Friday, March 29, 2013

Romantic mood a natural at Lake Como in Italy

Turquoise glacial lakes, snow-covered mountains, and green hillside pastures kept our eyes fixated on the landscape during the drive from Wadensvil, Switzerland to Bellagio on Lake Como, Italy. One stunning scene after another captured our fancy during the six-hour drive. Well, we took that long because there were so many pull-outs at which to stop and take pictures.

Clear, blue skies in late May were picture-perfect as we drove through the countryside and small, traditional villages. White cumulus clouds staked their places in the sky, rarely moving and hanging like suspended caps above the mountain peaks.

At a tiny bakery in one small town we stopped to inquire about 10-mile-long Gothard Tunnel. As the world's longest tunnel, it's a portion of the journey that’s best avoided, if possible. Luckily, Gothard Pass over the mountains was open, so we drove around the mountain at the tree line on a narrow, winding road. Patches of snow and ice, remnants from winter, melted into waterfalls and streams flowing from the mountain sides.
Around noon, we stopped at a roadside pull-out. Surprised to find a makeshift café there, we bought bratwurst and brown bread to eat for lunch. It was really yummy, or maybe it tasted especially good because of our view from an outdoor picnic table--a magnificent panorama of the valley, mountains, and winding roads below.

What a glorious sunny day we had for this drive—and we found ourselves enthralled by the gorgeous scenery--not to mention the skier coming off the mountain at the high point of Gothard Pass. Our drive continued through old Italian villages with streets barely wide enough for one vehicle let alone two (especially when the other was a tourist bus). Hubby narrowly avoided scraping paint off parked cars. At Mereggio we drove onto a ferry to cross Lake Como--and arrived at the village of Bellagio, "the pearl of Lake Como," our destination for the overnight visit.

Once in picturesque Bellagio, finding our hotel, was not an easy task because of narrow, one-way streets filled with pedestrians. Eventually, we parked on a skinny street in a shopping area near a church, Piazza San Giacomo, location of St. James Basilica. (We learned all this when walking around town later). Shops lined the square: gelateria, café and sports bar (where a monastery used to be, we also find out later), pizza shop, hotel, high-end clothing stores, and art galleries.

No, we didn’t see George Clooney. But we did find HotelMetropole, the oldest hotel in town, which overlooks the lake. Recently renovated (it’s non-smoking and even has a bathtub, but the elevator is a squeeze for three people), the charming pink building faces Prazza Mazzini, the market area by the water. This area, called “borgo,” is the town’s historic center and one of the first areas in Bellagio to be inhabited. It’s the area tourists visit most, with shops and galleries along the waterfront and for several blocks uphill.
Towards evening we walked up the hill and window-shopped, admiring silk scarves and ties, leather handbags, shoes, exquisite clothing, wine, and souvenirs. Shopping is serious business in Bellagio, as evidenced by the book in our hotel room dedicated to shopping venues and best-buys.

Our main purchase was a bottle of wine, and we enjoyed a sunset toast from our balcony overlooking the shimmering lake. If you're longing for a peaceful, romantic setting, Lake Como doesn't disappoint.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier
Read more travel stories by Beverly at Striped Pot and Austin Adventure Travel

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Tulips star in Keukenhoff Gardens annual spring show

Keukenhoff Gardens in Holland has more varieties of tulips
 than you've ever imagined.
Incredible masses of pink, purple, red, orange, white, and multi-colored tulips swayed in the spring breeze as we walked paths around Holland’s Keukenhof Gardens. Flowers with petals large and small, smooth and ruffled provided an imspiring variety blooms—more than I could ever have imagined.

If you haven’t seen Keukenhof Gardens, you haven’t seen what The Netherlands is famous for. Gorgeous tulips in a canvas of colors, yellow and white daffodils, purple hyacinths and other spring bulbs stand out among massive pink azaleas. Multiple ponds, some with fountain spouts dancing skyward, are scattered throughout the grounds.

Currently owned and operated by a foundation, Keukenhof’s first open air flower exhibition was held in 1949. This expanded to an annual event that draws visitors from all over the world. The theme for 2013 is “United Kingdom—Land of Great Gardens,” which honors the abundant inspiration garnered from gardens in the UK. There’s a special exhibition on English gardens and a spectacular flower mosaic of Big Ben and Tower Bridge.

Flower parades

On Saturday April 20, 2013 hundreds of thousands of spectators will line the roadside for glimpses of the annual Flower Parade traveling along its 40-km route from Noordwijk to Haarlem. The procession will include 20 large floats and more than 30 decorated luxury cars, interspersed with plenty of music. Another parade (free of charge) with illuminated floats takes place in the evening on Friday, April 19 in Noordwijkerhout.

