Roman Whirlwind

When Lance offered to take me to Rome for 24 hours, I couldn’t say no, even though I knew it wouldn’t be enough time to explore this beautiful city. It kind of felt like speed dating. We zipped around the core part of the city as quickly as our feet could take us. We visited the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, and the Roman Coliseum just long enough to make a first impression and then we were on to the next “must see” sight. We sampled the gelato and the pizza and enjoyed a fantastic dinner on the roof of a hotel with an amazing view of the city and then took a late night walk through Vatican City. The best part of wandering around cities after 10 pm is you miss all the crowds. The whole experience was beautiful and I certainly need to visit again with more time to explore.

On the morning of the second day, Lance headed off to his meeting and I had a few hours before going to the airport. I wanted to wander around by myself for a bit. We stayed at an irooms hotel which is very interesting if you ever get a chance to try one. It was located in a residential building with other flats so it was much like a contemporary apartment. As I headed downstairs I was greeted by an Italian woman who immediately started a conversation with me. I nicely apologized and told her I only spoke English, but she did not seem to mind and continued full speed ahead with her conversation in Italian. I think she lived in the building and was bothered that someone left the main door to the street ajar. She smiled and waved her hands pointing toward the door and then to the stairs. I just kept smiling and nodding. Eventually she patted me on the arm and said, “Ciao,” to which I kindly replied, “Ciao,” and I headed out the door, carefully closing it behind me. The hotel had an agreement with the little café across the street to provide breakfast to it customers, so I stopped in for a yummy croissant and cappuccino. Why do these taste better in Italy that any where else? I sat for a while and watched the locals come in for their morning coffee. A group of people would step up to the bar ordering a cappuccino. They would sip/gulp it down in four or five mouthfuls and then be on their way out the door – no sitting, not too much chatting, no to-go cups, and no fancy foam or flavoured syrup. Just some good caffeine to get you going on your way to work.

I wandered toward the square nearby as shops started to open and people flooded down the little streets heading to their busy days. This particular square had a significantly sized church on each corner. I know this is Rome, but the sheer number of ancient and ornate Catholic churches just really surprised me. On some streets you’ll find one on each block. Each was beautiful. Some in much better condition than others.

I took quite a few photos but promised myself I would not bore you with more pictures of the Coliseum, Spanish Steps or the Trevi Fountain. So here are a few views of Rome that perhaps you have not seen. And if you ever want to visit for 24 hours, let me know, I’ll go with.

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Sachsenhausen Memorial

When visiting Germany, deciding whether or not to visit a concentration camp is an emotional decision. We didn’t want to overwhelm ourselves or the kids, but felt is was a very important part of history that should not be ignored. I just really did not want to spend the entire tour with tears running down my face. It’s hard to avoid with such an emotional subject.

We decided to visit Sachsenhausen. It is the closest to Berlin and perhaps the most gentle in its presentation – if that’s actually possible.

We set off on the train and headed about an hour east of Berlin. The trees were dense and beautifully green along side the tracks. The houses we could see were cute and well taken care of. We were travelling deeper into the former East Germany. The very last stop on the train line was ours in a little village called Oranienburg. It was cute and quaint and from what we learned the residents did not really know what was happening in their midst.

Sachesnhausen camp was built in 1936 as a prototype. It was carefully designed for ultimate security and psychological stress of the prisoners. The camp was surrounded on one side by many miles of open forest and on the others by the housing built especially for the SS guards and their families. There were multiple layers of walls, electric fences and barbed wire. As we now know prisoners were starved and worked to death so their ability to escape or even think about anything other than staying alive was limited. The camp was built to house only men and imprisoned more than 200,000 people from 1936-1945. It was a labor camp but did have extermination facilities and a crematorium. Initially it held political prisoners and overflow population from Berlin prisons. When Hitler started his campaign against the Jews the camp was expanded to house an additional 6000 Jewish men.

Our tour guide was a young woman from London who had relocated to Berlin two years ago. She told us if we needed to step away from the group, take a break or avoid certain areas of the camp we could do so. She acknowledged that it was a difficult tour and understood that everyone is affected in a different way.

After WWII the camp was used by the Soviets to house political prisoners for five years. Then is was just ignored and most of the buildings fell to waste. Today the footprint of original buildings is outlined on the ground and a few have been rebuilt as examples. The most solemn spot was the location of the crematorium. Although the building was 90% gone, the brick bases of the ovens were still present as well as the original steel doors swinging on their hinges.

It was a long and exhausting day. We did take a few pictures, but not many. It certainly did not feel like a place we wanted to vividly remember, yet it is a place we can not forget.

Entrance Building

Entrance Building

Sign in front of the electric fence.

Sign in front of the electric fence.

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Relief Map of the Camp


Bunk Room in Barracks

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A City Reborn

Berlin is not a city that has always been on the “must visit” list. For much of our lives half of the city was closed off to Westerners, so we couldn’t visit even if we wanted to. Twelve years under Hitler’s grasp and another 45 under Soviet control, with 28 as a city divided by a wall, made it less than a nice place to travel to. But now living this close, only an hour and 20 minute flight from London, it became a place that was important to see, explore and experience. We knew this would not be a relaxing vacation, but more of an educational and life experience.



