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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Weekend Excursion

Portugal has the worst drivers in all of western Europe, or so everyone keeps telling us. So, what did we do? We rented a car for the weekend to head north up the coast to Porto.

Without the time constraints of a bus or train schedule, we were able to see many things in a short time span. We hit the picturesque medieval city of Obidos, where we wandered up and down the narrow cobblestone streets. Then, on a whim, we stopped in Foz de Arehlo. It turned out to have an amazing beach that stretched out into a sheltered bay on one side and bordered the Atlantic on the other.

We stayed on the coastal roads and ended up in Sao Martinho do Porto, a beach town situated on a crescent-shape bay that was full of fishing boats. For a Friday night, things were pretty quiet. Being the off season, many things were closed and there were only three lodging options available in town. We stayed one block from the beach for 40€ ($60).

The next morning, we made our way to Aveiro, the "Venice of Portugal" where we navigated the canals in an old, brightly painted wooden boat.

We also learned how to make ovos moles, the sweet treats that were invented here. As the story goes, the nuns at the convent would use egg whites to starch their habits, but they were wasting the yolks. By adding sugar, they were able to preserve the yolks for up to three weeks and use the concoction for eating. These days, the mixture is encased in a pillow-like shell similar in taste and texture to a communion wafer.

From Aveiro, we drove up to Porto, where we saw the sun set on the River of Gold (Rio d'Ouro), bathing the river and buildings alongside it in golden light. One can see how the river got its name.

On Sunday, we headed to Fatima, an important Christian pilgrimage site in a city named after the daughter of Mohammed. Thousands of worshippers come to this location, many of whom walk on their knees to the chapel built over the location where Mary first appeared to three children in 1917. The apparition returned two more times, each time relaying prophecies about the future that later came true.

We came back to Lisbon later that night. Happily, we returned the vehicle, and ourselves, in one piece. However, there was one point on our trip that an ambulance (not on an emergency call) crossed over the center lane on a curve and nearly crashed into the car head on.

"So, that's how they get clients," said Jennifer, after our close call.

Perhaps our visit to Fatima gave us some good karma.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

One part rodeo, one part gladiator

Portuguese bullfights differ from those in other countries in two major ways.

First, the star of the show is not the matador, but a horseman bullfighter, costumed as an 18th-century nobleman, with a plumed hat and embroidered coat.

Second, and most importantly, the bull is never killed in the ring thanks to a decree made by the Marques de Pombal in the 18th century.

The latter seemed to make the idea of attending a bullfight a bit more palatable, so that's how Jen and II found ourselves at the Campo Pequeno in Lisbon at 10pm at the last event of the season.

Outside the venue, a group of folk dancers competed for attention with a group of protesters who were trying to drown out the music with airhorns and cowbells. Inside, we climbed the stairs to the second balcony and took our seat in the first row, which offered the best view of the action, and cost 17.50€ ($26).

We were joined by Peter, a Danish tourist who came by himself, leaving his wife and kids back at the hotel.

The principle characters paraded into the ring, led by the forcados, then the matadors and finally the caveleiros. After the introduction, the bull is ushered into the ring and the battle begins.

>Bullfighting originated as a military training exercise for both man and horse, building dexterity and agility as they avoided the horns of the angry bull. These days, the horsemen display their skill by guiding the horse left, right, forward and back as the bull (with his horns filed down) chases from behind. The closer to the bull the caveleiro is, the bigger the applause when he finally "escapes."

The barbaric part comes when the cavaleiro charges the bull with a bandarilha (dart) and drives it into the bull's back. With each successive pass, the dart gets shorter and shorter, which increases the risk to the horse and the horseman. Meanwhile, the bull gets increasingly angrier and weaker at the same time.

When the cavaleiro is finished showing off his bravado, a group of eight men charge the bull and the frontman flings himself onto the front of the enraged charging bull, while the other men work on slowing the bull down. It looks pretty comedic, but the danger is high.

Finally, a group of cows are paraded into the ring and the bull follows them out. Then the process is repeated with another bull and a new cavaleiro.

In the end, I left with no desire to ever see another bullfight (as expected). It just wasn't a fair fight. Sure, it was a cultural experience, but then again, so is NASCAR, and I have no plans to attend a race anytime in the near or distant future.

If I were the Marques de Pombal, I would have made another decree. I would ask that the bulls be "marked" with paint or velcro darts instead of causing real harm to the animals.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Heavenly treats

Where has pasteis de Belem been all my life? The fresh, hot custard pastries sprinkled with cinammon and powdered sugar at the Antiga Confeiteria de Belem were a delightful treat after walking along the shore of the Rio Tejo (Tagus River) in the Belem neighborhood of Lisbon.

Although they are sold in bakeries across Lisbon, the best place to get the goods is at this particular pastry shop, which is to Portugal what the Magnolia Bakery is to New York City -- an institution. Originally made by the monks at the nearby Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, the recipe has not changed over the last 172 years. Heavenly, indeed!

Line up at the front of the store to take away a box filled with the yummy goodness, or sit down and have the waiter bring pasteis fresh out of the oven to your table in the enormous cavernous eatery. Jen, my latest travel partner who arrived just today, and I had one a piece and it was clear we would have to order another . . . and another.

"I can't have just one," says Mariana, the front desk clerk at the youth hostel where we are staying. "I usually end up eating five or six and have to stay in bed the next day. But they are so good!"

As a friend pointed out, they are "LisBon Appetite." I say: FINALLY! Most of the main dishes are bland and uninspired, but the desserts are a different story.

Mariana has been our sweets pusher since we got here. Tomorrow, she has recommended we try "travesseiros" at Piriquita in Sintra. We're not making a special trip or anything -- we are going to get a little culture, too.

But I will be sure to report back on how these new goodies stack up against the pasteis.
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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Scintillating Sintra

Trains leave Rossio station in Lisbon every 20 minutes for Sintra, a UNESCO world-heritage town blessed with stately manors and hillside palaces and castles. There's just not enough time in a day to see them all.

Even in October, the crowds were as thick as a bees in a hive. The best way to avoid them is by walking, although if you don't want to climb straight uphill, hop on bus #434 and take it all the way to the Palacio de Pena.

Home to final kings of queens of Portugal, the palace is a heady mix of styles from Arabic to Victorian. Walking across the draw bridge, you can imagine visitors arriving in carriages for grand parties on the palace's sweeping terraces that offer views of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.

While it's interesting to tour the private chambers of the royals (smaller than I imagined), the best part of the visit is to wander through the gardens surrounding the palace. The paths wind past church ruins, duck houses, grotto and underground passages that lead into the surrounding hills. I brought my flashlight for this purpose, but the passage narrowed and I couldn't get through with my backpack on.

The main path eventually leads down to the Castelo dos Mourros where King Joao III liked to paint. By the time he lived at the Palacio de Pena, the 9th century military fortress had long been abandoned.

In 1839, a complete restoration of the fortress was undertaken. Archaeological research within the stone walls have found objects that pre-date Arab occupation.

