Espectacular España: Córdoba

Córdoba, a thousand years ago was considered a “metropolis” of the Islamic world.  It was on par with other Islamic cities, such as Baghdad in its time, with a population of around 500,000 – unheard of in those times.  It was a great cultural, political, financial, and literary center.  Under the Moorish rule, the three big monotheistic religions existed side-by-side:  Christian, Islam, and Judaism.  While Córdoba was under Moorish rule, Abd al-Rahman I, in 784, ordered the Mezquita to be built.  It was the grand mosque of its day, but as centuries went on it grew more grand through additional additions/renovations until the final update could accommodate up to 40,000 people for prayers.  In the 13th century, Spanish Christians in the north became more organized and overtook the Moorish city of Córdoba.  They forced the Moorish people, along with their cultural impact, to evacuate the city (many went further south to Granada as it would remain under Moorish rules for a few more centuries).  The Spanish Christians immediately decided the grand mosque should not be destroyed, but converted to a Catholic Cathedral.

We’re incredibly lucky the Spanish King, Ferdinand III, decided to convert part of the mosque into a Catholic Cathedral instead of razing it to the ground. It’s truly a feat of engineering, an architectural marvel, a masterpiece, a site that takes a minimum of a few hours to digest the wonder of it.  Upon entering the Mezquita you’re immediately floored by the 856+ columns supporting double-arches, in perfect horizontal and diagonal symmetric rows, which support the structure and roof.  The building is a large rectangle and in the center is where the Spanish Catholics decided to remove some columns and insert a more classic style cathedral featuring high arches, skylights, a choir area, an organ, and a pulpit.  You would never even realize the catholic cathedral was there if you stayed along the perimeter of the inside of the Mezquita.  The inside features Islamic artifacts and designs around the edges of the rectangular structure, including a still intact Mihrab as it was nearly 900 years ago.  The two religious building styles juxtaposed against each other is truly a wonder and a sight to behold.  Hubs and I spent two hours in the Mezquita trying as best we could to take it all in.  We took hundreds of photos, but you can’t sum up this place in a series of photos, or even a video.  You have to “feel” it to understand the brevity of its splendor.  I have to say it’s one of the most spiritual places Hubs and I have ever visited.  We were even lucky enough to have witnessed a wedding during our time inside.

If you do make your way to Spain to visit, go for the general admission ticket from one of the automated machines (avoid the evening sound and light private tour – no photos permitted). And, in order to get away from the crowds and tours, go around lunch (Spanish time) or after.

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After the visit to the Mezquita, we roamed over to the roman bridge to take some of the pictures of the city you see in guide books. Córdoba is a quiet town and after seeing the Mezquita all other discoveries were just the icing on the cake.

 

 

 

 

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Espectacular España: Ronda

A few years ago while perusing other traveler blog posts, I came across one about Ronda, Spain. Up to that point, I hadn’t even heard of this little town in the middle of nowhere. The blogger’s pictures of a town perched on a cliff overlooking a gorgeous gorge was all it took for me to put it on the list! We spent one night in this little town just long enough to be able to meander down to see the gorge from below and take in the beauty of one of the largest ‘White Hill’ towns in Spain; it’s all the time you really need there.  A lot of folks actually try to do this as a day trip from Seville or Granada (albeit, a bit rushed). I feel like the more Hubs and I travel, the more we want to take our time in each place and be part of the scenery, instead of only seeing it from behind our cameras.   We’ve been privileged to have enough time to “smell the roses”, but it’s definitely not taken for granted.

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In addition to the gorge, we also learned that Ronda is the birthplace of modern Spanish bullfighting. This town is home to the oldest bullring in Spain. We made it just an hour before it closed, so we practically had the whole place to ourselves to explore. It’s quite amazing to see where the bulls are held and if you looked closely at the inside of the doors, you can see all sorts of horn gouges on the inside of the stall doors.

