Stockholm’s Archipelago


Archipelago – ar·chi·pel·a·go. noun \ˌär-kə-ˈpe-lə-ˌgō,

  1. An expanse of water with many scattered islands
  2. group of islands


There aren’t that many true archipelagos; Stockholm’s archipelago is the real deal.  It has more than 30,000 islands!  I guess it’s not all the surprising.  Stockholm itself is made up of 14 islands that are connected by 50 bridges on Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea.  It’s definitely a maritime city.  When we visited in March, I took a boat tour of the area, but it was too cold to really enjoy the outer islands in the Baltic.


For Stockholm’s residents, the archipelago is a easy escape and their holiday retreat.  There’s an island for everyone.  Partiers, those looking for peace and quiet, sunbathers, woodsy hikers, campers, B&Bers, luxury hotel lovers…there’s an island for everyone. The archipelago is easily accessible via ferry.  There are two main ferry companies.  One with larger, faster boats (Cinderella Båtarna), the other (Waxholmsbolaget) with charming smaller boats that make it feel less like a commute and more like a pleasure cruise.


We took the Waxholmsbolaget boat to Vaxholm.  The journey was half the fun.  The boats are adorable with wood interiors and brass details.  It’s the perfect place for a picnic.  We sat outside and watched the hustle and bustle recede.  I was worried about not hearing our stop.  The boat docks, people disembark and it pulls away with remarkable speed.  I shouldn’t have been, locals (who all speak great English) volunteered to let us know when we got close.


The Cinderella boat back was larger and a bit faster, but didn’t have quite the charm.  My advice, take either one.  You can’t go wrong.


Stockholm’s archipelago is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It consists of 20,000-50,000 islands off the coast of Sweden that offer a buffer to the Baltic Sea.  “Skärgården,” as the area is known to the Swedes, was formed by glaciers that carved out and deposited granite that protrudes from the water.  As a result, it is full of reefs and shallows The islands get progressively less rocky, sandier and smaller with fewer trees the further you get from Stockholm.


Vaxholm  is an idyllic archipelago town with well-preserved wooden villas from the turn of the 19th century.  Everything about it says cottage cute. It has nice restaurants (especially if you like fresh fish), a wonderful bakery, charming cafés, and way cooler shopping than your average resort town.  I wanted to decorate with and wear things from just about every shop.

DSC_0234DSC_0247DSC_0232Although you can rent bikes, we spent an afternoon doing a big walking tour of the area.  There are plenty of trails, sidewalks and quiet streets.  We tried to get away from the business district to get a look at how people live there.  Even without the cute shops, restaurants and hotels, it was very picturesque.  I loved the brightly colored houses and cute gardens.  We saw backyard meals, people walking their dogs, mowing their lawns and cleaning out their garages.


The have a decent sized marina and with the essential nearby farm stand and ice-cream stand.  Across the narrow strait is the historic Vaxholm Fortress.  From the shore, you can see several small islands with adorable but solitary houses and a dock.  Vauxholm is the last easily accessible place in the archipelago by car from Stockholm and is even accessible by bus.  In fact, it is the most populated archipelago town and people live there year-round.  Tiger Wood’s ex-wife Elin Nordegren grew up there.  Don’t worry through, there’s no hustle and bustle, it’s perfectly tranquil.



Scams, Part Deux


My favorite guys (not really), scammers, are out on the streets in Paris.  Although I previously wrote about scams and shell games, they abound and I have new photos.  Notice how they walk away in one of the pictures, that is because a cop had just walked into view.  Thieves, fraudsters, crooks, hucksters and n’eerdowell’s abound and there’s no way I could cover it all in my previous posts.  Here are some more scams you should be aware of.

Crowded trains/trams/busses provide abundant opportunities for pickpockets (beware on Geneva‘s public transport).  Pay attention.  Keep your hands on your bag.  Don’t put your wallet in your back pocket.  Pay attention to other passengers bumping and knocking into you.


In a crowded train heist (common in Italy), dozens of future passengers squeeze their way into the train car, bus or tram a few minutes before departure. They exit just before the doors close and it departs, taking valuables with them.

See newspapers not only as a source of news, but as a handy screen.   I had a friend lose an iPhone to a nice old gentleman with a newspaper at a coffee bar.  Thieves don’t have to be old.  Beware of children (or anyone) waving a newspaper in your face.  It doesn’t have to be a newspaper.  If someone’s invading your personal space, you’re distracted.  It’s then really easy for a partner to come swipe your valuables.  Pay attention!