After exploring the site, you can walk down the hill to Sintra or ride the bus. If there's time in the day, there are several museums in town, plus good eats and pricey gifts shops. I also recommend the Quinta de Regaleira, at one time an elegant summer retreat for the Baroness de Regaliera, which has intriguing gardens that beg to be explored. The Initiatic Well is a subterranean tower that sinks 27 meters into the earth, made accessible bya spiral staircase that leads down to a series of underground walkways. This structures, as well as others in the garden, are linked to the Knights Templar.

TRAVEL TIP: Buy a two-day pass to visit the four major sites (Palacio Nacional de Pena, Castelo dos Mouros, Monserrate and Convento dos Capuchos) for 20 Euros or a pass to vist to two of the sites for 11 Euros (but you must decide which two at the time of purchase). Tickets can be bought at any of the sites.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Seven Hills

I have come to Lisbon, and Portugal in general, with no expectations and no agenda. I spent the first day wandering the steep cobblestone streets up and down the seven hills that make up the city. With me are Chris, who has a fever, and Lauren who is coming down with a sinus infection (I'm popping Vitamin C).

The Castelo de Sao Jorge at the top of the highest point, is a natural first stop. While taxes and buses do head up there, we walked through the sleepy neighborhood of the Alfama, which was just starting to wake up on a Sunday morning.

The timeless alleys and squares are like living museums with white-washed or tiled houses with red-tile roofs, flower-laden balconies and old-world looking people in the windows or in the streets offering a friendly "Bon Dia" as we walked by.

At the top of the hill, we entered through the gates of the castle and were instantly transported back to the 11th century when it was built by the Moors, the Arab invaders that controlled the city until Dom Afonso Henriques led a siege in 1147 that ultimately drove them out.

The castle, once home to kings and queens, now has peacocks, turkeys, cats and tourists roaming the ground. We were fortunate enough to arrive before the nine o'clock buses carrying the masses. We took in the city from the castle's vantage point atop the hill. Boats were sailing in the Rio Tejo, a church bell was ringing somewhere down below and more areas to explore were beckoning.

The rest of the day, we meandered and really fell in love with the picturesque city. We finished the day at a small but packed restaurant serving fresh seafood and meat dishes, typical of Portugues cuisine.

As we fell asleep, a trio of musicians performed under our window at an open-air cafe four stories below us.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

North shore ramblings

Puerto de la Cruz is the second largest city on the island of Tenerife. It is a picturesque port town on the north shore with cute shops and good restaurants, as long as you wander off the main boardwalk, lined with high-rise hotels and cheesy "handicrap" (as opposed to handicraft) stores.

The further west in town you go, the more authentic the experience. Colorful fishing boats bob in the gentle water of the port protected by a high wall from which the locals will dive into the water for a swim. A few blocks uphill, the main square is surrounded by Spanish colonial buildings that feature intricately carved wooden balconies that are typical of the area.

Just outside of town, you get into the heart of the island's wine-growing district--the Orotava Valley. The town of La Orotava is just a short distance uphill from Puerto de la Cruz, and can easily be explored on foot.

We wandered up the steep cobblestone streets passing the main church with doors that make you feel only inches tall. The Casa de los Balcones is an overpriced store that sells high-quality Canarian products at high prices. However, the building in which it is located gives you the chance to peer inside a historic building with its lovely inner courtyard. Plus, it is open midday when all the other businesses close for three hours for siesta.

It was in this town that we finally found a laundromat to wash our clothes. I can't think of a better place in which to be stranded for a few hours.

We headed back down to Puerto for dinner and finished out the night with sangria and dancing in the streets to the music of a Canarian band.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pooling Resources

Tucked in a corner of the island not visited by most tourists you'll find the tiny seaside villages of Bajamar and Punta Hidalgo. They are both one hotel kind of towns that time forgot.

In Bajamar, older men chat on benches in front of the tiny church, people walk their dogs or stroll along the narrow streets. And some take to the waters at the "piscinas," two sea-water pools set on the rocky shore below the Hotel Delfin (50€, including breakfast), which caters almost exclusively to Germans and older tourists. We spent two nights with the sound of waves crashing over the espanade lulling us to sleep.

Early morning and late evening are the best time to watch the locals taking a dip in the natural pools that are filled with sea water that washes over the edge of the cement and into the pool. The Tenerife tourism literature describes this area as a health-conscious tourist destination.

We decided to dive into the healing waters this with the old folks. Brrrrr. The saltwater made my eyes burn, but did wonders for my blisters. Swimming over to the far side, we sat under the spray from the ocean only a few steps away.

As for food, we skipped the cafeteria-style hotel buffet and opted for a fresh dinner at El Abogado, halfway between Bajamar and Punta Hidalgo. The fish was freshly plucked from the water by a fisherman that day and now I stood before a tray of fish, from which I selected the one I would eat.

Before the grilled fish, we enjoyed Gambas al Ajillo (garlic shrimp), boiled potatoes and yams and Pimientos Padron (salted and roasted jalapeno peppers), a local specialty.

A delicious end to the day!

History mystery

It's not easy to get a good understanding of the Guanache people who first settled the Canary Islands.

They are believed to have been blonde-headed, blue-eyed Berbers from Africa. They lived in caves and made pottery using clay from the abundant volcanic material on the island.

That's all we could really figure out from the archaeology museum in Puerto de la Cruz. There are "pyramids" on the islands, but they are shrouded in controversy. The Guimar Pyramids were discovered in 1996 and thought to be of great significance. However, the terraces of rock yielded no artifacts and resemble the agricultural terraces still in use on the island today.

Only one pottery figurine (El Guatimac) was discovered at the site but it was found in a cave, along with bones fragments and potsherds.

However, founders of the museum at the site go to great lengths to try to make an arguments that the islanders were great pyramid builders, like those in other parts of the world. The museum has photo after photo of pyramids from Peru, Guatemala, Mexico and Egypt.

Yes, I believe that there was contact between early civilizations, but the assumptions and connections made by the Canarian museum were based on the research of a Norwegian man who recreated full-size reed boats, made like those from antiquity, and sailed across the Atlantic successfully.

He just happened to settle in the Canary Islands toward the end of his life and after talking to people on the island about his theories someone decided to take a pile of rocks and build pyramids and call them ruins.

Now, if someone comes forward with more compelling evidence, I'm willing to entertain the idea, but for now, I remain skeptical.

If you're ever in Tenerife, pay a visit to the Pyramids of Guimar to decide for yourself . . . if you are willing to pay the 10 Euro ($15) entrance fee.

Black sand beaches

Excluding the national park at the top of the Teide volcano, the island of Tenerife has two distinct sides. The south is known for its sandy beaches and sunny skies, while the north is higher and cooler with crashing waves under plunging cliffs.

The south is touristy (full of visitors flying in from London, Madrid and Miami to stay in high-rise hotels on the beach), but there are some gems.

El Medano has the longest beach in Tenerife. The black sand beach is the result of Teide's eruptions, the most recent being in 1909. The sand is interrupted by flat layers of lava rock that flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

The beach is littered with millions of colorful pieces of tumbled sea glass in colors you just can't find on Lake Erie. So, Lauren and I scoured the beach, picking up glass in shades of lavendar, light blue, turquoise, cobalt, yellow and olive green. Oh my!