Side story at the Ronda bullring:  Hubs was off on his own taking a few photos at the horse stables, but needed to put his phone through the window bars to take some photos.  He got a couple, and then ‘oooops!’, he dropped his phone from about 10 feet, down into the horse stable courtyard.  The courtyard was inaccessible by visitors and he had to go ask for help with his broken Spanish, and even had to mime riding a horse to tell them where it was :’-)  He would have used Google translate, but ‘oooops!’ again, he didn’t have his phone.  The staff giggled a bit at his misfortune, but were very nice and helpful to retrieve it.  While we were waiting, one of the horses witnessed what was going on and stuck his tongue out at Hubs, almost laughing at him too.  In the end, Hubs was lucky the phone was in a case and uninjured from fall.

Espectacular España: Granada

Granada means pomegranate in Spanish, sits in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, and is home to the famous Alhambra.  Interesting fact:  Any Spanish word beginning with “Al-” was derived from Arabic, there are at least 4000+ Spanish words contributed from Arabic.  This was our second stop and one of my absolute favorites of our trip. This town had character and grit.  You could tell the Islamic influence was much greater in this city than Sevilla, and it’s something that’s celebrated and adds to the mix of cultures there. In addition, the history and architecture were just as fascinating.

The Alhambra is the last and greatest Moorish palace. It’s also the main attraction visitors from all over the world come to see. Many bloggers and sites strongly advise  you to buy your Alhambra tickets before your plane ticket, so that you have a reservation to plan your trip around the palace.  This place is very popular and permits a limited number of guests per day to preserve the site (~6600). The ticketing system had changed since I purchased our tickets months ago, therefore, you may have to dig a littler deeper into what pre-buying entails. Regardless, I can’t stress this enough- if you are traveling a long way and this is one of your absolute “must-sees”, you better make sure you have tickets, because you might be sorely disappointed if you can’t get in.  If you’ve read my Sevilla post, I also stressed online reservations for other “must-see” sights in that city too – a recurring theme.

Now, let’s talk about the seeing Alhambra.  The palace sits on a hill, which overlooks Granada, as a display of power and oversight when the Sultans ruled.  The grounds include not only the palace, but a fort, Charles V’s palace (built later), and gardens.  Picture it, the year was 1333 (Alhambra completed), mainland Europe was still steeped in the Dark Ages where poverty, ignorance, superstition, and illiteracy reigned supreme.  The Moors (Arabs) in southern Spain, comparatively, brought education, mathematics, philosophy, etc…from Northern Africa.  This part of Europe flourished during this time under Moorish rule.  One of the major themes of the Alhambra palace was the use of water features.  For the Moors, water was the greatest symbol of life.  In the palace there were pools, fountains, and other water features sourced from the mountain springs.  The Moors brought the technological know how of running water.  Everywhere in the palace there was water features and gurgling sounds.  Along with the water features, every inch of the interior walls were carved with intricate geometric designs along with Arabic script.  Where there weren’t carvings, tiles with symmetric geometric designs adorned the walls.  In every room you entered I would look down and see water, look to the walls for carvings, and then the ceilings had hand sculpted stalactites hanging from the ceilings.  The ceilings were beautiful in every room.  It’s hard to describe the inside completely, because if I did this entry would be about five to ten pages long.  Suffice it to say, there’s nothing I’ve ever seen like this, and it really is something you have to see once in your life.

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The Albaicín (or Albayzín) is Spain’s best old Moorish quarter and it’s also a definite must to just wander and get lost through all the narrow and maze-like streets. There’s also the San Nicolas viewpoint which has that iconic breathtaking view of the Alhambra. It’s so picturesque that Hubs and I went twice during our visit. We also found a family owned authentic Moroccan restaurant and it turned out to be one the best meals we had during our entire Spain trip.

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As per Rick Steve’s recommendation, Hubs and I signed up for an olive oil tasting tour. We had a small group of 8 people. The tour started off at the oldest preserved olive oil mill in Spain, that’s now turned into a museum. We then walked around some olive tree groves and came across olive trees that were 500+ years old (one pictured below) – they can produce olives for well over 1000+ years. I didn’t know olive trees could live that long!  There were several nearby in the same age range. Another fun fact is that Spain is the largest producer of olive oil. So, that Italian olive oil that is on your kitchen shelf- it may contain Spanish oil and then topped off with some Italian oil in order to market it as Italian olive oil.  Italy’s olive oil trees were affected by disease several years ago and they’re still not able to keep up with demand. After the tour info and sights, we got to the fun part, the tasting! They had us set up with what official olive oil tasters would use – dark blue glasses with a glass lid on top. Tasting is similar to how you would with wine. Take a sip, let it sit in your mouth, swish it around, and then swallow. The more “peppery” it feels in your throat equals freshness of the oil. I learned a few tricks of how the Spanish use the olive oils and can’t wait to incorporate them into our daily life. I, of course, couldn’t walk away without purchasing several bottles of the ones we liked.  I only wish we had more space in our luggage to bring back more.

