used our phones as cameras.

If you do a morning tour and are looking for a nice little place for a casual lunch Havana Cafe is just a short drive away. We have a friend who liked the Rod and Gun Club because it has seating along the water. Its food gets mixed reviews but it’s sort of the traditional place to go in the area. (We like food more than tradition.)

Southwest Florida

This area of Florida is a good choice if you aren’t into Disney or the Miami scene. Naples, Marco Island and other places in SWFL have a lot of low-impact nature attractions and fewer crowds. Just don’t spread the word too much as we want to keep our area quiet!

One of the “Ten Thousand Islands” in the Everglades

The post Two non-touristy places to experience nature in Southwest Florida appeared first on Blonde Brunette Travel.

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2016 Travel Review

Ljubljana, Slovenia

As we do our 2016 travel review we can’t help but realize that is was a year of unprecedented travel for us. We set foot in 14 different countries, most of them for the first time. Our visits ranged from the United States to Central America and a wide cross section of Europe. We spent two weeks in Russia (something we never really expected to do) and just days in some places like Poland and Estonia.

Every year we do a recap of our travels and every year we have trouble thinking of things we didn’t like. Either we’re really easy to please or we do such a good job of picking the companies we travel with that nothing noteworthy actually goes wrong. This year we had excellent experiences with UnCruise Adventures, Viking River and Viking Ocean Cruises and Go Ahead Tours. In each case they had a variety of factors that made them so appealing but the one none of them skimped on was having truly top-notch talent who make it their mission to ensure that their guests have a happy, memorable experience. The only thing that annoys us is that none of those charming people ever consent to come home with us. So far..

Here’s where we went and our brief pluses and minuses for each place. As always we welcome your comments.

Panama City, Panama

Views of Panama City Panama from Ancon Hill

What we liked:

  • The Biodiversity Museum has fascinating exhibits, is architecturally stunning and situated along the water – it’s all around wonderful.
  • Old Town – Casco Viejo – in Panama City is  a UNESCO site, full of history, has an open air market with locally made crafts and some tasty restaurants
  • They use the U.S. dollar for currency so it’s easy for Americans
  • The climate in January was lovely (but avoid it in May when it’s apparently a fairly miserable swamp)
  • It’s interesting to go to the Miraflores locks and see ships come through the canal and check out the museum.
  • The honest, helpful, English speaking driver we stumbled upon who made our trip easier and more pleasant. You can reach him at williamsjacinto@yahoo.com

What we didn’t like: 

  • The  rip-off prices for the quality at the restaurant at the Miraflores Lock
  • Forget trying to use the red double-decker sightseeing bus – the people are never in the booth to sell tickets and it doesn’t seem to keep to any schedule. Keeping to a schedule is not a strength in Panama City over all.
  • Don’t bother signing up for a snorkeling day trip from the city. There’s probably good snorkeling but you need to go farther afield to find it.
Iceland

The Northern Lights shot from a cold, windy field outside of Reykjavik

What we liked:

What we didn’t like:

  • Shaking uncontrollably in bed for the whole night after standing out in a very cold, windy field taking those pictures of the Northern Lights
  • How crowded and expensive the restaurants have become with the overwhelming number of tourists now visiting Iceland
  • IcelandAir still has incredibly uncomfortable seats and woefully inadequate food and entertainment options
Florida

Blonde swimming with a manatee (you decide which one is on top)

What we liked:

  • Swimming with manatees at the Plantation at Crystal River
  • The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg with extra credit for their good cafe.
  • Seaplane ride from Naples to Key West was exciting, had beautiful views and was a major timesaver.
  • Dry Tortugas National Park was a fun outing with interesting history and a tropical island feel.
  • Old timey Weeki Watchee State Park and its cheesy underwater mermaid show

What we didn’t like: 

  • Having to get up so early to snorkel with the manatees. Don’t they have some who sleep in?
  • Brunette getting stuck in her wetsuit and nearly having to be cut out of it. (Actually Blonde got a kick out of this.)
  • Disappointing snorkeling at Dry Tortugas (may have been snorkeler error or time of year)
UnCruise Legacy of Discovery Cruise

On a 100+ degree day the staff of UnCruise was nice enough to pour ice on us in the hot tub!