During our hunt, we watched surfers hanging ten, nude bathers strutting and dogs patiently waiting for their owners to return. As the last bit of sun passed over a distant peak, we wandered into a beachside bar for a pizza run by an English bloke who had traveled extensively in the United States and had lived briefly in Hawaii.

"I really loved the scenery in Hawaii," he told us. "But, I loved the Canarian lifestyle."

In that moment we could understand what he meant. We've eased into island time, living in the moment without a car in the world.

Friday, October 09, 2009

For the birds

What do you get when you cross a parrot with homing pigeon? A bird that will ask direction if it gets lost.

Jose Ledesma tells me that joke while dining at a local Canarian restaurant owned by a friend of his.

Ledesma raises racing pigeons. In fact, one of his birds, Bayo Casablanca, holds the world record for longest distance traveled. Facing extreme conditions, the bird traveled from Morocco, over the open ocean and made its way back to Tenerife.

"The fact that they know how to get back is one of the mysteries of the world," says Ledesma. "They have a sense that humans just don't have."

Ledesma, who once raised and trained falcons, stumbled across the racing pigeon industry purely by chance. Now, he is considered a respected leader in the field, and is known all over the world. He raises pigeons that are purchased for racing.

Once every two years, he organizes a pigeon race that begins in Fuerteventura, one of the other islands in the Canaries. Participants from countries such as Belgium, Germany, Ireland, China descend upon the islands to cheer on their bird, and hopes it will be the first that arrives back to the loft, which is in the backyard of Ledesma's home.

The prize: 12,000 Euro ($18,000). A couple from The Netherlands were the most recent winners. They shrieked with joy when their bird was the first to enter its roost.

When I first started to research the Canary Islands, I thought I'd find the canary bird here. Nope, I haven't see Tweetie, but I now know more than ever about the pigeon.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

We caught the monkey, but killed the bat + more animal stories

The amount of ground we've covered so far is astounding, but now that we are in the Canary Islands, it's time to slow down and enjoy things on island time.

The Canary Islands are located off the coast of Morocco, but belong to Spain. The flight from Madrid cost under $200, and it's worth every penny to make the three-hour journey to this island chain.

The island oof Tenerife is the most popular with tourists. The beach resorts in the south appeal to sun and surf lovers, the legends of the Knights Templar, the colonial past and Mary of the Sea attracts history buffs and the volcano that rises from the center of the island is a mecca for nature lovers, not to mention UFO enthusiasts.

"There are a lot of sightings, especially on top of El Teide [the volcano]," says Kalani Hano Hano, an American friend of a friend, who moved to the island in 2005 with his wife, who is Canarian. Kalani, himself, witnessed an event that he can't necessarily explain that lasted four hours. "Lights would appear every few seconds and shoot across the horizon," he says. "I've never seen anything like it."

It's no wonder that you can spot unusual phenomenon on the island, especially.on the volcano. There is no light pollution obscuring the night sky and we witnessed a shooting star within minutes of looking skyward from our vantage point at our hotel, which is located high on the volcano.

This spot will be our home for the next couple of days and we're looking forward to seeing what's out there in the daylight. We arrived well after dark, mostly because I had to stop to take pictures of sunset behind the peak, which poked out of the clouds that were below us.

After killing a bat with our windshield on the way up, we pulled into the parking lot of the hotel and I was amazed by the rock formations. When I got out of the car for another picture, I could hear the pitter patter of feet on the pavement, but I could see nothing. There were no lights in the parking lot. But, I felt something lurking behind me. Kalani had just warned us about packs of ferocious wild dogs roaming the highlands, so when I finally saw the creature by the light of the car's dome light, I froze with fear and whispered to Lauren, "There's something out there; I think it's a wild dog."

She couldn't see anything, but once her eyes adjusted, she could see the Unidentified Feral Observer (UFO) with its pointy ears and muscular body.

"Oh my god," she cried. "It's a dingo. Get in the car. Hurry!!!!!"

I jump in the car and close the door, not knowing what to do next. I drive 15 feet from our parking spot to the entrance, and Lauren runs in to find out if it's a friendly pet or not. The desk clerk confirmed our suspicions that it was indeed wild, but assured us that we would not be eaten. But the behavior of the animal was so strange. If we turned our back on it, he would approach closer and closer as if he was going to pounce or try to take our grocery bags. Lauren and I backed slowly toward the front door, closing it behind us.

"You know, the wild dog reminded me of the dog in the animated film 'Lilo and Stitch,' says Lauren. "In the movie, the dog was actually an alien that the girl adopted from the pound. Maybe there are aliens here after all . . . or maybe it was the chupacabra."

It looks like we're going to have a good time here. The stranger the better.

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Monkey business

Gibraltar is the only place in all of Europe where you can find primates in the wild. Known as the Barbary Apes (a misnomer: they are macaques), the endangered animals nearly went extinct in the early 20th century. Today, nearly 300 primates live on the rock, and most of them gather around tourist sites hoping to catch an easy meal.

The best way to get to the top of the iconic rock is by cable car, which takes about 6 minutes. For roughly $20, a one-way ticket includes a self-guided multimedia walking tour and access to the major attractions on the way down to the town at the base.

As you step off the cable car, the monkeys await. A young boy eating a candy bar as he exited was stunned when a monkey charged at him, jumped on his back and stole the candy bar from his grasp just as he was about to take a bite. The boy was fine and was laughing about it, but it was still a shock to see it as it happened.

First lesson learned: Don't eat around the monkeys.

We spent the next few hours strolling from site to site, enjoying the monkeys along the way. Babies jumped from tree to tree or clutched their mothers; juveniles wrestled and clacked their teeth together and the older males napped on the rocks.

If the monkeys weren't cool enough, we went subterranean a few times, which provides respite from the sun and heat.

St. Michael's Cave, with its high ceiling dripping with stalgmites, was incredible. The first visitors to set foot inside were Neanderthals nearly 40,000 years before Christ. Later, the caverns were thought to be the Gates of Hades, the entrance to the underworld. In the 20th century, the caves were used by WW2 soldiers as an emergency hospital, and it serves as a concert hall to this day.

After all our walking, we stopped for a beverage at the eatery next to St. Michael's Cave. While Lauren ordered a passion fruit slush puppy for us to share, I watched the tourists taking pictures of the monkeys gathered outside. One woman was nervous, so I told her there was nothing to worry about unless she had food on her. Lauren came out and started telling the woman about the boy with the pilfered candy bar.

The words "They won't bother you, as long as you don't feed them" were still hanging in the air as a monkey lept from the roof onto Lauren's back. She shrieked and the frightened woman looked horrified as she watched the monkey try to snatch the slush puppy from her hand. Lauren didn't relinquish the drink, but some spilled on the ground and the monkey bent down to lap it up.

Meanwhile, another monkey swooped in and grabbed the styrofoam cup from behind, and finally Lauren let go. The monkeys had won, and we were still thirsty.

Second lesson learned: Don't drink around the monkeys.