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Espectacular España: Sevilla

Hubs and I  just returned from spending 17 days in Spain using the high speed rail and a rental car. Southern Spain has been on my must-see list since we moved to Europe in early 2013, and we’ve actually planned this trip several times in the past few years – only to replace it with another destination for one reason or another. Finally, we made it happen.  We started off by flying into Madrid from Vienna, and then catching a 2.5 hr AVE high-speed train (165mph!) a few hours later to Sevilla – a city known for flamenco, tapas, and an unmistakeable building/architectural style.

One of the main attractions in Seville is the Royal Alcázar. It’s a palace built by the Moors in the 10th century, but was rebuilt in the 14th century by Muslim workmen for a Christian king. Therefore, there are many Islamic influences and details throughout; and if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you’ll recognize it as the filming location for “Dorne”. Instead of being one of those people who are “less than prepared, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, just show up, obnoxiously loud, do everything for me” (don’t be that person) traveler who waits until the last minute and stand in the queue that snakes around the building further than the eye can see…buy your tickets (way) in advance with a reserved time slot to enter.  You still have to wait a bit (<15 mins), but it’s definitely much faster. Or, another option is to book a private tour that ushers you straight in and get a lively history lesson while walking through, instead of those awful self-audio guides. The intricacies of this place was jaw dropping. Every corner you turn there are beautiful carvings and details that make you stop and think about all those artisans that made this palace into a work of art and how much time it took. Unbelievable. The gardens are also a sight to behold. We were at the Royal Alcázar for about two hours, but probably could’ve spend a bit more time there.

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Hubs and I also visited another famous sight called the Plaza de España. It’s a square of where the 1929 international fair was held, and the architecture style of that time is still dazzling to this day. The highlights of this place are the trademark Spanish tiles that depict each province of Spain.

Unfortunately in Sevilla, Hubs came down with a stomach bug and while he was recovering at the AirBnB, I went out exploring the beautiful streets and neighborhoods of Sevilla. There were so many nooks and crannies to get lost in and practice taking pictures with my new camera. I found the Metropole Parasol to be a fantastic place to get to try all the different settings on my new toy.

When it was finally time to say goodbye to Sevilla, we made a pit stop just outside of the city in our rental car. Hubs and I took a little detour north to see the Archeological site of Italica. Italica was once a grand Roman city, founded in the south of Spain by Scipio Africanus in 206 BC.  Why are these roman ruins particularly interesting to me? It’s the filming location of the one of the most famous scenes in season 7 of Game of Thrones. Yes, we totally geeked out and had to see the “dragon pit”. Although these ruins aren’t well known, they are now with the help of the hit HBO series. It’s well deserved too, because the well preserved Roman city is definitely worth a visit – even if you don’t follow the show.

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Throwback Thursdays: An Epic Road Trip (Part Two)

Hubs and I flew into Edinburgh to start our Scottish journey and second leg of our epic road trip. We immediately headed towards Stirling, because it would make our next leg a bit shorter than if we were to leave from Edinburgh. One tip that some friends have told us when we were in the planning stages is to add in buffered time during the drive across Scotland. So, if it was going be a five hour driving day – allocate eight. Why? Because our friends predicted we would stop every few minutes to take in all that rugged beauty. They were right. Plus, there aren’t really highways in Scotland, only super scenic two lane roads.

