Hiking, Czech Style

You have to hand it to the Czechs. When hiking in the mountains, they do things right. How well I remember the first time we went hiking with our Czech daughter, Pavla, and her family. After toiling up the steep climb, wading through deep snow, slipping on the ice and marveling at the stamina of the locals we came to the summit. And a pub! Taking in the surprise registering on our faces, Pavla patiently explained that all such hikes terminate at similar establishments. After all, what would be the point otherwise? Good thinking. We decided on the spot that we liked hiking in the Czech Republic.

MoravkaOur latest visit with Pavla included a stay in Morovka, where she and her family spend most weekends in husband Pavel’s family home. It is a beautiful spot in a valley situated in the Beskidy Mountains. And right from the doorstep there are numerous hiking options. Blessed with a perfect fall day featuring peak foliage and brilliant sunshine, we set out shortly after lunch with extended family members to tackle the hillside.

Hiking near MoravkaThe air was crisp and cool, particularly in the shade of the towering trees. It was good incentive to keep moving. We weren’t the only hikers on the trail by any stretch. And nearly all were family groups. What impressed us most of all was the way the young ones carried on without complaint. The youngest in our group was only four, and she covered nearly the whole 5 kilometer distance uphill on her own. She definitely earned the piggy back ride she got on the way down. Those only a few years older hiked round trip with energy to spare. Clearly, they were raised on this stuff.

This particular hike delivered in style. There were multiple resting spots along the way, with plenty of beverage and food options to refresh the weary traveler. At the first, we paused long enough to indulge the children in a pony ride. Our destination was Chata Kotar, where we happily gathered around outdoor tables to enjoy the view. And lift a glass or two.
Chata Kotar on the hiking trail
The views were as spectacular going down as they were on the way up. We couldn’t help marveling at our good fortune with the weather. And there was no better way to enjoy it than traipsing through the colorful, rustling leaves with our Czech family.

Hiking in the Beskidy MountainsThank you, Pavla, for introducing us to hiking, Czech style!Molly, Pavla and Rich

At home in Ostrava

Little did we know 14 years ago that our search for summer child care would forever tie us to the Czech Republic. It was a link through our children’s small Christian school – and fate – that brought Pavla to us. What started as just a summer job ended with inviting her into our home for her final year of post-graduate studies as a member of the family. Her babysitting duties were over.

Despite having to part at the end of that year, we have remained firmly connected ever since. We took the kids over to see her the following year, and we were warmly embraced by her entire family. Rich and I have returned several times since, most memorably for Pavla’s wedding. There we were honored to be recognized as her “American parents” and enthralled with the Czech wedding traditions. Nine long years have since passed. We were overdue for a visit.

Molly, Rich and PavlaIt was a joyful reunion on the train platform when we arrived in Ostrava. With tight hugs and emotions raging we looked forward to an entire week together. Soon Pavla was ushering ushering us into their new apartment in central Ostrava. We marveled at the remodeling her husband Pavel had done, transforming it into a bright modern home. But more importantly we met their young daughters for the first time, Elenka and Beatka. Their English may have been limited, but we had little trouble connecting with them. Sharing their pet bunny and playing board games involved no language barrier.

Despite the passage of time, regardless of Pavla now shepherding a family of her own we instantly felt at home. And we were quickly assimilated into their family routine. Our time revolved around Pavla’s availability, as the realities of work, mothering and running a household took precedence.  Early on we accompanied Pavla on her rounds to pick the girls up after school. It gave us the unique opportunity to peek into their classrooms and get a glimpse of their day at school.Picking Pavla's girls up at school

When left to our own devices, we happily reacquainted ourselves with Ostrava.  Far from being a tourist town, we enjoyed the fact that we never saw other Americans and immersed ourselves in the life of an ordinary Czech city.  It didn’t take me long to get to know the coffee shops, and I enjoyed meandering along the city streets admiring the local architecture. The age and location of the city alone provided plenty for me to see.  My favorites were the colorful detailed buildings and the onion topped towers.Views of Ostrava

We rambled along the Ostravice River daily, walking its banks until it reached the countryside on each end. The fall colors were vivid, enhancing its appeal and cancelling out the gray skies.

Dinner with Pavla

We were fortunate that Pavla’s job teaching business English in the local university gave her a varied schedule. And we made the most of her free hours. She made sure we got out to see some sights, so we took the girls to the zoo and visited the Tatra Museum in a nearby city. As always Pavla spoiled us by making Czech meals, remembering the foods we most enjoyed. But the best times were the quiet hours we had together. Spending a morning over coffee visiting. Having an evening together when the girls were happily playing. Accompanying her on errands in the city, always walking. Those were the moments when we relived memories. Laughed together. Analysed life. And treasured.