We wandered off down the path again, laughing all the way. And by the way, I got it all on camera. Pictures to come....
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Monday, October 05, 2009

Four Countries / Four Days

Planes, trains, buses, ferries, grand taxis and subways. It's been a whirlwind of public transportation on two continents. Yes, the schedule has been quite ambitious for the first few days of this trip. However, a visit to southern Spain afforded us short jaunts to Gibraltar, which is owned by England, the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on the African coast, and the country of Morocco, just beyond Ceuta's border.

There is a saying that a Moroccan man told us: If you slow down, you'll catch the monkey, but if you go too fast, you'll kill it.

Four days is not enough time to really get to know a place or its people, but I've been here before and I wanted to give Lauren, my current travel companion, a taste of Morocco so she plans her own trip back.

"It was chaotic, yet it was fascinating," she says. "The cultural differences were astounding. The world is so small but so different. Morocco got my travel bug itching. I would like to go back."

From the souks of Morocco, we are heading to the Rock right now. Gibraltar is just across the strait from Morocco, but instead of figs and cous cous, we'll be eating fish and chips.

Whether we kill the monkey remains to be seen. The Barbary Apes await. Stay tuned to find out.

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

Likely Story

Excuse me, pardon me. Do you speak French. Or maybe German. Or Spanish. You English? Please let me show you special exhibition. Today only. I take you there. No problem.

The touts in Tetouan, Morocco, are relentless, especially since we seem to be the only tourists in this town. They say the want to practice their English, but they really want to take us to a carpet shop, so they can get a commission on whatever we buy.

Yesterday, we arrived with packs on our backs and we stuck out like a sore thumb. Our first priority was to find lodging, but the touts were trying to lead us elsewhere.

Now, after 24 hours, we can not only spot them coming, but we've managed to avoid them rather successfully. First sign that he's a tout, he seeks you out and speaks English very well. The second sign: he is missing teeth. He likes to tell you lies; anything to get you to follow him.

What business do you do? I'm a photographer. Oh, he says, come take picture of my home. Uh, no. No really, please come. I live just here.

Okay, I have to admit I was curious to see if he was for real. And of course he led us directly to a rug store. He said he was the owner, named Hassan, but there was no way.

He really pulled the rug over our eyes.

However, we started talking to a man in the store, who was likely the owner, and he seemed to know a lot about Ohio, including the area codes. And he said he'd been to Put-in-Bay. Interesting.

Anyway, we've wandered the souks of the medina, just enjoying the day-to-day activities. We'ved stopped at coffee shops and patisseries.

And soon we'll be going to Ceuta, the Spanish enclave on the African coast and returning to mainland Europe. The excursion to Morocco was respite from the Euro, and it paid off. We slept (or not, depending on whom you ask) for only $15, compared to nearly $50 anywhere in Spain.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Bull Market

In a move that has the bullfighting industry seeing red, a matador has agreed to advertising a beverage on his cape. According to industry experts, this is the first time such a promotion has appeared in the ring. Some say the cape is sacred part of the "ritual of bullfighting," while others say sponsorship has become the standard in other sports and bullfighting should be no different.

"All sports teams have advertising on their uniforms," matador Joselito Ortega told CNN. The next time he steps in the ring, he will be using pink capes embroidered with the words "Gay Up," the name of the energy drink, which targets the gay market.

"Our hope is that Joselito Ortega becomes a huge figure in bullfighting and an icon for the million of gays that love the sport inside and out of Spain," José María Terrón, the president of the company that produces the drink, told El Mundo.

Ortega, who is heterosexual, just wants to perform well.

"I am a bullfighter. That is not going to change," he told the press. "I am going to go out into the ring as I have done until now, to risk my life, and the seven goring wounds on my body prove that. If the gay community welcomes me as an image or a symbol, that is fine."


TRAVEL TOKEN: Which souvenir would you like me to bring home from Spain: a four-pack of "Gay Up," a pink bullfighting cape, or Joselito Ortega?

Bullfighter Joselito Ortega poses with the cape at his home in Benalmadena, southern Spain, on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009. Ortega is breaking with a sacred tradition, agreeing to serve as an advertising billboard while slaying bulls and endorse a soft drink that caters to gays. (AP Photo/Sergio Torres)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Excess Baggage

You won't see these suitcases coming around the baggage carousel any time soon:

1. This meat bag was part of a print advertisement campaign launched by VLCC, a beauty and fitness company in India.

2.French designer and artist PinkWolf has created luggage that makes a bold statement in the security line. If the gun suitcase isn't quite your style, perhaps the knife or hatchet might be more suitable.

3. While this was a Amnesty International campaign designed to call attention to human trafficking, I would like to see a piece of luggage with a 360-degree photo-realistic image of someone stuffed in inside.

If you want to see more, check out some pre-filled suitcases, that make life's bigger pleasures more portable.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It wouldn't be so funny if it happened to you . . .

Travel is full of unexpected surprises (good or bad); that's one thing I like about it. But sometimes, things can go a little too far. In this case, it's far more enjoyable to read about travel mishaps than experience them first-hand.

"Monkey pushes woman off cliff" read the headline on Wednesday's "Weird News" feed. Naturally, I had to click the link. The woman, who was visiting the Chengdu Wildlife Park in China, fractured her hip and broke three ribs after plunging 20 feet off the side of a cliff when she was pushed by a primate in hot pursuit of goodies she had with her. A spokesman for the park told the press, "Her mistake was to show fear. If you show fear, a monkey will bully you." Yeah, but getting thrown off a cliff? The 60-year-old woman is suing her travel agent.

A woman got more than she gambled for on a Southwest flight to Las Vegas last month. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that a man exposed himself to his female seatmate, then punched her when she screamed. He proceeded to removes his clothes as flight attendants and passengers tried to subdued him. The woman was taken to the hospital for treatment, and Darius Chappille was carted off to jail.

Speaking of naked antics . . . last month, Reuters reported that an extremely drunk, nude man stumbled back to the wrong hotel room in Queenstown, New Zealand. He fell asleep in the room where another couple had been sleeping; the female occupant hid in the bathroom while her husband called the hotel staff. The drunk man could not remember with whom he had been, nor which room. No charges were filed in the incident.

If you want to check out more tales of travel gone wrong, visit, which nominates the best of the worst travel experiences. There is a particularly harrowing bus ride that scares me silly. See below or click here to view.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Heading out again

In a few weeks time, I will be going abroad once again. Chris will be attending a conference in Madrid, and then we will travel together to Portugal. After I got laid off in February, I extended my travels on either side of his conference, which means I'll be out and about for a total of 21 days.

This time around, two "guest travelers" will join me on different legs of the trip. Lauren, a fellow Lake Erie Living alum, is coming for excursions to the North African coast and the Canary Islands. Jen, who is on my rowing team, will meet me in Portugal on the day Chris flies home.

The itinerary will include . . .

. . . Gibraltar. Spain wants a piece of this rock, but it's still in the hands of the British. The territory on the southern tip of Spain is home to the only population of wild primates in Europe, known as the Barbary Apes.

. . . Ceuta. Spain has two territories on the African mainland: Ceuta and Melilla. Ceuta is only a 30-minute ferry ride from Algeciras, Spain, and local bargain hunters head there for duty-free shopping. From here, it's possible to enter Morocco.