Berlin is missing many of the beautiful old buildings and churches of other European cities, but it has a story that few other cities in the world can tell. After years of war, destruction and neglect, it has spent the last 20 years rebuilding. In fact, it was difficult for us to take pictures without a multitude of construction cranes in the background.

Berlin had taken full advantage of its life experience. Germany as a whole has made a conscience effort not to hide its past, not to have secrets anymore. Evidence of Hitler’s rule and the Soviet occupation are still visible and they don’t intend to remove these signs of their history. 032The TV tower, one of the best know icons of Berlin, was built under Soviet control and is still featured on many souvenir items. The city has also created a booming tourist business for curious visitors wondering what life was like as a divided city. Checkpoint Charlie, the passage way from the American sector of the city to East Germany, was removed when the wall fell. It has now been recreated as a tourist attraction with fake American soldiers that you can take your photo with … for a small fee. The city is filled with museums focusing on all aspects of life as a divided city. It also has a vibrant art and music scene with many beautiful art museums.


Public transportation in the city is very good, and we quickly mastered both the bus and the rail system to get around. It’s a safe city and walking everywhere is not a problem. High end shops, good restaurants and outdoor cafes are everywhere. The bus is a great spot to observe and listen to get a good feel for the people of a city. I like sitting quietly and listening to the multitude of languages spoken. It’s also a treat to watch moms and dads with their little ones and to hear young little voices speaking languages I do not know. Everywhere we went the people looked busy, happy and friendly.

We did stop and think about the journey of their lives. If we were born in East Berlin, our lives would have started under Soviet rule with our parents growing up during Hitler’s era. All of our education would have focused on life under a Communist government, learning about the teachings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. We would have been encouraged to avoid our religious faith and all of our thoughts to the future would have included staying right in East Berlin forever. We would not have known what life was before the division. 034Then suddenly, in our 20s, when you think you know who you are and you have your future planned, we would be told that we are free to move about the rest of Germany, and the rest of the world. We would be exposed to thought, technology and places that we never knew existed or that we had been misinformed about. We would be free to set our own goals and dream beyond what the government told us was possible. It seems to me a shocking life. Luckily for East Germany, their countrymen in West Germany were there to welcome them and nurture them through this incredible transition process. For many people, throughout previously Communist countries, this has been a very difficult transition and many choose to live their lives as they have always been accustomed. The older and younger generations sometimes struggle to understand each other.

199“The Wall” is such an attraction in Berlin. There is not much of it still standing. The largest section has been transformed into an outdoor art gallery. We struggled trying to figure out just how the wall divided the city. It seems very haphazard. Where the wall has been removed, it has been replaced by cobblestone pavers so you still see a ribbon winding around the city. In some places the wall ran along the river, or right alongside a building. In other spots it ran down the middle of a sidewalk and then suddenly cut directly across the street to the other side.

To walk in a place that years ago we never thought we would visit was a great experience. Berlin has beautiful parks, plazas and monuments and there is a beautiful river/canal systems running throughout. They are working toward a prosperous future and we can only look forward to what the next 20 years of freedom will bring.



Walking through the Holocaust Memorial

Sunday Markets

Does this interesting bird look familiar? I blogged about it back in November when I visited East London and toured a few outdoor market areas. It was a weekday morning and all was quiet. Restaurants were hosing down the sidewalks and the neighbourhood was mostly empty.


We finally returned on a Sunday this month when London is filled with many markets all over the city. We visited both Spitalfields and Brick Lane and have already learned about several more we’d like to explore. Some are small farmer’s markets offering fresh fruits and veggies and maybe fresh bread in a few booths. Others are enormous markets filled with flowers, custom and vintage clothes, all kinds of hot food, 009 jewelery, antiques, etc., etc. Both the famous and want-to-be famous are peddling their goods in London markets. If you are just a bit creative, love good food, or are looking for something original, you will love exploring the markets. Of course, if the sun is out, they are just unbeatable.




As you can see by our photos, the crowds were out! Yes, that street is packed with people all the way to the back of the photograph.



Down the Tube

This year is the 150th anniversary of the London Underground Rail, affectionately know as the tube. I went on a short and sweet tour with Mark Mason who authored the book Walk the Lines. He walked all 249 miles of tube lines writing about the history of each line and the streets and neighborhoods they travel through. He is one of those people who is filled with all kinds of trivia, some interesting and some just weird.

The first part of the Underground was open in 1863 and was only 15 feet below street level. At that time they used steam trains and ventilation had to be provided for the steam to escape. Newer lines are often 60-70 feet below ground and in some areas where the lines travel beneath buildings, their depth can be greater. Bank Station in central London is 134 feet below ground.

underground sign
The British rail system and the tube have been a nice treat for us. It is an efficiently run system and we will miss the convenience when we return to the U.S. The only draw back is the cost. Tickets are not cheap and people who use the tube and the trains to commute each day can spend thousands of dollars each year on transportation. Perhaps when you calculate not buying fuel for a car, it all balances out.