Guys are suckers for pretty women.  Friends of mine are no exception.  They would strongly advise you to beware of pretty girls, especially those who invite you to meet them at a bar for a drink or suggest a restaurant.  Sometimes, they disappear and you get left with an insane bill.  The owners of the establishment are not usually open to discussion or negotiation.  You were warned.

I’ve always been afraid that someone will walk away with my camera.  It’s part of the reason you don’t see many pictures of the two of us together.  It turns out that I’ve got something else to worry about.  Sometimes those offering to pose with you in the cool period costume will have a partner willing to snap the picture.  They then hold your camera for ransom until you’ve paid for the most expensive picture of your life.   I’ll settle for cropping his fingers out of the picture like in the photo above.


If something seems to good to be true, it is.  Don’t be a sucker.  If a taxi, rickshaw or any other mode of transport driver takes you to a store where the leather, jewelry, watches are priced low, there is a reason.

While we’re on the subject of cabbies, beware of inflated fares.  Check with your hotel to make sure your destination is open to avoid the it’s closed, but I know a better one just down the road problem.  You could also make them take you there to prove it.  Look for a license (if possible), otherwise, it’s just like hitchhiking with a price tag.

While not really a scam, I hate being taken or paying more than I have to.  In markets, stall/shop owners will frequently ask where you’re from.  They don’t do this because they want to make friends with you or just to get you to linger over their goods.  They are working out how much to charge you.  Obviously, if you come from a wealthy countries like the US, they think you have more money to spend.   Be careful with your answer, give and obscure/evasive answer.


Navigating Paris Museums in a Wheelchair


My dad came to visit.  He traveled all the way to Europe and was bound and determined to see things.  Unfortunately, dad’s knee is bone on bone.  He can walk, but needs knee surgery soon and can’t spend much time on his feet or move too quickly.  The only way to get him around museums was renting a folding wheelchair (chaise roulette).  Museums often have ones you can borrow for free.    It was lightweight and made it possible for him to see a lot.  The highlight of being in a wheelchair was a front row seat to the Mona Lisa at Paris’ Louvre Museum.


Unfortunately, the Louvre museum was once a palace and is not as handicapped friendly as we’d hoped.  Wheelchair ramps were sorely lacking.  It was pretty obvious that it is hard to retrofit museums with elevators/lifts at convenient spots.  The Musée d’Orsay (a bit of a nightmare) and the Hôtel National des Invalides Army Museum weren’t easy to navigate either.  Fortunately, they had some pretty cool stuff to make any the frustration well worth it.


Check out all the in the stairs in these pictures.  While the retrofit of an old train station is pretty cool and well done, all the stairs make some corners virtually inaccessible.


Even when they had a wheelchair lift, we had to go in search of personnel to operate the lift.  This often took 20 minutes or so.  While all of this was a bit of an inconvenience, it (more or less) worked and my dad was blown away by what he saw.  So were we.


On another note, it made us appreciate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and how accessible things are in the US.

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Oh Champs Elysées


Paris’ grand boulevard the Champs Elysées runs from the Oblisque at the end of the Jardin des Tulleries to the Arc de Triomphe.  It’s France’s most famous street and part of the national identity.  Every French person knows it.  Many of France’s national events unfold there.  Most high school French students in the US learn the song about it, “Aux Champs Elysées.”   Unbelievably, I can still sing it.


Bastille Day (France’s national day that commemorates the July 14 storming of the Bastille) parades take place there.  The Tour de France concludes with circuits up and down it.   Cyclists sprint up and down  the storied boulevard lined with bleachers chasing a stage win.  When Greg LeMond won the Tour de France in 1989, he did it by outsprinting the sprinters and the great time trialist Laurent Fignon to win the last stage on the Champs Elysées and the time bonus.  He won by 8 seconds.  Epic.  Although I’m a bit fixated on the Tour de France, New Year’s and many other festivities take place there.


The boulevard is ancient, created in 1667 by Louis XIV as an extension of the Tuileries Gardens. It became a fashionable spot to see and be seen.   The Champs Elysees connects the Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre, which used to be a palace (and not a famous museum).   The Rond-Point (traffic circle) at the end is usually decorated for the season.  Beyond that, the Place de La Concorde contains an Obelisk of Luxor a gift from Egypt in the 1830’s.  It was formerly called the Place de la Revolution because a guillotine used to stand where the Obelisk does now.   Over a thousand people were guillotined there including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.



