UNESCO site

Western Cape

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We left CapeTown early the next morning to drive the famed “Garden Route”. The main highway which crosses southern South Africa horizontally is the N2, also named Nelson Mandela Blvd. and it will take us all the way to Port Elizabeth with a few stops in between.

Our first such stop was at Vergenoegd. This vineyard employs a fun pest control method: ducks. These are no ordinary ducks, they are Indian Runner ducks and they LOVE snails. Every morning at 9:45am, the ducks are let out to begin their workday in the fields. We were late getting here and thus missed the duck parade but we stopped anyway and got a personalized tour of the pens which made it worthwhile. Our guide was a young South African comedian who kept us on our toes. The vineyard keeps several kinds of ducks:

Runners,

Mallards

and Tufted.


The runners are considered the best workers because they are taller and slimmer than the others and this makes them uniquely equipped to eat the snails at the top of the plant and not only the ones on the ground as the other ducks do. They currently have 1,117 runners but are breeding them with the goal of having two thousand. Every duck breeding “family” is kept in a separate pen: one male with three or four females. Also kept in the pen are a pair of geese.

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These are employed as bodyguards to protect the ducks and their chicks from predators such as snakes, rats and preying birds. As the ducks lay eggs, these are taken away to the incubator where they are rotated and kept warm for 45 days until the chick hatches. Our guide handed us one such egg to look at and it was amazing to feel the chick moving inside.

We had to be quick though to ensure the egg didn’t get too cold.

After the chick comes out of the egg, (this guy is only a few hrs old)


it is placed in the first of six incubators, each one a degree cooler than the previous one, for a day at a time in order to begin acclimating to life on the outside. After these six days the chicks are transferred to open pens kept indoors where they will spend a week at a time at six of them, each one a bit closer to the outside until they graduate to outdoor pens. The rate of success is only 50%.

As our guide explained this process to us, he emphazised how much care went into each of these chicks. It was obvious how much he enjoyed his job. Fernando asked him if they incinerated the ones that didn’t make it. Our guide looked stricken and he replied no with such a hurt look that we all got somber. He then explained, with the most serious face, how they buried the ducks and held little funerals for them. We all felt terribly callous at having suggested they were simply disposed of…until he literally fell to the ground laughing like crazy at us. I told you he was a comedian! We enjoyed our tour tremendously.

Afterward, we drove on to Stony Point. The largest South African Penguin colony nests here.

It is a bit over an hour’s drive from CapeTown. Compared to Boulders Beach, Stony Point has many more Penguins, lots less people, and costs 6 times less; it is beyond me why it is not overrun by tourists. We spent quite a bit of time here just looking at the Penguins


and their chicks.


Also abundant here were dassies,


furry mammals which can also be a threat to the Penguins since they sometimes take their eggs. The Penguins being endangered means that conservationists keep a close eye on the number of dassies around and intervene if necessary.

The N2 highway runs along the coast with great views of the ocean.

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Once again, signs warning of baboons in the area were everywhere. A few more kms down the road, we ran into some live ones at a rest area.

South African Baboons are unique in that they can often be found combing the beach looking for prawns hidden in the wet sand. Apparently they can also be found in rest areas.

We stopped to take pictures of the landscape without noticing the big male rummaging thru the garbage can.

He didn’t pay any attention to us so we stayed and took some pictures.

When a whole troop of baboons began descending from the trees across the highway and moving in our direction, we took it as our warning to keep driving.

We made it to Hermanus later that evening and got a good shock when we were shown our room.


Hermanus sits at the edge of Walker Bay and it is famous for its whale watching which one can do right from the beach.

We didn’t spot any whales from our balcony but we had something even better in store. Early (5:30am) the next morning we drove on to Gaansbai, where we boarded a small boat and travelled only 10 minutes out to sea. We were still within sight of shore when we were handed wet suits and face masks.

Why, you ask? In order to climb down into a steel cage and take a look at one of the most feared monsters of the sea: Great White Sharks.

The cage is about 5 feet long and can fit 8 people at a time.