Spring spectacular

Located in Lisse, Keukenhof is the largest bulb garden in the world. You can bike from Amsterdam or The Hague, take a bus, or drive. Tours are also a popular option. Along the way, you’ll pass numerous fields filled with tulips—a lovely preview of the bright floral displays awaiting visitors to Keukenhof Gardens.

The renowned annual tulip festival runs from late March through early May with the best time to see everything in full bloom in late April. Of course, this is also prime tourist time, so expect the park to be extremely busy the last two weekends of April.

Even though we visited the first week of May, near the end of tulip season, it seemed like none of the seven million hand-planted bulbs was missing.  You can get a guide book or take a tour of the park aided by a rented headset with information on each of the gardens, but we decided to wing it and wander leisurely through the sumptuous scenes. This worked well because we stopped so often to photograph large landscaped beds and striking individual flowers.

Plan at least three hours to five hours to make your way around as much of the 10.5 miles of footpaths as possible. You can bring a picnic lunch (Larry and I ate cheese, bread, and fruit that we brought along) or purchase food from restaurants and snack vendors.

In addition to over 100 varieties of tulips, the park features 2,500 trees of 87 varieties and the largest sculpture garden in The Netherlands. Featured sights are the mosaic gardens, Japanese garden and inspiration garden as well as daffodil and hyacinth bulbs in planters. Take time to stop and watch swans swimming in the lake and costumed dancers performing traditional jigs.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Read more travel stories at Striped Pot and Austin Adventure Travel

Monday, March 11, 2013

Tips to avoid back pain when traveling

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Jay Lipoff, CFT, ( a private practice chiropractor and certified fitness trainer.

Traveling can be bad for your back and neck health -- but it doesn't have to be. Back pain is not trivial. It is the most common type of pain Americans experience, according to the National Institute of Health Statistics survey. It is also the leading cause of disability in Americans under 45 years old. Unfortunately, some of the best opportunities to hurt your back and neck actually happen on vacation -- while you're in the car, on the plane, or sleeping on a bad hotel bed.

Here are tips to keep your spine healthy when traveling by car.

Sit right.

Adjusting your car seat helps you avoid stiffness, strains, and soreness after a long drive. Put your seat back in the upright position (not at 90 degrees but more like 105 degrees), not leaning back so you look out the backseat window. Move the whole seat forward and tilt it so your feet are flat on the floor and knees are elevated slightly higher than your hips.

Look in the mirror.

A great way to make sure you are sitting upright and not slouching is to adjust the rearview mirror in the morning. When we wake up, we are at our tallest because our spine is fully hydrated. We also aren't pooped from work and hunched forward. Then don't touch the mirror again. Adjust your posture to meet the mirror -- not the other way around.

Protect your neck.

The American Chiropractic Association estimated that more than 75 percent of drivers have their headrest at an inappropriate height. Reduce your chances of whiplash by raising the headrest so the middle of it meets the back of your head.

Grab the wheel.

Most of us are taught to drive with our hands at the 10 and 2 o'clock position. That's correct, as long as you drop your elbows so your arms and shoulders can relax. Alternatively, lower your steering wheel, grab the wheel at the 8 and 4 o'clock position, and use the armrest, if you have one, or rest your arms on your legs.

Stretch your neck.

At stoplights or rest stops, do neck exercises. Do side-to-side head turns, and gently tip your ear to the shoulder of the same side, then repeat on the other side.

Start out slowly.

When our backs are idle for 20 minutes or so, fluids creep back into the disc. As fluids enlarge the disc, it becomes more vulnerable. So when you arrive at your destination after a long drive, don't jump out of the car and go to pick up the grandkids. Take a few minutes to just do some gentle stretches, maybe at the gas station before you arrive, and reduce the fluid buildup in your disc area and warm up your muscles.
Photo courtesy of



Friday, March 8, 2013

Austin is a top shopping spot

Who would have thought? Austin, known for its plethora of live music, ranks 42nd among international fashion cities for shopping experiences, according to Global Language Monitor, a media analytics company that tracks cultural trends. Recognition of Austin’s South Congress Avenue and Second Street shopping districts as among the world’s best is another reason for visitors to love our city.
Here are some favorite shopping destinations for locals as well as visitors.

Find vintage and contemporary items
in SoCo shops.

While Austin offers plenty of upper class shopping venues, some featuring local jewelry and clothing designers with national reputations, one of the most fun hangouts for the hip crowd is South Congress, affectionately called SoCo by those who frequent the strip between the 1100 and 1700 blocks. 