This famous statue of Charles de Gaulle stands near the Champs Elysées in front of the Grand Palais. After the liberation of Paris, on August 26, 1944, de Gaulle paraded up and down the Champs Elysées.  Later, he established the post-war government.


Today, the boulevard is home to hotels, shops, movie theaters, cafes and even fast food restaurants.   On a side note, McDonald’s is killing it in France and the rest of Europe.  But I digress… Yes, Vincent did not lie in Pulp Fiction.  “You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in France?” They don’t call it the quarter pounder because of the metric system.  Last century, there were fewer fast food restaurants and more cafes.  Elvis probably wasn’t there either…


Don’t worry.  There’s still some high end shopping left.  There’s even one of the world’s largest Sephora stores.  However, if you are really in Paris to shop you’ll probably want to hit up Paris’ neighborhood boutiques and historic shopping arcades for the best stuff.  If you want to get some high end luggage for your purchases, I think the guys below (Louis Vitton) might be able to help you out.  Balenciaga, Berluti, Céline, Chanel, Christian Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Guiseppi Zanotti, Guerlain, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Jimmy Choo, Maison de Baccarat, Marni, Nina Ricci, Petit Bateau and Prada all have shops there.

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If all this weren’t enough, the boulevard is lined with my favorite trees from Geneva, Plane Trees.


Notre Dame (The One In Paris, Not The One We Beat In Football)


Notre Dame is a huge Gothic masterpiece.  Built in the middle ages (construction started in 1163), it has seen a lot.  It survived the French Revolution, allegedly housed the Crown of Thorns, saw many coronations including Napoleons and inspired Victor Hugo‘s story of a hunchbacked bell-ringer (Quasimodo), The Hunchback of Notre Dame.


Construction began in 12th century.  Two centuries passed before it was competed in 1345, spanning almost the entire Gothic period.  At the time, it was an engineering feat; it was one of the world’s first buildings to use “flying buttress” (the support arches attached to the exterior at the garden end of the cathedral that help support the weight of the enormous roof).


The church is known for its size.  It is massive and can hold 6000.  It is also known for its large stained glass rose window.  Like an idiot, I used to look for pink in rose windows.  It was awhile before I learned that rose window is a generic term applied to the large circular windows, particularly those found in Gothic churches.  They are divided into segments by stone mullions and tracery, the color pink is in no way a prerequisite.  Go figure.



I was especially smitten with the hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of humorous gargoyles.  The rooftop has amazing views of the city, but we were with older family who couldn’t make the trip up the stairs.  Please feel free to comment and tell us what we missed.

War Memorials On Armistice Day, Also Known As Veteran’s Day

We’ve done our fair share of traveling in France lately.  We’ve noticed virtually every town there has monuments to local citizens who died in service of their country.  The lists of names, often including those deported and killed locally, are a touching remembrance.

Veterans Day annually falls on November 11, but to make it a bank holiday/federal holiday it is observed on Monday, November 12 in the United States .   Why November 11?   On November 11, 1918, the armistice ending World War I was signed.   On that day, hostilities between the Allied countries and Germany officially ended.  Germany

Technical innovations like the machine gun, poison gas, tanks, and aircraft appeared in battle for the first time in World War I.  Scientific advances and industrialization joined to create enormous death tolls.  Germany lost 1,800,000; the Soviet Union lost 1,700,000; France lost 1,385,000; Austria lost 1,200,000;  Great Britain lost 947,000.  While that may seem small in comparison to some of the other countries listed, about 1/3 of Great Britain’s male population died in The Great War!   Extrapolating, it’s difficult to imagine the devastating effects on  experienced by some of the other countries listed, especially those who had the war fought on their soil.

Although we haven’t seen quite as many such monuments in Germany, we did see a few there too.  We came across the one below in Bad Munster, near Bad Kreuznach in Germany.

After WWII, the holiday was expanded to remember those who served in that war.  In the US, we’ve had a significant number of wars over the last century  Veterans Day honors and thanks veterans for their service to their country.

War requires sacrifices and troops bear more of them than most.  It is important to remember those sacrifices and the people who made them.  War isn’t a triviality.  It’s important to remember that it carries with it a human cost.  Whether you call it Armistice Day or Veterans Day, it is a time to remember the price paid, the sacrifices of those that have served and honor those that did.