The water is the coldest I’ve ever felt and although the 7mm wet suit is supposed to keep you from the worst of it, it was still shocking getting in the water. Some people left the cage with purple lips. Not me though, I fared worse. I was sicker than a puppy. I forgot my Dramamine at home and didn’t notice until that morning when pharmacies were closed and there was nothing we could do about it. The sea is so rough, I almost tossed my cookies before I even got into the suit. I had thought I would be so afraid of the sharks that I would have trouble getting in the cage. On the contrary, I was so sick, I couldn’t wait to get into the water where I thought I would feel better. No such luck though, the waves shook the cage with such force, that it was all we could do to not get tossed around into each other once underwater. The cage has a couple of bars which you’re supposed to hang on to and the guides place weights on you as you’re going in to help you stay underwater. It wasn’t enough though and we had to actively fight against our buoyancy to stay under. The sharks were quick to come by. They swam by the cage looking at us out of their black unblinking eyes in an inquisitive manner. (Unfortunately, our underwater pictures can’t be uploaded to this site.) It was awesome! I just wish I hadn’t been so sick. At one point I couldn’t hold it any longer and I lost my breakfast to the ocean. Two sharks immediately came over to inspect. I told the boys they really ought to be grateful to me for that. We stayed in the cage for a very long time, we saw 11 different individual sharks (we had a biologist on the crew who kept track) and a few of them were longer than our cage. It was a lot less scary than I thought it would be and I’d gladly do it again if I could only manage my seasickness.

After that highly enjoyable adrenaline rush, we ended the day hiking around Hermanus and enjoying our beautiful B&B.

Categories: Africa, South Africa, UNESCO site | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The Cape Peninsula

Picking up the rental we had reserved on our second day was a shock!


We might drive big trucks in Texas but not on the left side of the road. The agency had nothing else available and the morning was slipping away so we hoped for the best and took off.

Driving on the left side took some getting used to, specially trying to go in reverse as you have to look over your left shoulder instead of the right one but Fernando managed to get the hang of it rather quickly with only a couple of scares.

The drive south is very pleasant. We stopped at Kalk Bay for lunch.

It’s a touristy kind of place but that doesn’t take any of it’s charm away. Here, like in Croatia, they build swimming pools next to the rocky shores which then fill up when the tide rises. This being the Atlantic Ocean, the water is “refreshing”.

We then continued on to Simon’s Town and Boulders Beach

where one of the largest South African Penguin colonies, about 2000 pairs, has its home.

The penguins are extremely cute


and we were lucky to visit when their chicks were almost grown and thus out for us to gawk at.

South African Penguins are endangered and their population has decreased by 90%.

Although collecting eggs is now prohibited, humans remain the Penguins largest threat mainly due to oil spills and commercial fishing which has depleted the Penguins choice of food: sardines.

I could easily fill this blog with cute penguin pictures (we took hundreds) but let’s move on.



We continued our drive south and began seeing signs like this one every km or so.

The boys thought it the best sign of things to come. I wasn’t as enthused.

We finally got to the Cape of Good Hope which lies inside the Table Mountain National Park. Many people erroneously believe that this is the Southernmost tip of Africa and thus this place tends to be crowded with bus loads of tourists waiting to take this picture.

As usual, the boys clambered down  the rocks until the Atlantic Ocean stopped them.


Cape Fur Seals nest on the rocks just off the beach here. These same seals will gladly eat the cute penguins we saw earlier if given a chance.


On our way out of the park we literally ran into an ostrich on the road and had to wait for it to be ready to move to the shoulder before continuing our trip.


We then spotted a troop of baboons in the distance. They were far away enough for even I to feel comfortable stepping out of the car.

On our way back to CapeTown, we stopped to watch the sunset at Scarborough Beach where Ale found “Fifa ” to pet and give my cookies to.

We were finally able to exchange our van for a Corolla the following morning and now confidently drove up to the Table Mountain cable car base hoping to go up. Unfortunately it was a very windy day and the Cable Car was shut down as a precaution. This is a pretty common occurrence in South Africa. When you’re at the literal end of the world, weather dictates your plans. We were not too upset about this as the views from the base are impressive enough as they are.

Instead we headed downtown and toured the Slave Lodge.

When the Europeans colonized South Africa they did not enslave the indigenous population as they needed them as allies in establishing their colonies. Instead they brought slaves from India and Malaysia. These slaves are the ancestors of those later labeled “colored”. They call themselves Cape-Malay now. They are responsible for bringing spices into African food for which we’ve been grateful.