A few interesting facts… Throughout the history of London, the city has endured several bouts of extreme disease where thousands of people have perished. It was customary for large pits to be dug in the country outside the city to bury the large numbers of deceased. These were called plague pits. (Yuck, I know this is a gruesome fact.) These country-side locations are now in the heart of London and as the underground rail expanded they had to try to avoid these pits. There is one located near Harrods and one also in Green Park that was discovered by error as the Underground was being dug through that area … The underground tunnels were also used to shelter people, usually at night, during World War II. For Christmas 1940, London Transport staff distributed over 11,000 toys, presented by America’s Air Raid Relief Fund to children sheltering in stations. By the end of the war there were over 22,000 beds installed in Underground 020 stations … “Mind the Gap” can be heard every time you ride the tube. In some areas the space between the train and the platform can be as much as a foot wide … The longest escalator on the network is 196 feet long … The busiest station in London is Waterloo, which has 57,000 people entering during the three-hour morning peak.

For the anniversary celebration earlier this year, Prince Charles and Camilla rode one ceremonious stop on the underground. Just from one station to another, then they returned to their car. It had been many, many years since either of them had rode the tube. For the rest of us commoners, we wouldn’t want to live without it.

St. George’s Day

We hit 70 degrees today! Yippee! It was the first day since perhaps September when we didn’t need to wear at least a sweatshirt to go outside. It was sunny all day, no clouds, and the warmth felt wonderful. It was also St. George’s Day.

St. George is the patron saint of England and today it is celebrated across the country. Isn’t it amazing to think that a country has a patron saint that everyone can name and is happy to celebrate. I recently watched a game show on TV that asked who were the patron saints of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and all of the contestants knew the answer!

Who was St. George and why is he the patron saint? St. George was a Roman soldier who protested against the torture of Christians and died for his beliefs. The popularity of St. George in England stems from the time of the early Crusades when it is said that the Normans saw him in a vision and were victorious. As the Crusaders returned to England from foreign shores, they brought with them tales of St. George, and his reputation grew. One of the best-known stories about St. George is his fight with a dragon. It is highly unlikely that he ever fought a St. George and dragon dragon, and even more unlikely that he ever actually visited England. Despite this, St. George is known throughout the world as the dragon-slaying patron saint of England. His emblem is a red cross on a white background. It is the flag of England, and part of the British flag. St. George’s emblem was adopted by Richard The Lion Heart and brought to England in the 12th century. The king’s soldiers wore it on their tunics to avoid confusion in battle.

In recent years the popularity of St. George’s Day as been increasing and it soon may be a national holiday. Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, encourages the celebration of St. George’s Day with anything English from Morris dancing and medieval jousting to Punch and Judy shows. A traditional custom on St. George’s day is to wear a red rose. Another custom is to fly the St. George’s Cross flag in some way; pubs in particular can be seen decorated with garlands of St. George’s crosses. It is a day to show pride in being British.

April 23rd is also the birthday and death anniversary of William Shakespeare. I am just filling you up with trivia today!

College Town Visit

We finished up our Easter break with a visit to the town and University of Oxford. It is only about an hour drive from our house and on the way I did a little research on the University. I knew it was structured differently than universities in the U.S. but I didn’t know exactly how. The University of Oxford is made up of 38 colleges – with names like Christ Church, Magdalen, Trinity and Wycliffe – and six private Christian Halls. Each College and Hall is independent and self-governing. They each have their own buildings, and provide classrooms, housing, dining and social activities for their students. They are independent entities united as the University of Oxford. When a student is accepted to Oxford, they can apply to a specific college or they can just asked to be assigned. Some of the colleges are very small and accept fewer than 20 new students each year. Each has their own personality, traditions and style. They offer multiple degrees so you do not need to choose a college solely on your course of study.



When British students take their “A” level exams at the end of their Sixth Form or Secondary School education, they list their university choices in order of preference. A large number of students list Oxford and Cambridge, but only 20% of applicants are accepted.


The town of Oxford is a perfect example of old meets new. Some of the Colleges have been in place since the 1300s, yet the town centre offers all the modern shopping and dining any university student could want. Initially as we wandered the town we noticed the beautiful old architecture, but did not know exactly where the colleges were located. Most of the buildings are imposing stone structures on the outside with interesting thick wood doors. 007 Some of the colleges leave the doors open to welcome visitors and with a peek inside, the beautiful courtyards and gardens are revealed. Near the doors are the coat of arms for the college and sometimes that is the only signage telling you where you are. It has the feel of a secret and protected world.


Most colleges have their own beautiful chapels on their grounds. New College, which was found in 1379, was used as the setting for some of the Harry Potter films.



You will notice in these pictures a rare and beautiful sight – blue sky and sunshine! It was still cold enough to wear a coat, but we enjoyed every minute of the sunshine and quickly realize how much more beautiful everything is without grey clouds above.