. . . The Canary Islands. Before starting to plan this trip, I knew very little about the archipelago, which is considered the "Hawaii of Europe." We are extremely fortunate to have a contact on the island of Tenerife who has kindly offered his services as tour guide. We're looking forward to exploring Mount Teide National Park (according to a tourism brochure it's the most-visited park in Spain), and the black sand beaches on the northern shore.

. . . Sintra, Portugal. According to Frommers: "Since the Moorish occupation, Portuguese kings and nobles have recognized this town's irresistible charm. You'll find a denser concentration of beautiful villas and gardens here than you'll find anywhere else in Portugal. At least five major palaces and convents are tucked amid the lush vegetation."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Not-so-smooth sailing for young adventurer

Should a 13-year-old be allowed to sail around the world by him or herself? That was the question posed on yesterday's "World Have Your Say" on BBC Radio.

Laura Dekker, 13, wants to do a solo voyage around the world, but The Dutch Council for Child Protection has asked a court to intervene in order to keep her from going. A ruling is expected by the end of the week.

Dekker was born on a boat while her parents were sailing around the world. She has extensive experience, but there are concerns for her well-being.

An editorial in the Dutch daily De Volkskrant critiqued: "She simply does not have the experience to anticipate the problems and possible crises that await her."

What do you think? Will it be the adventure of a lifetime or an error in judgment on the part of her parents should she go?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

My ode to fellow Competitouristas

I'm having a difficult time adjusting to Eastern Standard Time again. Yesterday, I fell alseep watching TV at 11 a.m. and again at 8 p.m. Then I woke up this morning well before the sun rose, but it gave me time to put together the following memories from the trip. Here are a few things that stick out in mind:

I'll never forget . . .

. . . Ray getting through the labyrinth in seven minutes. Lucky, bastard! :-)

. . . Pat giving it her all despite being ill early in the trip. Next time, don't drink water from the Jet d'Eau.

. . . Teri maintaining her cool despite missed trains and closes venues.

. . . Veronica's extensive knowledge of Broadway musicals and Comi-con lore. A girl after my own heart.

 . . . Dan never needing an excuse to strip down to his skivvies. I'm surprised you didn't film yourself at the FKK area in Munich's Englischer Garten!

. . . Karen describing Dan's edible underwear in front of the chocolate museum. I don't think i would've been able to keep a straight face.

. . . Jan is a seriously competitive adventure junkie with some mad survival skills! If the civilized world would come to an end right now, I'd stick by your side.

. . . Sean's acting abilities and charisma. He can channel Donald Trump, Howard Cosell or a used car salesman. And that's just scratching the surface.

. . . Margaret's ability to warp time and space--doing things in half the time it takes a normal person. She's also capable of leaping tall mountains in a single bound.

. . . Tyler's party tricks. He always kept us entertained with drinking games and human knots. Might I add, he's also a heck of a pianist.

. . . Ally's style and grace. She always looked calm, cool and collected, even zip-lining over Munich's Olympic stadium.

. . . Bob's laid-back attitude. For him, Competitours wasn't about winning; it was all about enjoying the ride. And what he told me outside of Loden Frey in Munich helped me foster a more cooperative relationship with other teams.

. . . Judy's marksmanship. Are you sure you didn't train with the special forces?

. . . Sherri's rebellious nature. She wasn't afraid to say, "To hell with the game, I'm drinking a beer instead!"

. . . Ksenia and I straddling three countries together while we waited for lunch to appear at Dreilandpunt. It still hadn't been served by the time we got back to the table.

. . . Lyndall kindly sharing her wine and her seat with me on the train to Cologne. Thanks!

. . . Radford dressed as a merman as he sang the Loreley song on the banks of the Rhine River. When I saw the video, I knew "As Seen on TV" were going to be a serious threat!

. . . Lanthy on the toboggan run. I nearly rear-ended her after she and Rad got stuck behind some kids.

. . . DeAnna sharing her shoes with me at the Conquest Go Kart Center in Koblenz! Without her generosity, and close-toed shoes, I wouldn't have been able to race at all.

. . . Kelly's superhuman intelligence. I think she was the only one to get that crazy math equation in the underground bunker.

. . . Steve for getting us where we needed to go just in the knick of time (mostly).


. . . Sheila's ability to put up with me! You never know how two strangers are going to get along when thrown into a stressful situation. We complemented each other very well and I'm happy to have been her partner. We may not have won the grand prize in the end, but we received the longer-lasting gift of friendship.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Worthy Adversaries

I got a kick from watching videos from other Competitours teams. Here are some of my favorites from the trip:

Day 1:

Sean is clearly a skilled impersonator. He adopted a few other voices during the course of the trip, too.

Way to pull out "Little Town" from the music cache. It really does exemplify this scene!

Are you sure you're not a used car salesman in real life?

Day 3:

I like Tyler's version of "encouragement."

Same, same, but different!

A very creative solution to the fact that these teams did not get to the actual toboggan run. Some people call it poor time management, but I call it brilliant.

Day 4:

Sherri and Judy proved themselves to be the rebels of the bunch in this act of open defiance against Competitours.

Sorry Sean and Jan, Manuela is the true star of this video with her sign language for bird poop.

Day 5:

I didn't realize how close Tyler and his mom really are until I saw this video!

A bathroom turned nightclub. The 80 cent cover charge is a bit steep, though.

I have to admit that I was worried Bob wouldn't turn off the video at the end. Phew!

Day 6:

Way to channel your inner Merman, Rad. I felt this video showed your range and your potential to become the victor.

Teams Absolutely Fabulous and Shake & Bake really work well together.

This wasn't the first or last time Dan took off his pants in front of people on this trip.

So what if the museum was closed; if this spy had more time, she would have climbed up on the roof to get in through the ventilation system.

Sean and Jan definitely have a way with people; and this video shows they can talk locals into having their way with each other.

Day 8:

Happy Birthday, Sherri! If I wasn't in contention for the big prize, I would've been doing the same thing.

That girl's got skilz!

I'm detecting a recurring theme in Team Shake & Bake's videos.

Team Serendipity Video Highlights

Say what you will, but here are some our our personal favorite videos from our Competitours' adventure.

Day 2, Salzburg, Austria:
Part of the movie "Sound of Music" -- specifically the song '16 Going On Seventeen' -- was filmed at the Baroque Gazebo at Hellbrunn Palace. One of the challenges there was to conjure up and sing a quick verse and chorus of new lyrics based on using your age (ie- 42 Going on 43').

Link to video

Back story: We were exhausted after hitting the ground running on Day One and we hadn't mastered a routine for planning and researching our challenges yet. But, we had a couple hours on the train to Salzburg to start re-writing the lyrics to this song. However, we didn't have anything solid by the time we got off the train. We made some last minute changes at Hellbrun as we approached the gazebo, and this was our second take. The judges didn't award us full points on the Hellbrunn Palace multi-part challenge, but this particular video earned the respect of Judge 2 who said: "I love the team chemistry shown in this duet. It's not hard to see they're enjoying themselves in this self-effacing parody."