The Slave Lodge stands at the edge of the Company Gardens. Back when the Dutch first established themselves here, they planted a garden to provide fruits and vegetables to their colonists. This is now a pretty public park where beautiful ducks raise their young.


A few blocks away, the colorful stalls of the Green Market beckoned to us. The vendors are insistent but not grossly so and entertainment is top-notch. We sat and watched this street singer for over an hour, that’s how good he was.

We finished our day at the Waterfront and Nobel Square. South Africa has the distinction of being the homeland of four Nobel Peace Price Laureates: Albert Luthuli (prez of the ANC), archbishop Desmond Tutu, last prez of SA under apartheid FW de Klerk, and of course Nelson Mandela.

The Waterfront is a lively place full of shops and restaurants where locals and tourists alike come to hang out. CapeTown is a city of contrasts. Although its problems seem gigantic, its people are committed  to achieving a better and freer future for themselves. We couldn’t help falling in love with this beautiful city.

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CapeTown and its Townships

We stayed at a lovely Bed & Breakfast called Welgelegen (I’ll bet you can’t pronounce it either) at the foot of Table Mountain. This is the view from our balcony:

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CapeTown has a reputation as a very dangerous city. While we heeded the advice to not walk around downtown at night, it didn’t feel any more dangerous than similar big cities. However, every last house has walls, gates and an electrified fence surrounding it. Signs announcing armed guards for home defense are everywhere.

We began our first full day in CapeTown by visiting the District 6 museum.

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District 6 is an area of CapeTown close to the shipping docks. In the mid-1900s, it was a vibrant, integrated neighborhood with about 60,000 inhabitants. The Group Areas Act was enacted in 1950, and this led to District 6 being designated a “whites only” area in 1966. Residents were ordered to move out and every house was demolished to erect “suitable” houses for the new white residents. The museum houses a collection of old street signs and recreations of what the rooms and small shops used to look like. As an introduction to recent South African history, it is well worth a visit.

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Leftover signs of this segregation are everywhere.

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The boys observed that the people who segregated South Africa in 1950 and made blacks live in slums, carry dompasses and treated them as less than human were the same people who fought against Hitler in the 1940s and decried him doing exactly the same to the Jews.

We then made a quick stop at the Boo Kaap neighborhood which is predominantly a Muslim area.

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It is one of the prettiest areas of South Africa where residents paint their houses in different bright colors creating a very happy look. Most of these houses have been passed down thru generations of the same family although foreign investors have begun to take notice and thus change slowly creeps in.

We hired a tour to take us into one of the “townships” (slums) surrounding CapeTown.

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It was a complicated, lively place and not as depressing as one would expect. We were there early on a Saturday morning and the streets were filled with little kids running around and playing.

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Townships were created after the Group Areas Act which stated that every person had to live in areas specifically designated for their race. Identity cards were given to people which spelled out which race they belonged to. In case of doubt, officials would conduct the “pencil test” which consisted of placing a pencil in the person’s hair. If it stuck, the person was “black”; if it didn’t, the person was labeled “colored”. Blacks were at the bottom of the list and even their passes reflected this. Theirs were called the “dompass”, or rather dumb pass because only dumb people carried it; they like to say. In reality, everyone was required to carry their ID, every race had restrictions on which areas they could be in and at what times.

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If a black person was caught in a restricted area without their dompass, he could be jailed for up to 6 weeks! When a black person moved into a Township, he had to register with the Township council, his dompass was updated with his address and place of work. This of course meant that even the jobs they could take were limited as they needed to be close enough to make it back before curfew.

Townships grew as such places tend to and became their own small city within a city. They consist of several types of housing, some are brick and cement apartments,

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others are old shipping containers

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and yet others are nothing more than discarded boxes, bits of wood, and aluminum cobbled together.

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Where the government stepped in to build housing, it provided the residents with communal laundry

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and bathroom areas.

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Four bathrooms for over 200 people though….

Shipping containers are bought solely by its inhabitant and more often than not, house two families per one container. They are cold in winter, hot in summer and of course have no washing facilities.

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I asked our guide who controlled the place the shipping containers were set upon. He said no one, they simply squat. We got the feeling that he wasn’t being completely honest though. The Township seemed very organized, two out of every three “residences” had a satellite dish and people greeted him with respect. If I had to guess, I’d say there is a head running things here and our guide was high on the pecking order.