Street view of South Congress shops
This colorful stretch of Congress Avenue is lined with funky storefronts featuring unique and slightly kooky items, plus vintage shops where today’s young adults recreate fashion styles of previous generations.  Need a portrait of Geronimo, cowboy boots (try Allen’s Boots), or a “Keep Austin Weird” T-shirt?  Head south.  It’s a great nostalgia trip for any age—and you might find a special piece of jewelry, shawl, or handbag just like grandma owned.

Funky side of the Drag,
near UT campus
The Drag

Walk along The Drag, otherwise known as Guadalupe Street, to glimpse wacky characters for which Austin is known (The city motto is “Keep Austin Weird”).  The closest shopping strip to The University of Texas, it offers both hip and chic styles, including second-hand shops that are popular with students and other bargain-seekers.

Serious shopping

Austin has fine malls, many built in the
outdoor village concept
Go upscale at TheArboretum, a huge complex of shops and businesses in an outdoor park-like atmosphere.  Other renown shopping malls that have embraced the outdoor concept—possible because of Austin’s moderate climate and 300 days of sunshine a year--include The Domain in the northern district and Hill Country Galleria to the west in neighboring Bee Cave.  Nirvana for serious shoppers is the huge conglomerate of outlet malls in San Marcos, about 35 miles east and approximately halfway between Austin and San Antonio.

Specialty shopping

Foodies have plenty of options, too.
Health-conscious Austin boasts huge retailers of organic foods and all things natural—including bottled rainwater for drinking.  Need a specialty recipe ingredient?  WholeFoods Market or Central Market will surely have it.  Head to Run-Tex for athletic shoes and biker spandex.  Austin offers plenty of shops with knowledgeable staff and great selections of any outdoor activity or sports equipment. 

Independently owned BookPeople and Waterloo Records have loyal followings and attract national names for signings and programs. Wild about Music is a Sixth Street art and gift gallery dedicated entirely to music.  


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Glenveagh National Park and Castle has an Ireland-Texas connection

The more I travel around the world, the less surprised I am when I find a local connection.

Glenveagh Castle in Northern Ireland
In Northern Ireland we found a connection to my home state of Texas at Glenveagh National Park and Castle located in the heart of the Derryveagh Mountains.

During a tour of the Visitor Center, we learned that John George Adair was born in Ireland but made his fortune at his ranch in the Palo Duro area in the panhandle of Texas. 

As we enjoyed lunch in the outdoor courtyard listening to two accordion players serenade visitors with local tunes, I marveled at how small our world seems at times. We sampled a variety of foods, including delicious desserts, sandwiches, quiches, soups, salads, and rolls, still made in the original castle kitchen. Best of all, the sunshine made for a glorious afternoon, perfect for strolling thru the lush landscaping. 

Set in the remote wilderness of rugged mountains and pristine lakes in northwest County Donegal, Glenveagh Castle and Gardens have a timeless beauty. It's easy to understand how Adair fell in love with the property when he first saw it in 1857. After adair married in 1867 he built Glenveagh Castle, inspired by Balmoral Castle, Queen Victoria’s Scottish summer home, on a promontory out over the lake. 

When he came, there were no trees, just 40,000 acres of open land.  Now the estate is full of pine trees and gardens.  Colorful blooms and green foliage soften the stark lines and gray roughness of the stone from which the castle was constructed. The local stone was hard to carve, so that the exterior finish is somewhat rough.

Red is a prominent color in the castle decor
After Adair died in 1885, his widow improved the grounds, gave parties, and provided employment for local residents.  She enjoyed entertaining local people and sponsored deer hunts on the grounds. The deer theme is central to house décor and can be found on china and in many paintings.  A “leaping deer” design is featured on one of the 21 different sets of china.

Belgian refugees were housed in 11 bedrooms at the castle after WWI.  Arthur Kingsley Porter bought the castle in the 1920s, and American university professor HenryMcIlhenny bought the property in 1937.  Fascinated by Irish architecture, he owned Glenveagh till 1983 during which time he restored the castle and grew Tuscan-style gardens.

Two large eagles guard the entrance to the castle area. Shell designs on walls; deer heads; many wildlife paintings, some depicting death; furniture and accessories remain just as when McIlhenny lived there. Bold red wallpaper and cloth wall coverings hide imperfections in the walls. 72 vases are all filled with fresh flowers daily from surrounding gardens.

Flowers bloom in the garden
In 1975 McIlhenny sold the property to the state as a national park, and it opened in 1994 to the public.  During his ownership the estate good records of all the plants grown there were maintained much like a botanic garden.  Heritage plants are preserved in the extensive formal gardens, and many paths wander through woodland areas with open spaces overlooking a beautiful lake. Purple, pink, white, and yellow blossoms from ankle level to tree tops provide natural embellishment--and reminiscences of wonderful southern gardens in the U.S.

 Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier
Read more travel stories at Striped Pot and Austin Adventure Travel