As always, the time went too quickly and it was hard to leave. Instead of saying goodbye, it felt better to say “See you soon.” Because I know we will. And I know we always have a home in Ostrava.Rich, Molly and Pavla's family


Getting the hang of Cruising

Molly lounging on deck

It’s a a pretty cushy way to travel, I have to say. For all the traveling we have done in our 32 years of marriage, not to mention our respective college European travels, this is only our second cruise. And as I sit in my deck chair in the warm sun, with the sea breezes to keep me comfortable as we sail, I must admit it has its appeal.

My room is not far away. And I haven’t had to pack and unpack in nearly a week. We treated ourselves pretty well when we booked our room this time, moving up several levels into prime territory. Cruise ships have gotten smart, providing private balconies for nearly all the upper level rooms. It was a tempting option, but instead we opted for a room without – primarily to secure a more stable position smack in the middle of the ship. I was most thankful for that choice when our ship was rocking and rolling on our first day out of port. And with so many outdoor areas for lounging, we rather prefer our enlarged indoor sitting area and huge windows right over the water.

Our stateroom
Molly watching the pilot boat

In fact, that position gives us an up close view of some nautical action. We are situated directly above the ship’s gangway, the same entrance used by local pilots who are required to maneuver the ship in and out of port. They are delivered to and from the ship on a small boat and we just happened to see such a rendezvous after departing Venice. We were fascinated to watch the pilot boat sidle up alongside us, match our speed and then duck under the curve of ship to collect the pilot. When it pulled away, there was the pilot climbing down the ladder over the small bow of the boat. Once we knew we had this front row seat, we watched similar performances at other ports.

Our dinner companions

It is impossible to go hungry on a cruise ship. With all the food offerings, it could be a continual feast but instead we restrain ourselves so as to finish the trip the same size we started. A hearty breakfast gets us through the day and we look forward to the elegant dinner that awaits in the main dining room. We are assigned to a table of 10, which feels unwieldy at first. But with each couple hailing from a different country, lively conversations result and we enjoy our new dining friends.

At first I bristled at the idea of two formal nights. What a hassle, I thought, having to add two fancy outfits and all the accessories to my already overstuffed suitcase. But when the time comes, I not only relent but relish the opportunity to dress up a bit and celebrate. Naturally, the ship wants to sell us overpriced photographs to commemorate the evening. Instead, we opt for our own more unique do-it-yourself shot that Rich rigged up on deck. Not bad!

We round out the evening with the nightly show. The headliner acts are very good, bringing in amazing acrobats, humorous string musicians, and mind boggling magicians. These are supplemented by staff musicians and dancers who keep us entertained. They even take to the air with aerial acts in the tall Centrum space. Late night people that we are (not!), we don’t last much beyond this show. After all, tomorrow is another day, a new destination and a deck chair awaiting.

I think we are getting the hang of this cruising thing.

Molly and the Splendour of the Sea


Spectacular Santorini

Pure white buildings. Perched atop volcanic rock, far above the deep blue sea. Starkly contrasting with the classic cloudless blue sky. Santorini looks just like the Greek tourism photos.

We’re first off the ship, in the tender that takes us to shore before 7am. The sun has not yet risen above the mountainous terrain, and the island towns twinkle with lights high above us as we move across the water through the semi-darkness. By the time we reach the town of Oia, we have absorbed our first lessons about the island from the local tour guide. And the sun has climbed to its golden hour, bathing the town in its morning glow. We are left on our own to explore.

There are major advantages to being early birds. The town is still quiet. It’s pedestrian-only streets are sparsely populated. Shopkeepers are just taking down their shutters and setting out their wares. We see the town as it wakes.

Molly in Oia

Walking the narrow passageways reveals new sights with each turn. Soon we are traversing the edge of the cliff face, which affords unobstructed views of the town as it clings to the mountain top and slides down its side. It is a maze of buildings all interconnected at multiple levels, each vying for the ocean view. The longer I look, the more I see. There is infinite detail among this pattern of structures.

All along our route are secluded lodgings and outdoor restaurants offering spectacular views. I imagine myself nestled in one of these guest rooms. I could easily be convinced to spend a week here. Exploring these walkways. Finding a niche to read a good book. Basking in the sunlight. Searching out swimming spots. Trying a new restaurant each night. Sampling the wonderful Greek dishes. I am reluctant to leave when we must move on to Fira.

Our cruise ship pointing toward Oia

This is the largest town on the island, and is already crowded with tourists. Its beauty is similar to Oia, and we stroll its narrow passages. But the spell has been broken. It’s more commercial. The shopping areas are teeming with cruise ship passengers, now that three additional ships have joined ours in the harbor. Already I miss the peace we found in Oia.