Our first stop after our short stay in Stirling was Isle of Skye. It’s the largest island of the inner Hebrides archipelago. We stayed at the most wonderful bed and breakfast. The location, innkeepers, rooms, and breakfasts were first class. Too bad, they’ve changed it to a self-catering place recently, otherwise we would’ve gone back every chance we got. Skye is that spectacular; we’d go back in a heartbeat. The landscape is unlike anything Hubs and I have ever seen. Pictures just don’t do this place any justice – but we tried! Several movies and tv shows have shot in Skye.

After a few nights in Skye, we headed back across the Highlands to Inverness, our base for the next five days. We went to seek out Nessie one day, sadly, she didn’t make an appearance. However, we did find a gem of place for lunch – thanks to local recommendation. Hubs and I took several day trips to:  – North Sea coastlines, mountain lochs, castles, jaw-dropping scenery and lots and lots and lots of sheep.

On our way back to Edinburgh, we made a pit stop at Balmoral. Balmoral is one of the royal family’s holiday homes – the Queen spends her summer holidays there. Hubs and I explored the grounds, took our pictures and continued onto Edinburgh. If you’re a Harry Potter fan like us, it’s amazing to see all the street names and places that JK Rowling got inspiration from for her novels.  There’s a graveyard in Edinburgh where she supposedly got the name Tom Riddle for her books.  We sought it out and found it.  Edinburgh was a very easy city to get around, we walked a lot and took advantage of the double-decker bus system.  Hubs and I also walked the Royal Mile at least twice and took in their scenic public park on more than one occasion.  We gave in and did the touristy ferris wheel as well, but it did let us get some nice photos.

Scotland was hands down my favorite of both countries we explored over three weeks and perfect conclusion to our epic road trip. We still need to hit Northern Ireland and the unseen parts of Scotland-maybe another trip is in order for 2018?

Throwback Thursdays: An Epic Road Trip (Part One)

Three weeks, two countries, and many lasting memories sums up our road trip through Ireland and Scotland.

Hubs and I flew into Dublin and picked up our adventure wagon for the next ten days in Ireland. Since we arrived a bit later in the day, we opted to spend the night in Dublin (but not really seeing it…yet). It was a good thing, because it gave time for Hubs to get acclimated to driving on the left side of the road. After a full Irish breakfast, we headed toward our next pit stop; Avoca Mills in Kilkenny. It’s Ireland’s oldest working mill and still remains an Irish run business. Obviously, I had to pick up some beautiful handwoven wool scarves which come in handy for our harsh Vienna winters.

We arrived in the coastal town of Kinsale, next, where we spent one night. It’s such a cute little colorful town. We had one of our best meals there – fresh scallops and mussels. Hubs and I then proceeded to Dingle. We stayed on the Peninsula there, because it’s still under the radar compared to the tourist-heavy Ring of Kerry and it was great jumping off point to Killarney National Park. I also wanted to stay at a particular bed and breakfast. It was a relaxing driving through the park, Wild Atlantic way and exploring the peninsula for the next five days.

I’ve always wanted to stay in a real castle…who wouldn’t?!  So, we made a special overnight stop at the famous Ashford Castle in Cong, Ireland. The grounds were beautifully manicured and positioned right on a lake.  Ashford Castle also featured a falconry school, the oldest one in the country.  We definitely took advantage and registered for a private session with one of the falcon handlers.  Our falcon’s name was Lima and supposedly one their best falcons (so he said). It was such a cool experience being able to hold and feed a falcon perched on my arm. They’re quite majestic little, heavy, creatures.

Our last stop was Dublin for two nights to explore. It’s like a miniature London, but with a bit more grit.  I would say the highlight was our visit to Trinity College Old Library where the Book of Kells is on display.  The book contains the four gospels of the new testament, and estimated to be written around 800AD!  After having an amazing meal, two nights in a row, at a little whole in the wall type place (Klaw),  we left the next morning for the Dublin airport to start the second half of our journey from Edinburgh, Scotland.

 

Throwback Thursdays: Girls’ Getaway in Amsterdam

Emily is one of my favorite people and we travel well together. She’s a mom of two amazing boys, but sometimes mommies need a break too! So, now it has become an annual thing that we take a girls’ weekend away. We pick somewhere and just go! This trip was especially special because she was also celebrating a milestone birthday. Amsterdam, here we come!