We were allowed to enter several residences to see how people lived.

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Although interesting, we felt like intruders. We were intruders but at the same time, these people open up their houses to tourists as a source of income. As we walked around, it became clearer and clearer that people here are used to these “tours”. We caught several children performing “play” specifically for us; as soon as we were gone they would stop playing.

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We noticed some adults see us coming, go inside and suddenly a child would be thrust outside with a ball. At some point, a group of very young kids surrounded Fernando, hugging him and tugging at his hand.

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It was very cute…until we noticed another little kid searching thru his pockets while he was distracted. The kid couldn’t have been more than 5. Is it his fault if this is all that he’s learned? At what age should he know the difference between right and wrong and will he if this is his livelihood? Unanswerable questions. It left a sour feeling for us.

At the edge of the township are nice comfortable houses. Our guide explained that these houses belong to people from the township who have “made it”, they’ve become lawyers or businessmen, and they could afford to move to a nice area but want to stay close to their roots. I asked if these people might be targets for robbery but our guide assured us that everyone in the township looks up to them and respects them. We couldn’t help noticing that their houses have walls and fences though.

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According to our guide, higher education is not free but when I asked how these people had managed to get such an education without money, he simply ignored me. This was the norm with him, I got the feeling that he didn’t consider women should be asking questions and when he later began making jokes about first wives and second wives, I gave up, hung back and simply listened. We later found out he has at least 8 children and several wives himself.

As difficult as it may be for us to believe, none of the people we saw in the township gave us the feeling of despair. Adults were busy helping at a make shift church, or selling their wares.

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These are called “smileys” and go for about 5 Rand a piece. That’s less than 50 US cents for a whole lot of tacos!

After the township tour, we headed to the Waterfront where we were lucky to catch the ferry to Robben Island, the offshore prison where Nelson Mandela was held for over a quarter of a century. It’s a beautiful place but it wasn’t so for the prisoners held here. Arriving on the island, we boarded a bus where a guide told us about the people who still live here, some of them former prisoners and some of them former guards. These people have committed to keeping the memory of what happened here alive and thus have made peace with each other. Children have been born here and now the problem is getting these kids to school on the mainland when the weather unpredictably closes down navigation almost every other day.

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We visited the limestone quarry where the prisoners, including Mandela, were forced to work.

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We were then dropped off at the prison where a former prisoner took over our tour. This man was held in Robben Island for 13 years (out of a 15 year sentence) for sabotage, he was 26 when he arrived after participating in a student protest. He told us of groups of students as young as 16 who were held here for decades. He showed us the cell where Mandela was held.

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At the end of the tour, someone praised him for having been able to forgive his captors. He tried to explain that it wasn’t about forgiveness. He said that he and all other prisoners had been spoken for during the negotiations. He said that when people speak for you, they speak as they wish. The message was clear to most of us but this tourist insisted in her praise of his forgiveness. Another tourist, this time a South African woman got clearly annoyed and explained that many people feel that Mandela had sold them out but since he was the one to speak for all of them, he spoke what he wanted.

I later found myself walking behind her and took the opportunity to ask her about this. She explained to us that there is a new political party which has been vocal about denouncing Mandela as a sell-out. They complain about the living conditions of 60% of the population, mostly blacks, who still live in townships, with no services and sub-par education. This political party says that not enough blood was shed during the negotiations, meaning the white rulers were allowed to simply go about their business while the blacks are left to deal with their terrible poverty. They are correct of course but as she explained, what more could Mandela have done? The simple fact that these people now have the right to form a political party and speak out means that Mandela made good and shedding blood benefits no one, or at least that’s how she feels. She found this political party to be worrisome as it is mostly conformed of young unemployed men. Young unemployed men sitting around discussing violent change would be worrisome to anyone, I think.

On the ferry back, the boys and I had a discussion about this. They agreed that justice had not been done and thought it unconscionable that the white rulers had been allowed to go without trials for what they did to the blacks. I am not that sure of what is right anymore. Living in the USA, the pursuit of justice is ingrained in the population to a degree that it is not even questioned. I wondered what is too high a price to pay for justice. Take Mexico for instance. We had a bloody revolution to change the government in which hundreds of thousands of Mexicans died. That’s a whole lot of orphan children and childless mothers. 130 years later, more than half the population still lives below the poverty line without access to services or education. South Africa managed to get to the same place in two decades without major bloodshed. Justice it is not but better, maybe.