What we liked:

  • Very pleasantly surprised by the high-quality cuisine and choices on the ship.
  • Kenne the “Heritage Guide” who acted out the parts of historical characters, served as a guide and generally made sure every day was special for the guests.
  • Learning history about Lewis and Clark was interesting and made us realize that we didn’t pay much attention in school when we originally were supposed to have learned this stuff.
  • Free massages turned us into happy noodles
  • Interesting guest speakers

What we didn’t like: 

  • The tiny windows in our room that meant to enjoy the scenery we had to leave the room.
  • The record-breakingly hot weather and the ship lounge’s air conditioning not really being able to deal with it so it was freezing. Poor us – we had to put sweaters on!

Russia

St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square Moscow

What we liked:

  • Our guides (special shout out to Sasha) on the Viking Torgil Waterways of the Tsars river cruise were smart, humorous and unfailingly helpful.
  • Our verandah that we could sit on and watch the scenery going by.
  • Learning Russian history from Russians was fascinating – the parts about how they view Gorbachev negatively and why were particularly interesting.
  • Free wi-fi

What we didn’t like: 

  • Blonde didn’t like the Russian wines but Brunette liked the house white which was a Chardonnay.
  • The hard to open and harder to close verandah doors.
  • The cost and minor hassle of getting of getting a Russian visa.
Viking Homelands with Viking Ocean

View of paragliders from a deserted lighthouse on the coast in Denmark

What we liked:

  • The Viking Star was a lovely, comfortable ship that never felt crowded and we especially enjoyed the infinity pool.
  • Afternoon tea was a very civilized affair.
  • Good entertainment that was in bite sized amounts (45 minute shows) that fit our attention spans.
  • Shore excursions were well organized and there was a terrific selection to choose from.
  • Getting samples of different destinations where we probably wouldn’t go for a whole vacation (Estonia and Poland).
  • Free laundry on every level – you don’t even need to provide the detergent.
  • Excellent local guides that brought every destination to life
  • Having a verandah was lovely as was the room service for no extra cost
  • Free wi-fi
  • The restaurant wait staff and housekeeping were truly exemplary

What we didn’t like: 

  • Days we over-scheduled ourselves with too many back to back shore excursions.
  • Those damned verandah doors again (but they did give us a good excuse to call handsome young men to help us).
  • The Guest Services staff was surprisingly unhelpful unless a manager was asked to intervene.
Montenegro

Part of the private beach at Sveti Stefan in Montenegro

What we liked:

  • The rocky, wooded coastal scenery that was reminiscent of the Costa Brava in Spain.
  • Kotor, a World Unesco city, was fascinating and pretty (like us).
  • Nice swimming opportunities as long as you’re prepared for pebbly beaches.
  • Running into Mitt Romney at the baggage claim carousel in Dubrovnik (gave us a story to tell)

What we didn’t like: 

  • Noise in Budva from the open air discos
  • Stunningly uninterested wait staff in the restaurants.
  • Driving was like a game of wack-a-mole trying to avoid other cars and pedestrians and cops with over eager radar guns.
  • Its immense popularity as a low-cost destination for Russian tourists
Croatia

One of many beautiful views at Plitvice Lakes

What we liked:

  • Tamara, our Tour Director with Go Ahead Tours was smart, funny, warm and an all around delight.
  • Friendly people, a high percentage of whom spoke English
  • The Mediterranean climate
  • Gorgeous scenery and lots of interesting history
  • Good roads made for easy transit and we had a bus driver who made the trips a delight.
  • Prices low relative to Western Europe
  • Good quality drinking water produces some excellent beers
  • The excellent itinerary and mixture of free and scheduled time

What we didn’t like: 

  • The seafood menus with everything seeming to be cooked in its own ink.
  • Not being on the euro because it made for more of a challenge to not end up with extra currency
Slovenia

The island in the middle of Lake Bled, Slovenia

What we liked:

  • The Go Ahead Tours extension trip was well-organized and delightful
  • Slovenia has some of everything in Europe in a tiny country – beaches, castles, mountains, forests, skiing and city life
  • Excellent bargains for travelers.
  • You can drink the tap water
  • They use the euro

What we didn’t like: 

  • We can’t think of anything so are going to be reduced to mentioning a rat we saw swimming in the river! We know this is pathetic.

Disclosure and thanks: We were the well taken care of guests of UnCruise Adventures, Viking River and Viking Ocean Cruises and Go Ahead Tours and deeply appreciate the wide range of travel opportunities they gave us in 2016. As always our opinions are ours – that’s why they’re on our blog! Happy New Year.

The post 2016: Where we traveled, what we liked and what we didn’t appeared first on Blonde Brunette Travel.

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