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As an added bonus I found a really cool houseboat that we rented out for the weekend. What’s more quintessential than staying in a houseboat in Amsterdam?!

When you think of the Holland, tulips have to be the first thing you think of – unless you were thinking of windmills. It’s been on both of our must-do lists to see the tulip fields in Holland. We picked the perfect weekend in April 2016 for it! I couldn’t believe all the vibrant colors we saw. It was definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

The last time I was in Amsterdam it was with Hubs and we never made it to the Rijks Museum. Well, Emily and I made it a mission to go. To be able to appreciate the Night Watch and other famous paintings in real life was a dream come true. We also made sure to eat our way through the city. Another awesome girls’ getaway weekend in the books!

Throwback Thursdays: Healing in Hong Kong

A few weeks after Hershey crossed the rainbow bridge, I told Hubs that there was no way in hell I wanted to be anywhere near Vienna when the one year anniversary mark hit. We looked around for a new place to visit and decided on Hong Kong. It was far away and didn’t resemble anything “European”. We left on Christmas day and flew with Turkish Airlines. This was before Austrian Airlines announced their new nonstop route from Vienna. I really didn’t care for Turkish Airlines and probably won’t fly them again.

Once in Hong Kong, it was like the breath of fresh air we desperately needed. We mainly went there to eat, take in the sights and heal. Hong Kong is very hilly and has lots of stairs. Thank goodness for the mid-level escalators in the center of the city.

The Hong Kong tram system is the only one left in the world that operates double decker trams exclusively. It was so charming and cool. We rode them every chance we got! Hubs and I also stood in line for Victoria Peak not knowing we already had the right tickets to jump to the front of the line. So when a family of four cut in front of us-I used some, ummm, choice words, loudly. Needless to say, they thought I was the crazy one. It was well worth it once we got to the top. The iconic views of  the Hong Kong skyline were amazing. Although extremely touristy, it’s a must-do.  If you decide to go to Victoria Peak, here’s a tip – use the bus instead of the tram to go up AND down the mountain.  Plus, the wait is much shorter both ways with the bus – and cheaper!

We also took advantage of going to a modern and “real” movie theater.  The American cinema company AMC exists there and paying the extra costs to be in the VIP room was well worth it. Like in most Asian cities, they jack up the air conditioning so high that you’re a popsicle by the time you leave. There were reclining leather seats with call buttons for an attendant to fetch you anything you wanted during the movie.

I didn’t find out until a day or two before the trip that there was a coffee shop named Hazel & Hershey in Hong Kong.  It was fate… I couldn’t think of a better place to celebrate Hershey’s life than this for the one year mark. They had really good matcha lattes and coffee; we went back a few days later for a second helping.

During our trip we also celebrated Hubs’ birthday. I surprised him with a buffet brunch at the Ritz Carlton on the 102th floor near the harbor on the Kowloon side. We had a special window table and the views were unsurpassed. The food was delicious, too. It was our last day in Hong Kong.

In many ways, this trip was healing for us. It doesn’t erase Hershey or the days leading up to his death, but it took away a lot of the pain associated with the time of year it happens to fall near. I know that Christmas and New Years will forever be bittersweet in our hearts.

Darling Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik has been on our bucket list even before our move to Europe. Hubs and I have heard nothing but great things about Dubrovnik. After four and a half years, we finally made our way “next door”. Austrian Airlines flies non-stop from Vienna to Dubrovnik, seasonally. It’s definitely not the cheapest option, but most convenient – a ten hour drive vs. a 75 minute flight.  We’ll take the flight, thanks.

We landed and quickly started our journey to the city. As soon as we caught the first glimpse of Dubrovnik, it literally took our breath away. Our driver was kind enough to stop for us to capture that moment from the road along the cliffs overlooking the city.

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As soon as we got settled into our AirBnB, we set out to explore the city. We didn’t want to do too much as we had a Game of Thrones tour the next day.