Not Just A Ghost In The Machine – European Vending Machines

This post comes with a warning for Americans (and any other country that doesn’t display items many Americans would feel are more mature or private in public spaces).  Warning – While I took these pictures in the middle of a train station in Switzerland, but in the US (and probably other places) people consider these items to be more of an adult or private nature.


We’ve noticed that vending machines in Europe contain some things that are um, well, a bit different than what you would see in American vending machines (or at least the ones not found in truck stops).  Take a look below and see for yourself.

Yes, that is C-ICE, “Swiss Cannabis Ice Tea,” located above.  It is made from black tea hemp bloom syrup (5%), and hemp bloom extract (0.0015%) that will allegedly give you a “fantastic natural feeling.”  It allegedly has low levels of THC, but appears to be marketed more as a health drink.  We didn’t try it, but the Top Gear guys did when they visited Romania.

Please note that the pack of lighters (above) is located adjacent to a kid’s candy bar. Also for kids is Buffalo Jr., a children’s energy drink.  It doesn’t contain either Taurine or caffeine and is marketed as providing “an additional supply of energy producing L-Carnitine needed for an active life.”

What is a Ch’ti?

Most Americans have never heard of “Ch’ti.”  Every Frenchman and woman knows.  Most of the French speaking moviegoing public knows.  Why?  The highest grossing French film of all time is “Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis” which loosely translates to “Welcome to the Home of the Ch’tis.”

Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis

Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A  is someone from northeastern France,  the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region in particular.  The inhabitants are French and speak French, their regional dialect is heavily influenced by the local language Picard (a Romance language closely related to French traditionally spoken by people in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy areas of France and the Walloon part of Belgium).  As a result, their pronunciation is slightly different from the rest of France and the local slang draws heavily from Picard.   These differences were played upon to great effect in the film, with several sorts of Abbott & CostelloWho’s On First” type of interactions.

Area of the picard language

Area of the picard language (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Picard, “ch’ti” is local parlance for the language.  In southern France, they are referred to as “cheutimi.”  Ch’ti refers to both the language and people who hail from that part of France.  Now that you know what it is, we can move on to pronunciation.   It sounds like, well, um….

enseigne de café en picard, Cayeux-sur-mer (Somme)

enseigne de café en picard, Cayeux-sur-mer (Somme) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This area is stereotyped as a remount unsophisticated, cold,  and rainy place.  It’s inhabitants had traditionally been stereotyped as: alcoholic, uneducated yokel who eats disgusting (to the French palate) food, and speaks an incomprehensible version of French (which may be an unpardonable sin in France).  The genius of the film is that it exploits these stereotypes and debunks them in such a hilarious way.

Spoiler alert – the main character ends up falling in love with the area’s friendly, unpretentious, helpful inhabitants and is able to see past the grey skies to appreciate the rich local culture.  Outsiders tend to think of other countries cultures as homogenous, when they can be incredibly diverse.   It’s a good reminder that France’s culture differs dramatically within the country.  Think about the differences between New York City, New Orleans and Salt Lake City for example.

One final thought, there’s a line in the movies that says it could be worse, you could have to go to Belgium.  Anyone that reads this blog knows my love for Belgium.  If it is better than that, it must be heavenly.

Don’t Let The Cows Out!

In the US, we have a strong tradition of property rights.  In theory, every man (and woman) is the king (or queen) of his castle (or trailer) and can do what they want with their land, including barring others from trespassing.  Other countries, like Switzerland, have a different take.  There, landowners are regarded more as stewards of the people’s land.  As a result, Switzerland’s hiking trails (known as WanderwegTourisme Pédestre, and Sentiero Escursionistic in German, French and Italian respectively), cross through people’s property.  With around 60,000 km/37,282 miles of in such a small country, how could they not?

Yellow diamonds mark hiking routes (some cultural trails, old pilgrims’ roads, etc. have brown signposts).  When we first arrived in Switzerland, we weren’t sure whether we would get in trouble for following the trails.  They lead through people’s pastures, woods and yards.  We even followed one right through the middle of someone’s barn!

I know, for an American who grows up with “get off my land,” this is a hard concept to wrap your head around. Farmers receive significant benefits from the government so they don’t seem to mind to much.  If the Swiss government made me a steward of the land and defrayed the cost of my insanely beautiful mountain views, I wouldn’t mind hikers either… as long as they didn’t let my cows loose.