Donkeys on the path to the harbor

Our return to the ship delivers a final, unexpected twist. Shunning the cable car for its long queue, we opt for the steep cobbled path that zigzags its way down the mountainside to the old harbor below. It’s surface is uneven and slippery at times, but the real challenge is dodging the donkeys. Unpredictable at best, they are equally undisciplined whether being ridden up or returning unaccompanied to the bottom. The trip is unique, to say the least.

We are thankful for being early risers. It gave us the best of Santorini. The island still looks idyllic from the deck of our ship. Its white buildings like frosting atop the dark volcanic rock. It is spectacular.

Town of Fira on Santorini


A Taste of Turkey

This is a first for both of us. Neither Rich nor I have been to Turkey before. For that reason we choose a tour that includes multiple locations, so that we can see something of the countryside. While all of our pictures reflect the ancient ruins that we visited, it will be the space in between that we remember best.

Amphitheater at Milletus

We have an excellent local tour guide. He feeds us just enough information about his country to help us interpret what we see, understand something of their local customs, and appreciate his culture and history. Visiting three different sites we start with a large open-air amphitheater at Milletus, seating 15,000 people. What is most impressive is the perfect acoustics, only achievable from one very specific spot on the stage.

The Temple of Apollo at Didyma is fascinating for its story. Our guide informs us that it was an unachievable feat. It could never have been finished, given its impossible dimensions. Yet the grand vision is apparent and there is great detail in its components.

Temple of Apollo

The main attraction of the area is Ephesus. A whole city has been discovered and is in a state of continual restoration. It is impressive for being so extensive. We walk on marble streets and take in the collection of structures on either side. The facade of the library towers above us.


On the tour bus we pass through towns. We don’t see individual houses. Instead there are multiple dwelling units, all in pastel colored stucco. Many appear rundown, but I suspect we do not appreciate the local standards. Someone asks about the barrels on top of nearly every building. They are water heaters, our guide explains. We hadn’t even noticed the attached solar panels which heat the water in the top barrel to near boiling, then it drains into the barrel below. Highly efficient, it is a cheap way to deliver hot water to the residents. After that, we couldn’t miss seeing them everywhere.

Men sit at tables in outdoor cafes. Fields with animals are as likely in town as in the country. We learn to identify olive trees which are abundant. The terrain is rough, with hills and mountains in the background. It feels foreign and holds a rich history.

A buffet lunch enables us to sample the local dishes. Fresh salads, well spiced lamb, cheesy puff pastries and rice dishes are all tasty. Desserts are rich and moist, dripping with honey. I appreciate this opportunity even knowing it caters to the cruise ship tourists.

We finish our tour in the port town of Katakolon. We are deposited at the Bazaar and led into a carpet shop for a demonstration on how their local rugs are made. Our guide has already explained that Turkey is in danger of losing the craft of hand weaving, as young people no longer learn it from their elders. So the government has developed local weaving centers and subsidizes the instruction of young women in this technique.

Our carpet store has been in the same family for five generations. The owners are proud of their product and proceed to show us their wares. But first we are all served a drink. I opt for tea, but Rich is more adventurous and accepts a glass of Raki, the national (and very strong) alcoholic drink. They roll out carpet after carpet for us, young men flicking them open with a flair. We learn the differences between wool, cotton and silk, and blends of each. Soon it is easy to see how the designs get more intricate the finer the materials. And we are impressed. They demonstrate how the colors change depending on the direction of the rug. And we are amazed.

Even though we are not in the market for a rug, their sales techniques are very effective. Until we discover the prices. We need only listen in on the inquiries of others to learn how high a price these hand made rugs command. It is not really a surprise, having learned that even the smallest rugs takes nine months of double-knotting each individual strand. We just really hadn’t appreciated their true value before. Which makes it even easier to leave without one. But we truly enjoy the education.

Rich in the Bazaar

Not quite ready to leave the Bazaar, we walk the halls past various stalls. I can’t resist a stand with scarves, and soon find myself being fawned over by the eager salesman. Like all the shopkeepers, he is most persuasive and offers end-of-season bargains. I figure I can’t go too wrong with a scarf for five Euros. Even if it turns out not to be genuine Pashmina, I only care that it is something I like. He demonstrates several scarf styles with it on me and hopes I will choose multiple bargain rate scarves, but I leave with only one. Not to be deterred, he carries my scarf to another shop where his friend can sell us beautiful leather jackets. It doesn’t work, and I leave with my single scarf. The experience is worth the price.

One short day in Turkey is hardly enough to appreciate the country and its people. But that’s the nature of a cruise. It can only ever be a glimpse at each day’s destination. A tease to let us know we’d like to return for more. Today we are happy to have a taste of Turkey.