Hubs and I became Game of Thrones fans during our first few months living in Vienna. We binged watched the first two seasons before the start of the third. A lot of the filming takes place in Northern Ireland, Spain, and Croatia. Dubrovnik is the primary backdrop for Kings Landing. The locations tour was fascinating and we had to use a lot of our imagination due to the CGI add-ons. The Red Keep is completely digitalized, but you can see the foundation they used. We got to see the famous sights for some of the iconic scenes from the show, such as, Cersei’s walk of shame, the Purple wedding, Myrcella leaving for Dorne, etc. It was great to get a feel of how much work goes into filming just one scene. At the end of the tour, we had the option to visit a very touristy shop that had a replica of the Iron throne. As cheesy as it might seem, I had to take my turn and try it out!

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The rest of our time in Dubrovnik was spent climbing A LOT of stairs. Steep and sometimes cumbersome- anyone with leg/knee problems would have a really tough time. I felt like my legs were going to give way a few times, especially in the heat.

We also did a day trip to the island of Lokrum. It’s the closest island to Dubrovnik, only a 15 minute boat ride from the old harbor. An old monastery on Lokrum is the set for Qarth. The island’s native inhabitants are peacocks and rabbits. People mainly go there to swim, sunbathe, kayak and hike. We only stayed for a couple hours, but could’ve easily spent the whole day there if we had more time.

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Overall, I’d say Dubrovnik is a great long weekend getaway- but if you want to take your time and see other places nearby (Bosnia, Montenegro and other islands), it could easily become a one or two week holiday. I’d also recommend going during shoulder season. We were there just as the cruising and high season started and seeing people being herded like sheep with their paddle-holding guide leading a large group of (loud, rude, shouting) tourists can be overwhelming, especially in such high concentrations.

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Throwback Thursdays: Hunting for Polish Pottery

I’m going to restart my Throwback Thursdays series to backtrack and blog about the adventures we took over the last year or so. Those who follow me on Instagram have seen glimpses of what we’ve been up to. It’s the only platform of social media that I use consistently these days.

Hubs and I like to make use of the office holidays he gets here, and this year the dates all happened to fall on a Friday or Monday – perfect for long weekend getaways. At the beginning of May 2017, we went on a road trip to Poland. Our first visit to Poland was in summer of 2015, and we went to Krakow and Auschwitz.

The itinerary this time was Boleslawiec and Wroclaw. If you recognize the name Boleslawiec, then you know it’s world renowned for its unique pottery – in this case, think of everyday dishes bowls, mugs, etc… Many military wives and expats who live within an eight hour drive have gone on weekend expeditions (yes, multiple!) to buy heaps of this stuff.  When I mean heaps, I mean American sized SUVs/mini-vans filled to the brim with boxes and boxes of the pottery. The parking lots were filled with Jeeps, Odysseys, etc. These were dead giveaways of the presence of American military wives since they usually ship their vehicles from the states during their time overseas.

I first heard about the Polish pottery when I happened upon other expat wives blogging about day and weekend trips there. It piqued my interest and I started to do the research. Boleslawiec Pottery is only made with locally sourced clay only found in that particular region of Poland. The intricacies of these hand painted and handmade pieces are just exquisite. There are many collectors and it’s super expensive to buy authentic pieces outside of Europe. Hence, the reason why people come here to buy Costco amounts of this stuff. It’s so affordable to buy it in Poland. I love the fact that it’s dishwasher, oven, microwave safe AND super sturdy. There are many categories of the pottery and usually people buy GAT (quality) 1 or 2 for the above mentioned purposes. The other categories (below 2) are usually just “for show” or decorative pieces. As you can see from the pictures, I had a bit too much fun.

 

I also should mention that it was our very first time trying homemade Pierogis. I also had this savory potato pancake-like dish with goulash stuffed inside. OH. MY. LORD, comfort food at its best! So delicious! My mouth is watering even as I type this.

Onto to Wroclaw! We spent two nights in this charming little city. It’s often mistaken for Warsaw. What was really nice is that it’s not crawling with “English speaking” tourists-yet. Most locals couldn’t speak or understand English-which was quite refreshing. Hand gestures and pointing were greatly appreciated. We loved going on a “scavenger hunt” for the famous dwarf statues of the city. Did you know that there are over 400 of them dotted throughout the town? We found 40 of them during our short stay.

Poland has really captivated us and I have a feeling we’ll be making more road-trips back to explore more of this lovely country!