We’ve never seen so many types of cow barriers – and he grew up on a farm!  Amazed by the variety, I started taking pictures of them.  Who knew there were so many different ways to keep cows in?

Note the little ladder for people to walk over on the right side in the photo above. Genius.  Not that it couldn’t be improved by a railing.  Solar powered cow fences like the one below are pretty common.  Now I’ve seen everything.

Some fences are a little more old school.  I like how they wrote “please close the door” in Sharpie (in German) on the gate post.

Whatever you do, be careful, when taking pictures.  Don’t back up into one of these bad boys or you are in for a nasty shock.   Take my word for it.

You see some good old-fashioned American-style barbed wire too.  It’s not good to back up into either.  You’d think I’d learn, but with views like these, it’s easy to be distracted.

The turnstiles are pretty cool, kind of like getting on the subway.   You see, in Switzerland, they take their cows pretty seriously.  If you have tasted their dairy, you know why.  In fact, it was just in the news last week that dairy farmers in Switzerland are field-testing a new device that allows cows to send texts to show they are, um, feeling frisky.  Yep.  You read that correctly.   Some Swiss cows are have sensors that gauge their readiness to mate and sends their owner a text message when they’re in heat.

Whatever you do, just be sure to close the gate and don’t let the cows out!  Who knows what kind of trouble they could get up to?

Reims Cathedral, It’s History Has More Drama Than A Telenovela

When I visited Champagne, I had to stop by and see the cathedral in Reims.  I’d heard so much about it and had to see it in person.  Yeah, from a distance, it might look a lot like many other French cathedrals, but this one is different.  It’s beautiful, light and airy, but that’s only scratching the surface.  It’s fascinating because of its dramatic history.

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims is considered by many to be the world’s most perfect Gothic church.   Located in eastern France (an hour or so away from the WWI battlefield of Verdun),  it was almost completely destroyed during the First World War.    On September 19-20, 1914, 25 German shells struck the cathedral which then caught on fire, causing massive damage.  It became known as  the “Martyred Cathedral” a symbol of destruction during the Great War and brought out strong emotions in the French.  Strong emotions are an understatement.  Several injured German prisoners found refuge in the cathedral but were killed outraged French.

In 1924, billionaire American John D. Rockefeller, gave money to restore the cathedral.  Fabulously wealthy Andrew Carnegie kicked in some money too.    Today, it’s mostly restored, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and definitely worth the few million they poured into it.

Reims has been a town since Roman times. In 498, Clovis was baptized as the first Catholic French king at the church.  This was a big deal.  If you don’t believe me, Pope John Paul II visited for the 1500th anniversary of the event.  I can pretty much guarantee that no world leader will mark the 1500th anniversary of anything I have done or anywhere I have been.  Monkey see, monkey do.  All the cool kings wanted to do it like Clovis did and it became the site for coronations of French kings (until the revolution).   Joan of Arc famously knelt in front of Charles VII when he was crowned King of France there.  Today, they have a Gallery of Kings, statues of the famous kings who were crowned there.

Here Saint Remy Baptized Clovis King of France

In 1211, when the existing church burned down, the built a bigger better one on the site of an earlier church (just like Geneva’s Cathedral St. Pierre).  Part of what makes Reims Cathedral such an amazing building is the amount of light inside (particularly in comparison with others constructed around the same time).  The architects designed the windows so that they would let in as much light as possible.

Notre-Dame de Reims did not escape the French Revolution unscathed. Fleur-de-lys and clovers were removed because they had been symbols of the monarchy.   They were replaced during the restoration.  Thanks Mr. Rockefeller.

Large circular windows at the ends of the cathedrals are known as the “Rose Window.”  It took me a few cathedrals to figure that one out.  Luckily, we’ve seen a few this year (Toledo, Milan). The church is known throughout France for its impressive stained glass windows.  During the restoration, some more contemporary have been used.  I like the one depicting Champagne making from the 1950’s.  Who would have thought church windows would depict hooch? The windows designed by Marc Chagall from the 1970’s (above) were my favorites because they were ethereal and dreamy.  You wouldn’t expect something so massive to look so light.   They plan on continuing with the different windows, making it interesting to for visitors compare and contrast the different styles.

By the way, if you go there, hunt out the “Smiling Angel” (also known as  “Smile of Reims”  and “L’Ange au Sourire”).  Decapitated by a burning beam in 1914,, during the fire of September 19, 1914 it the destruction and then with the restoration of the city.