To end our day, we visited the Grand Parade, where Mandela made his famous speech upon his liberation. The edges of it have now been taken over by homeless people.

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South Africa, and CapeTown, may have a whole lot of problems but it seems to us onlookers, that it is a young-in-spirit place full of energy and hope for the future.

 

 

 

 

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Lovely Amsterdam

Our next stop on our way to Africa was the lovely city of Amsterdam.

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Amsterdam is such a special place; it has the charm and easy feeling of a small town and the chaos and energy of a big metropolis. No wonder it’s one of my favorites.

I’m not going to bore you with a description of everything we did because finding a list of things to do in Amsterdam on the internet would be simpler. Of the famous sites, the absolute must-dos on our list are:

The Rijskmuseum with the famous “Night Watch”.

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This museum is stocked full of wonderful art and one could easily spend an entire day here and still have more for a second

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and even a third visit. Don’t spend your entire day here though as there is too much to do in this city.

For the Van Gogh Museum,

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you can either stand in line for two hours or buy your tickets online. Beware though, the only website which gets you instant admission to the museum is their official one. Otherwise, you’ll still have to stand in line for about an hour to exchange the vouchers you got for their official tickets.

Visiting the Ann Frank Museum

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which you enter thru the door hidden behind the bookcase as she did, is a sobering experience.

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Again, buy your tickets online (up to a month in advance) unless you like standing in line.

Less known but well worth a visit is the Verzetsmuseum, The Dutch Resistance Museum. This museum chronicles what life was like before, during and after the occupation for regular Dutch citizens and poses the question of what would you have done in their place.

This seems eerily similar to what Trump is proposing for Muslims now:

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Let’s learn from the past lest we repeat it.

Of special note is their junior section. Although one would be tempted to bypass it thinking it was meant for children due its interactivity, take a long look. It follows the lives of four dutch children, one Jewish, one the son of a resistance fighter, one the daughter of a Nazi, another the child of parents just trying to survive the war. It is an incredible experience to follow these kids thoughts, actions and the events in their lives during this tumultuous time. It ends with a video feed of each of them as adults telling us what they think now of what happened then.

An lastly, for us, was a brand new museum unique in the world: Micropia.

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It is an entire museum dedicated to microbes! As you enter, you can see a newly redesigned Tree of Life including all the microbe species known at the moment.

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It’s mind-boggling to think that most of the life on the planet is microscopic. In the small circle of light (bottom right) is every animal you know and can see with your naked eye, including us. Everything else is invisible to us without fancy equipment. And to think that we are all connected and we all came from the same origins. We came here because Fernando forced us to, we were so tired and ready to sit down for coffee and people watching but he insisted and when a son asks to go to a museum, you don’t say no. We are very glad we came. The museum is entirely interactive and you can see algae, bacteria, viruses, glow fish, you name it. They have a body scanner which tells you how many bacteria you’re carrying with you. Microscopes to watch as tiny cells go about their lives. Rotting food and petri dishes with a variety of everyday items to scare you with.

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In the back you can even glimpse, thru enormous windows, the scientists as they work on their experiments. Absolutely five stars worth.

Other activities in Amsterdam include a Canal Boat Ride

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where you can look at the old houses as well as some lovely boat houses.

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In the city where everyone, absolutely everyone, rides a bike

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you can also rent bikes. The boys did for a couple of hours and came back to the hotel happy but stressed to the max.

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It really is surprising that we didn’t witness any accidents. Traffic is chaos with cars, motorbikes and bicycles all going past and thru each other at the same time they try to evade the clueless tourists who tend to stand in the middle of the bike paths because they look so much like sidewalks. Signs such as this

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are quite understandable, but the reality is that everyone is super nice and laid back and you hear less honking here than back home.

An easy day trip from Amsterdam is Zaanse Schans.

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Tours are sold everywhere but there really is no need to get a tour when buses run every 15 minutes from the Central Train Station

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and you can buy your ticket straight from the driver. Several windmills are open for touring but we chose De Kat, as it is the only one that allows you to go up the stairs and walk on the outside of it. This is a working mill, they grind chalk stones into powder which they then mix with different dyes to create paint.