Day 4, Munich, Germany:
The challenge was to go to Loden Frey, a large department store that has a wide selection of traditional folk clothing, and pick an item, say its original function/significance and what situation could you justify wearing it in America and why.

Link to video

Back story: When we got to the department store, all we could see were dresses after dresses. I headed over to the men's section and saw a hat with what looked like a duster on it. Perfect, I thought, but no one in that department spoke English. We headed over to the hat section and the sales woman was very helpful. At one point she disppeared and I wasn't sure if she was coming back. She had been researching the traditional function for the trachten hute and gamsbart. We didn't even ask her to do that. I give her most of the credit for this video. After all, other teams were told they weren't allowed to film in the store, but Daniella was an active accessory to our "crime" in the accessory department.

Day 6, Koblenz, Germany:
Speedy is my middle name, which made this challenge appealing. We were to record our fastest laps around the track at Conquest Go Kart Center and the lowest times would received the highest number of points.

Link to video

Back story: While there is not much to this video, we got a good laugh when Sheila went the wrong direction on the track and I caught in on tape. Needless to say, her times weren't so good, but luckily we had two chances to better our lap times. Team Swift (DeAnna and Kelly) actually talked us into doing this challenge with them and it turned out to be a blast. The place required racers to wear close-toed shoes, which Sheila and I did not have. Kelly and DeAnna offered to lend us their shoes and we took turns racing. We thank them from the bottom of our hearts for being so generous. I also credit Kelly for giving me pointers on how to take the turns without taking a foot off the gas pedal. I'm now working toward becoming a professional drifter.

Day 8, German/Belgium border:
On our last day of challenges, we opted to take a railbike tour through some tiny villages. Our task was to find out from the locals some quirky fact or legend or event/person that should put those villages on the map.

Link to video

Back story:Very few people speak English in these small towns, but we met Alexandra, who spoke very well. I find the video very funny, because I say in it that there is something very special about the town and ask her to tell us what it is. Alexandra responds, "Yes, that's a hedge." Every time I watch the video, I laugh hysterically at that part. But, you have to admit, that's definitely a quirky fact about Kalterherberg. Apparently, the wind is so bad in the winter, that the locals grow their hedges high enough to block their homes from the cold. They also get frost starting in August. Anyway, Alexandra was so helpful and friendly and I love how she concludes the video: "Yes, come here!" So, if you are reading this, Alexandra, I want to say thank you, thank you, thank you!

Also on Day 8, The Netherlands:
From Germany and Belgium, we headed to The Netherlands to go skiing at Snow World. While on the ski slope, our job was to film a 30-second video with some color commentary about how well we were (or not!) skiing.

Link to video

Back story: I always bring Peruvian finger puppets with me on vacation so I can pass them out to kids. Well, this time, they came in handy for one of our challenges. I had an Andean shepherd wearing a colorful manta and knitted cap, so he essentially became the mascot for the ski slope. People were laughing and looking at me as I gingerly made my way down the slope with "Snow Joe" on one hand, and the camera in the other hand. This video is the very last one we did for Competitours. It goes show that we kept our humor intact, despite the crazy pressure we had been under for the entire trip.

Sheila hit it off with Snow Joe immediately and she took him to Paris with her as she decompresses before returning to Canada. It looks like they are having a great time, together!

Second isn't so bad

On Thursday morning, the scoreboard reflected what Sheila and I already suspected. We finished second in the race across Europe with Competitours. But "As Seen on TV" (Lanthy and Rad) brought their A-game and it paid off. We're very happy for them.

"We fell short of first place by 21 points, but in our minds we are very much winners - in many ways," Sheila says. "This adventure and the new friendship was great."

Doing something like this trip can test a relationship, but throughout the week, Sheila and I were rarely, if ever, at odds. We seem to like to do the same things. We always looked deep into what worked, what didn't and how we could improve our game, but never took constructive criticism personally. We were flexible enough to change on a dime and try something else if it was necessary. And most importantly, we kept our head in the game, but had a lot of fun, too.

This trip may not be for most people, but it's well suited for someone who likes to be on the go, is willing to try new things and isn't afraid to talk to people. From the moment I heard of Competitours, I knew I wanted to do the trip and I want to give a shout out to Fran Belkin, who told me all about it.

It's been an amazing race.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

It all comes down to this

I can't believe this is the last day of our trip to Europe. It's flown by. To recap, we've been to Switzerland, Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and the long lost country of Moresnet.

In Day 7, we slipped to second place, but the challengers, "As Seen on TV" are only 10 points ahead of us. Furthermore, Lanthy and Rad couldn't stay the extra day to compete because they had to get back to NY for work. Instead of getting no points for today, they will receive an average number of points for the last seven days.

When we did the math, it was clear that we would only win if we received full points for everything we were going to do on Day 8. We had to be on top of our game. No pressure or anything.

We picked two challenges that were worth a maximum of 75 points that would make us the victors as long as we won them. Otherwise we would receive a minimum point value and land in second place.

The first was to go railbiking on the German / Belgium border. The task involved interviewing locals in some of the towns the rail bike went through to find out what is interesting about their communities. But many people did not speak English. I used an online translator to write out the instructions in German and French, and thank goodness I did. We did find a woman in Kalterherberg, Germany, who did speak English well. She was very helpful and funny and the video we did with her was one of my favorites from the day. The other two were mediocre, which led Sheila and I to believe that we wouldn't score well on the task.

Hoping that no other teams would arrive, we waited to see who would come for the later tour. Margaret and Tyler were there and Jan and Sean showed up late with Steve, but they still were able to do the tour.

We tried not to think about the outcome. We just tried to forget about it and have fun with our last challenge at Snow World. Waiting for the train to take us there, we were pacing. "This is what happens on race days," she says. We just wanted to get a move on, but the public transportation forced us to slow down.

After spending the afternoon under the hot summer sun, we were transported to winter in an instant. I didn't have mittens, but I brought an extra pair of socks to wear on my hands. Hey, you have to be resourceful.

To help with our challenges, I brought along one of my Peruvian finger puppets. I usually carry a handful when I travel so I can give them to kids. I thought for sure I would use them in a challenge or two, but so far I hadn't. When I found out we'd be going skiing, I knew I could use them for something. One of the puppets was an Andean shepherd with a colorful manta and a blue knitted cap. We nicknamed him "Snow Joe," and he became our commentator on the slopes.

I can't begin to tell you the strange looks I got as I skied down the slop with socks on my hands, a talking finger puppet on one finger and my video camera in the other hand. Honestly, I was probably a danger to myself and others, but most people just thought it was mental.

Anyway, it worked out that we got the highest score on that challenge. It was all because of Snow Joe.

We returned back to the hotel pleased with how hard we had played the game over the last eight days and how we had had fun along the way, too. Sure, we wanted to win, but we would be happy with second place, too.

But we would have to wait until morning for the results.

Going Head-to-Head

After 6 days of being on our own and occasionally running into other teams, Day 7 was the four-country, all-inclusive team challenge. We didn't need to record any videos; instead, we were pitted against all the other teams in several objective challenges.

When Steve, our "tour dude," asked if we knew what four countries we were going to, only Sheila and I had the correct answer. It's just a shame we didn't get any points for getting it right.

