Krakow: Now, the rest

In spite of what you might have gathered from my last post, we did actually do more in Krakow than eat. The city has a lot to offer, and we tried to see as much as we could. But truth be told, we did sometimes plan our activities around the next meal!

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St. Florian’s Gate, seen from the Barbican

The city is small, making it easy to wander and explore. There’s also a good tram/street car system for longer trips. The first thing we did on Friday was to buy the Krakow Card, giving us access to all public transport and free entrance to many museums and attractions. (It’s worth noting that the most visited sites, like the Castle, are not included in the Krakow Card.) Our first day took us to the Barbican, one of the last remaining parts of the fortified city walls. St. Florian’s Gate leads into the Old City. We decided to stop in St. Mary’s Basilica, and ended up arriving just in time for the opening of the Veit Stoss altarpiece.

As often happens when we travel, we stumbled into something that we weren’t expecting, and didn’t know anything about. When we entered St. Mary’s, I was surprised by the size of the gathered crowd, and wondered if we had arrived just before a service. But we soon realized that the opening of the altarpiece was the attraction.  Thanks to the dumb luck of timing, we were able to see the sculpture, carved between 1477 and 1484, fully open. I later learned that the altarpiece had been seized by the Nazis in 1941; it was discovered five years later in the basement ruins of Nuremburg Castle and returned to Krakow.

The Basilica is also the site of the hourly Hejnał Mariacki, the St. Mary’s Trumpet Call. The trumpeter is in the Basilica’s tower, and from there plays the piece four times, in the direction of the four old city gates (with a wave to the cheering crowd below). The noon performance is broadcast worldwide by radio. If you listen to the piece, it seems to end very abruptly. The legend is that sometime in the 1200s, a trumpeter was sounding the alarm against an invading force, and was shot in the throat by an arrow, putting a quick end to the tune.

St. Mary’s is on the edge of Market Square, which is crowded with cafes, vendors, and horse-drawn carriages. Cloth Hall, once a center of international trade, is now a good place to buy amber, football jerseys, and other souvenirs. Our friend-turned-tour guide had tipped us off to the rooftop cafe at Cloth Hall, which was a great place to spend an hour or so in the sun.

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The view from the Cloth Hall roof cafe…

(You have to earn your way in, as the entrance is not easy to find…it’s located inside a museum that happened to be closed when we were there, though the cafe was still open.)

One of Krakow’s most popular attractions is not in Krakow at all: the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Although it’s only about 10km from Krakow, it was almost a day-long activity. You can only tour the mine with a guide. Tours are offered in at least seven languages, but if you speak anything other than English you should check the tour schedule before you go. The English tours were offered every half hour, but the Italian tour, for example, was only three times per day.

We went on a Saturday and as a result had to deal with huge crowds. Rookie mistake, I know. It was also a slightly confusing system, with an initial queue for tickets and then separate lines for each of the different language tours. Our 11:30 English tour was so large that they split us into three groups, making the tour feel a bit rushed, since there was always another group on our heels.

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A (salt) statue of Copernicus

We spent close to 3 hours in the mines, exploring the third level, about 135 meters underground. For some perspective, the mine has nine levels.  Since the 13th Century, men (and later, horses) worked the mine, extracting salt through dangerous and intense labor. Somehow, in the middle of this work, they also found time to carve sculptures and religious chapels, including the remarkable St. Kinga’s Chapel, an enormous underground church. All carved out of salt. And available for events, special masses, and concerts. Weddings, too.

I wasn’t able to figure out why these chapels and monuments existed. I would assume that either the miners were mining, or they were making their way back up to the surface of the earth. When would there be time for prayer, let alone sculpting?


IMG_3092One morning we traveled across the Wisla river to visit Ghetto Heroes Square, located in what was the center of the Krakow Ghetto. The Square has a haunting memorial of 33 empty chairs representing the Polish Jews who were imprisoned in the Ghetto during World War II. Over 20.000 people were locked up in an area where only 3.000 had lived previously. The Square was a place of assembly from which inhabitants of the Ghetto were sent to Nazi death camps. Across from the Square is the Eagle Pharmacy Museum, which has been restored to its 1940s condition. The pharmacist was the only non-Jewish inhabitant of the Ghetto, and he and his staff provided care and help to the Jews, including smuggling food and information, and sheltering those who were going to be deported. The small, interactive museum shares the stories of the Ghetto’s residents and provides powerful, humanizing testimonies to their lives and deaths.