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There are different shops which recreate what Dutch life used to be like. Here you can watch a demonstration of how those wooden clogs are made, and buy some as well of course;

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or cheese, chocolate, oil. You can even bring a picnic and spend the day petting sheep and avoiding being bitten by the swans.

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It’s a picturesque day trip.

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An honorable mention goes to the Amsterdam Dungeon which is a new show, part history lesson, part haunted house which relates the sordid past Amsterdam had in the 16oos when trade ships would trick people into signing up for “service” and sailing to the Dutch African colonies aboard the VOC ships. I wouldn’t want to give it away but definitely recommend it. Get your tickets online and take advantage of the savings.

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On our last day in Amsterdam we were met by Anita, Fernando’s friend from high school, and one of her lovely daughters, Sophie, at Voldenpark, Amsterdam’s central park. What a shock to meet again now with kids the age they were when they met so many years ago.

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Amsterdam is just as beautiful, welcoming and full of life as I remembered. We can’t wait to come back!

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Categories: Europe, Netherlands, UNESCO site | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Golden Circle 

A common way to spend a day in Iceland is driving the “Golden Circle” There are several attractions on this drive and one could easily spend a couple of days instead of just one on it.

Our first stop was Thingvellir, a national park and UNESCO world heritage site.

P1010655 It’s an important site for two reasons:

First, in 930 the first seat of government was established here because it was at the intersection of all major trade routes on the island. Once a year, the chieftains of every family would gather here to resolve arguments, perform weddings and take care of any other issues which might have come up during the previous year. As you can imagine, this gathering took the shape of a celebration which lasted several weeks and allowed for people to meet and trade with each other. It was called the “Law Rock” since parliament had its seat here until 1798. Iceland gained its independence from Denmark in 1944 and Icelanders gather here at Thingvellir to celebrate that occurrence every 17th of June since.P1010675

The second reason is geological. The North American and European plates meet, or rather drift apart, here. They are drifting apart at a rate of about 2.5 centimeters per year and this can be clearly seen in the huge cracks they cause, some of which could be called canyons. P1010663Thingvellir

A popular activity is to take a dive in the lake to the Silfra fissure to observe the plates.

P1010679 One could easily spend an entire day just hiking thru this park as it holds natural beauties such as Oxararfoss

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and of course it’s share of wildlife.

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We then continued on to Haukadalur which is famous for being the site of the OG=original geyser. (“No! Mom, don’t try to be hip.” went ignored) All other geysers take their name from this one.

P1010699Unfortunately the “Geyser” is no longer spewing hot water and steam but a much bigger geyser, or so we were told, is now taking up the slack: Strokkur.

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Only from this far can its height be appreciated.

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This is the view on the other side which rewards those who make the strenuous climb to the top of the mount.

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After having what must have been the grossest and most expensive hamburgers in the entire world, we continued our drive on to Gulfoss, a massive waterfall which drops 32 meters down.

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The story of how Gulfoss came to be is quite interesting. Back in 1907, an Englishman wanted to harness the power of the waterfall and leased it from the farmer who owned the land. One of the farmer’s daughters loved the waterfall so much that she protested this contract and even went to court to plead for it to be voided. The legal battle lasted years and Sigridur (the farmer’s daughter) threatened to throw herself into the waterfall if the Englishman went ahead with construction, very dramatic. One must be in awe at Sigridur’s strength of character back in those days. Eventually, Sigridur lost her case but it was moot as the Englishman lost the concession for failure to pay rent! Iceland began waking up to the importance of protecting its natural beauties because of Sigridur and she is now thought of as Iceland’s first naturalist.

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Our last stop of the day was Kerid, a small caldera in a collapsed volcano. As the boys threw rocks into the lake, we watched the sun fall.

P1010808Or rather just diminish a bit because it doesn’t actually set until almost midnight and is up by 2am. Those few nighttime hours are quite bright as well. Our sleep has been suffering due to the lack of darkness, somehow light always filters into our rooms. The weather has been all kinds of crazy, we’ve had hot, short-sleeves kind of mornings, only to have to wear thermal underwear in the afternoon. The bedrooms are usually too hot but the toilets too cold. This place is absolutely gorgeous but I surely wouldn’t survive a winter.

 

Categories: Europe, Iceland, UNESCO site | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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