The answer is a bit deceptive considering the fourth country no longer exists. Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany meet at what is called Dreilandpunt. Back in the late 1800s to early 1900s, Moresnet was a small country that had a little slice of this four-corners region.

Now the spot is a tourist destination and it's home to the biggest labyrinth in the world. We were set loose in side but I quickly realized I would not find my way so easily. And sure enough, the way to go was hidden; looking down the path, it looked like there was a dead-end at the end, but the path took a sharp U-turn and then wound it's way to the finish point at a raised platform at the center of the maze. It was disheartening to lose the first challenge, but it was still a lot of fun.

Next we did skeet shooting. We were in the first group to go and when the guy said "pull," I fired away, nailing the first two points. At that point, people were impressed, but I only got one more shot after 10 pulls. Sheila on the other hand, got 6 points, which landed us in third place. Team Absolutely Fabulous killed this challenge with 16 and Weathehekawi followed in second with 13.

Next was the crossbow competition, which we did not win, followed by giant darts. I scored the highest number of points (86), but they averaged team scores. Our average was lower than "As Seen on TV" when the dust settled.

We took a break for lunch before heading on to our last challenge of the day which involved feeling our way in the dark for more than an hour.

Underground bunkers that were once used for defense, can be explored by flashlight. A local tour company started a game in which particpants are given clues on how to get through the dark tunnels, performing tasks along the way. It was fun and frustrating at the same time. We didn't find some of the answers, and the clues were in Dutch or French most of the time.

Nonetheless, we got 5th place, earning the maximum number of points possible in that challenge.

It was a long and tiring day, and to make matters worse, we slipped to second place by only 10 points. The second place team are worthy adversaries, but we are going to give them a run for their money on the last day of the trip. We still have a chance to win this thing and we'll do what it takes to be the victors--within reason of course.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Day 6 in the Rhine River valley

The incredible scenery along the Rhine River is idyllic to most people. The rolling hills. Hill-top castles overlooking the lush Rhine River Valley. But returning to Koblenz after 18 years memories long buried. Well, not really.

On my first trip abroad, those many years ago, Chris and I floated down this very section of the river. It started off fine, but after a few hours we were out of water and stuck on the roof of the boat under the hot sun. The only water being vended was carbonated, which is not satisfying to my taste.

If dehydration wasn't bad enough, we took the wrong train getting back to where we were staying in Heidelberg and by that point in the evening the trams to our friends' apartment was no longer in operation, so we walked five miles (at least) to get back. And when I got inside, I stuck my mouth under the tap and drank and drank and drank. The next day, my stomach was grumbling, and while I was on the tram to the train station, I lost it. Luckily I had an empty Bimbo bread bag to hurl into.

Good times.

Well, I'm happy to report I had a much better day on this go around. Sheila and I got an early start, dashing out of the hotel to catch the direct train to St. Goar, but after calling about the opening hours of some of the sites on our list of challenges, we spontaneously decided to jump off the train at Koblenz instead, which forced us to spend time researching alternatives at a hotel across from the train station.

Sheila and I decided to head south to Marksburg Castle for an in-depth look at the medieval way of life. The guide was somewhat helpful, but rushed us through each room making it hard to film our challenges, but we somehow got it all. For example, we learned the origin and modern meaning of the German phrase "give it one more tooth." The cauldrons in the kitchen were hung on saw-like bars that can raise and lower the pot toward the fire to help it cook faster. Germans use the phrase to tell people to hurry up.

We ran into several other teams at the castle and were a bit concerned about scoring because many of them are VERY creative, and we just weren't feeling it. Sheila had a sleepless night, and I certainly got less than usual. But I think we still did very well considering.

We headed back on the train to Koblenz with Team Swift (DeAnna and Kelly), who convinced us to do the go-carts with them. It didn't take much to change our minds from doing the Koblenz walking tour and soon we were speeding along the race course. The secret, as Kelly told me, was to keep your pedal to the metal and use the brake sparingly. By the first turn, I had become a "drifter," my wheels squealing at every turn. Unfortunately, the proof that I was a speed demon on the first try was not to be had. The printer broke and my lap times weren't recorded for the challenge. I had another turn on the track, but this time, two young children were on the course, too, causing back-ups and slow times.

We'll find out soon enough if I beat the rest of my challengers, but in the meantime, Sheila and I had to beat the clock -- or should I say the glockenspiel. We needed to catch the famous clock in the tower above 1411 Haus in action playing the French national anthem. We made good time and was able to spend 20 minutes in the museum, before filming the tune and the glockenspiel in action.

After the challenges were complete, we headed back to the room to do some uploading. Shortly after, we heard a "hello" coming from outside our window. When we looked up, there was a man in his window flashing us. We laughed at him and shut the blinds. It turned out to be Dan, go figure.

Good times, yet again.

Day 5 in Munich again

Spontaneity is our middle name. That was the theme today. We changed our plan at a moment's notice. Originally we planned to do challenges at the Nymphenburg Castle (where the German Hugh Hefner once lived) and a bike tour of the city.

By morning, everything had changed totally. We opted to join the group heading to the Olympic Stadium to walk along the outside rim of the field's roof (similar to the Sydney Bridge Climb). The way down was a zip line across the stadium.

Sheila conquered her fear of heights instantly as she soared along the tethered wire. I could hear her screaming all the away across. And then the infectious laughter soon followed.

After the fun was over, we had to get our heads back into the game. We decided against going to the castle and opted to visit the BMW Museum that was located adjacent to the Olympic Stadium instead. We didn't think a lot of people were going to do it and we were going to rock our A-Game for sure.

We stopped for a break and began brainstorming some ideas while we grabbed a bite to eat in front of a huge showroom of BMWs. Sheila befriended the man at the front desk and barraged him with thousands of questions and within 20 minutes we had our plan. We filmed our challenges and then headed to the gift shop, where we both bought souvenirs. However, the souvenir Chris wanted me to buy wouldn't have fit in my carry-on luggage.

The last challenge was the mosot interesting to research. It's a bit odd to approach strangers to ask where the famous toilets are! Several people just gave us odd looks, and finally, a clerk at the BMW shop said he knew what we were talking about and off we went.

On the way, we decided to develop lyrics to sing the praises of the fancy toilets, which paid off because we weren't allowed to film inside. Now it's up to the hands of fate to see iif we can maintain our lead.

Day 4 in Munich

It's Friday, it must be Germany. We came back to Munich for a couple days-worth of challenges in this large, cosmopolitan city. We definitely saw quite a bit of it trying to find an elusive building that was in a photo scavenger hunt challenge that we did.

After two cloudy days in Austria, we were happy to see the sun again. It was perfect for exploring the the large park in the city called Englischer Garten. We had five things to find there, and we enjoyed seeing the masses of people out in the park, riding bikes, drinking beer, surfing in the Einsbach River and sunbathing in the nude.

Sheila and I knew we had to come back (no, not for that). So, we rushed back to the hotel, grabbed a bathing suit and came back to the park to swim in one of the man-made rivers.

The river rushes through the park much like a lazy river at a water park, except the water is anything but lazy. We hopped in the freezing water and floated briskly downstream to the spot where we had left our towels and cover-ups.