The Walls of Dubrovnik

We had good advice. Walk the walls of the Old City, our son Carl advised us. He should know. He and his bride Chelsea just spent a week in Dubronik on their honeymoon.

Dubrovnik old city walls

We enter the Old City at the Pile Gate and immediately mount the steps to the top of the wall. We are not alone. Plenty of other tourists seek the same experience. Unlike Carl and Chelsea, we cannot wait for the cruise passengers to depart. That’s us. But it does not feel crowded.

Built between the 13th and 17th centuries, these walls surround the entire old city. At 3-19 feet thick and a distance well over a mile, it makes for an impressive sight. Stretching out toward the sea, we eagerly begin our sojourn.

For once, we feel no hurry. I welcome Rich’s passion for photography, as it affords me lengthy pauses to linger, take in the views, feel the sense of history and appreciate the beauty. I snap a few pictures and leave it to him to capture it more artistically.

On one side of us the Adriatic Sea. There the waves crash dramatically onto shore, far below Fort Lovrijenac opposite the city walls. We love water, so naturally we take our time along this portion of the walls.

Views of the Adriatic Sea

Inside the walls, a sea of red roofs. Old and restored buildings all topped by red pipe tile roofs, separated only by narrow lanes. Cats wander here and there, much to the amusement of visitors. I remind myself to look more closely. To take in the details that are lost in the large overview.

Views inside Dubrovnik's walls

We pass the old harbor and continue to the final stretch of the walls. Here we see life outside the old city, as it climbs the mountainside. Although reluctant to complete our circle tour, we have yet to wend our way through the streets below.

Dubrovnik old harbor

While the main arteries through the old city are lined with busy shops, we quickly find pleasure in the narrow side streets. There we discover steep stairs wedged tightly between buildings, adorned with greenery. These lead to a long passageway lined with tables. Ambling along, the tables assemble themselves into groups, each belonging to a different restaurant on this small pedestrian byway. It is lunch time and tantalizing smells emanate from each eatery. I steal glances at the appetizing dishes being served, vicariously enjoying their meals. I can just see Carl and Chelsea here in the evenings. Selecting a new venue each evening. Sampling the variety of Croatian offerings over time. Yes, this would be a wonderful place to honeymoon.

Thankful for the tip, we feel we have seen the best of Dubrovnik. It has been a delight to walk in Carl and Chelsea’s footsteps, on the walls of Dubrovnik.


Venice from the outside in

Through the miracles of modern air travel, Rich and I rendezvous in Venice, Italy. He arrives from home in Duluth, and I from England after visiting friends. Voila, there he is when I exit customs, just as planned. We about to embark on our latest travel adventure. This one does not involve bikes. Instead we are leaving the transport to a cruise ship. But first we take in a bit of Venice.

Rich in the shuttle boat

To reach the Marine Terminal, we choose to go by water on the vaporetti. It turns out to be a long and circuitous route, traveling the perimeter of the main island of Venice with numerous stops there and on the surrounding islands. Low to the water, with spray frequently hitting the windows of our vessel, the view is wet but fascinating. We soon realize that there are specific travel lanes for boat traffic, which are not always the most direct route. And boats seem to have designated priorities. Our has to slow down each time a smaller water taxi goes by, which is frequently. The water is turbulent, churning with the wakes of the heavy boat traffic. The trip takes almost two hours, but the views continue to get better as we circle the center of Venice.

Venice from the shuttle boat

Check-in at Royal Caribbean turns out to be painless, and we happily surrender our heavy suitcases to their care. That leaves us four hours to wander in Venice. The natural destination is St. Mark’s Square, and we set out to cross the city. There are plenty of other tourists doing the same on this mild but gray October day. We have no planned route. We merely follow the haphazard signs on buildings indicating Rialto and Marcos. It’s a zigzagging course, seemingly bearing no sense. But then Venice is a maze of streets and canals, so straight does not exist. And we don’t mind. The sights along the way are picturesque.

Canals of Venice
St. Mark's Basilica

In fact, once we arrive in the square it is an anticlimax. Crowded with people, selfie-sticks in abundance, long queues snaking along the front of St. Mark’s Basilica and dominated by the inevitable scaffolding, it fails to inspire. I admire the fine work on the front of the basilica, but honestly prefer the view from the water. So we return to the alleyways of Venice to take in more of their charm. We make good use of this short interlude, enjoying each scene as we pass. And I savor a rich gelato en route. Miraculously we ultimately snake our way back to board the ship.

Departing Venice we have a far different vantage point from this morning. Towering above the water, we have a bird’s eye view of the city. We sail away to the voice of Andrea Bocelli and say our farewells, once again seeing Venice from the outside in.