It felt spectacular after a long hot day. We climbed out and sunned ourselves dry on the banks. Across from us in the FKK area that is designated a nude bathing spot, a naked man was reading a book and writing in his journal. Coincidentally, our rickshaw driver that led us through the park early in the day told us that the locals call the FKK area the "nut meadow." Explanation not necessary, I'm sure.

Anyway, the sun was starting to set and the chill in the area sent us running for a nearby cantina, where we stuffed ourselves with fajitas with guacamole and bean mousse.

So much for having an authentic German dinner. I can't help that I don't like to drink beer, either.

Day 3 to the Austrian countryside

We checked out of the hotel in the morning and left our baggage at the train station. We were headed to the countryside, where we planned to tour the Schellenburg Ice Cave. Together with Lanthy and Rad (As Seen on TV), we hopped on Bus #25, which dropped us at the cable car that would take us to the top of a mountain on which we would have to hike a few hours. But the woman behind the counter told us the trek would be dangerous without the proper footwear. Three of us didn't make the cut, so we quickly scrambled for a Plan B.

Luckily, there are several challenge options from which to choose; and we were soon on our way to the town of Hallein, where we planned to do three challenges that were all located fairly close to each other: summer tobbagoning, salt mines and the Celtic Village.

Yes, we were still bummed out that we couldn't go to the ice cave, but quickly entertained ourselves on the ski slope. The goal was to get the faster time on the tobbagon run than any other team doing the challenge and we had to video the whole thing to prove it.

Lanthy, Sheila and I all had technical difficulties on the way down. I accidently hit the button, which caused the video to stop. Same story for the other two. So, we went again. This time, Lanthy and Rad got stuck behind slow-going kids, and in turn, caused us to slow down, too. So, we had to go a third time. This time, we FLEW. I can't recall one time that I put on the brake.

But it was Sheila that got the fastest time, which she attributed to her aerodynamism. She had crouched down really low.

Exhilarated, we headed down to our next challenge: the Hallein Salt Mine, producing what was once considered white gold. For one of our challenges, we had to recruit four tourists for a fashion show using the stunning white uniforms given to us before the tour. No one else spoke English, except our guide, who enthusiastically helped us with our homework. Before we ascended from the mine, she announced that we were going to do a fashion show and a German family taking a weekend holiday stepped up.

Wolf Dietrich von Ratineau, the lord of the saltmine, once commented, "If it's on fire, let it burn." Our fashion show was infernal. The pieces will be sold under the brand name "House of Brine." Keep on the lookout.

Already on day three, we'd gone to incredible heights and equally incredible lows, but our last challenge remained at ground level. We just had to film a couple facts about the Celtic Village. As we discovered, the village was economically self sufficient thanks to the mine. Plus, they only could work during the winter. Sounds like the good life.

Speaking of the good life, Sheila and I recaptured the lead after day three, despite losing timee after being turned away from the ice cave.

Downtime in Salzburg!

One of the advantages of rushing through our challenges in Salzburg is that we had a lot more free time to do other things. The first priority was to eat.
The hotel clerk recommended the oldest restaurant in Europe called Stiftskeller St. Peter. Even though I was hoping for a quick, hearty meal so I could get to bed, Sheila convinced me that we should go. It was worth it.

According to Fodors: "Legends swirl about the famous St. Peter's Beer Cellar. Locals claim that Mephistopheles met Faust here, others say Charlemagne dined here, and some believe Columbus enjoyed a glass of its famous Salzburg Stiegl beer just before he set sail for America in 1492."

We ordered weinerschnitzel and a bottle of wine, enjoying our meal in a 1,200-year-old building. The original part of the restaurant was carved out of the side of the rock cliff on which the Salzburg Fortress sits.

The walls originally had ox blood-stained walls, but that is no longer thet case. The wait staff happily explained the history of the restuarant in between courses.

At the end of the evening, we strolled along the river back to our restaurant taking in the nighttime skyline.

It was a wonderful ending to a hectic day.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Day 5 Munich part 2

Spontaneity is our middle name. That was the theme today. We changed our plan at a moment's notice. Originally we planned to do challenges at the Nymphenburg Castle (where the German Hugh Hefner once lived) and a bike tour of the city.

By morning, everything had changed totally. We opted to join the group heading to the Olympic Stadium to walk along the outside rim of the field's roof (similar to the Sydney Bridge Climb). The way down was a zip line across the stadium.

Sheila conquered her fear of heights instantly as she soared along the tethered wire. I could hear her screaming all the away across. And then the infectious laughter soon followed.

After the fun was over, we had to get our heads back into the game. We decided against going to the castle and opted to visit the BMW Museum that was located adjacent to the Olympic Stadium instead. We didn't think a lot of people were going to do it and we were going to rock our A-Game for sure.

We stopped for a break and began brainstorming some ideas while we grabbed a bite to eat in front of a huge showroom of BMWs. Sheila befriended the man at the front desk and barraged him with thousands of questions and within 20 minutes we had our plan. We filmed our challenges and then headed to the gift shop, where we both bought souvenirs. However, the souvenir Chris wanted me to buy wouldn't have fit in my carry-on luggage.

The last challenge was the mosot interesting to research. It's a bit odd to approach strangers to ask where the famous toilets are! Several people just gave us odd looks, and finally, a clerk at the BMW shop said he knew what we were talking about and off we went.

On the way, we decided to develop lyrics to sing the praises of the fancy toilets, which paid off because we weren't allowed to film inside. Now it's up to the hands of fate to see iif we can maintain our lead.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Detour to Salzburg

From Geneva, we flew to Munich, Germany,but surprise! We were handed train tickets to Salzburg, Austria, the birthplace of Mozart the famous composer.

Sheila and I plotted our strategy on the train, coming up with new lyrics for the tune "16 going on 17" from the "Sound of Music" for one of the day's challenges. We were going to have that ready when we got to the Hellbrun Palace, where scenes from the musical was filmed.

Rolling into Salzburg, we crossed a river with steep cliffs on one side. At the top of the cliff, the imposing Salzburg Fortress stood guard over the town. As we learned during a tour of the structure that day, it had near been impenetrated or damaged, However, there was one small nick that occurred during a peasant revolt. We had to search the entire fortress to find it. We thought it would take forever, but we finally found someone who knew where it was and she told us the story behind it.

Then we rushed off to Hellbrun Palace to sing our song, as well as do a few other challenges. The highlight was a tour of the Trick Fountains that catch unsuspecting tourists unawares. We knew what to expect, so whenever we saw a lot of water on the ground, we figured that was an area to avoid. But, we still got wet a few times nonetheless.

We rushed through our challenges to save some time, but we both realized that was a mistake. We should have taken more time to enjoy these historic sites, but we were chasing points. And it hurt us in the end. We dropped to second place on the second day with an abysmal score.

Despite the bad scores, one video stood out among the rest and the judges made special note of it. Our "16 going on 17" rendition knocked their socks off: You can tell these two have amazing chemistry. They are having a great time and it shows.

"That to me was a huge compliment," says Sheila, "and it reflected how I feel."