Our friend’s list of suggestions had one major omission: Krakow is home to a Pinball Museum. I’ve never been one for video games, and I won’t pretend I’m great at pinball, but I really love it. It’s hard to find pinball machines – most arcades don’t have them anymore. So to discover 300 m2 of pure pinball was a dream come true. IMG_3100Some machines dated back to the 1970s, others were more modern. You’re not going to learn much about the history of pinball, but that’s not what you came for. The entrance fee lets you play all day or come and go, and all the machines are set to free play. It’s also a bar, and while you can’t put your beer on the machines, you can take a break for a sip now and then. Heaven.

The sites on the usual tourist route – the Castle, the Cathedral – were nice, but very busy, especially with school groups on spring field trips. Tickets to the Castle rooms were sold out, so we only saw the outside. We were able to visit the Cathedral, but soon discovered we had hit our limit on the number of Gothic churches we could absorb in one weekend. By the time our Monday evening flight came around, we were churched-out, walked-out, and ready to head back to Amsterdam. But Krakow more than met our expectations. With its rich history – both medieval and modern – excellent food, relaxed pace, perfect weather, and unique attractions, Krakow earned a place on our list of great European cities.

 

 

Krakow: First, the food

What do you do when a Thursday/Friday one-two punch of Dutch holidays collides with Memorial Day in the US? You plan a weekend city break. Destination: Krakow.

The city had long been on our list of places to visit, thanks to a well-traveled family friend who had lived in Krakow on-and-off for some time. He named it among his top three favorite European destinations, and, in advance of our trip, provided an exhaustive list of things to do and see (and eat), complete with a pronunciation guide.

A late flight and a further delay got us to the airport after 11pm on Thursday night. We took a taxi to the hotel – a rare luxury for us, but worth it due to the late hour. Our return trip on Monday would be via the comfortable, reliable, and very cheap train. On Friday morning, we explored the city before meeting up for our afternoon food tour with Delicious Poland.

Food tours have become a standard part of our travels. They are a great way to learn about the local cuisine, find lesser-known eateries, and meet fellow travelers. Plus, any guide worth their salt will give you recommendations to help plan the rest of your visit.

We met our guides, Kamila and Göksel, at a market in the Kazimierz district. They are a couple both personally and professionally, working together to build their tour company around their love of travel and food. They greeted us with bread and salt, a traditional Polish welcome. We were surprised that we were the only people signed up for the tour that afternoon, so we got the VIP treatment!

While Göksel went ahead to prepare things at the first stop, Kamila toured us through the market, which was filled with local farmers selling fresh vegetables and fruits. Then it was off to the first of seven stops on the tour: Przystanek Pierogarnia, to sample Poland’s famous dumplings. We tried four different pierogi, including dessert pierogi, filled with strawberry and drizzled with sweet cream. Yum!

Over the next three hours, we sampled the best of Polish cuisine, most of which I can’t spell or pronounce. The tour was a great combination of strolling around the neighborhood and sitting down for soup or a selection of main courses. Everything was arranged well, thanks to Göksel’s advance work. Throughout the tour, Kamila gave us

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Barszcz (beet soup) with dumplings, for Christmas Eve

some history of the Kazimierz district, and background on the different foods and when they are traditionally enjoyed. We learned a lot about how the privations of Communism impacted Polish cuisine. Chronic meat shortages required Polish cooks to be inventive – they found other flavors and other ways to make filling and satisfying meals.

 

Our favorite stop was Kuchnia u Doroty, a very traditional restaurant where we tried six dishes and a drink, and found the best dish of the day: placki ziemniaczane, potato pancakes “Hungarian” style, with pork and a goulash sauce that was just delicious. (We went back to Doroty later in the weekend and I ordered it again.)

Even though we were starting to fill up, we had several stops to go, including a bakery for a rose-hip jelly filled donut, then a craft brewery for some beer.  A visit to Plac Nowy (New Square) let us try zapiekanki, a sort of French-bread pizza with the toppings of your choice. Zapiekanki is only found in Krakow, and the traditional version is with mushrooms, melted cheese and chives.  It’s sold from small kiosks and shops; that it is both cheap and delicious makes it a favorite late-night snack, especially for students and anyone heading home after a few hours of drinking.

Speaking of drinking…our final stop was a vodka bar where we sampled four different vodkas, one traditional and three flavored, all delicious. We toasted our tour guides with a final Na zdrowie! Kamila shared a map and a list of some of her favorite stops in Krakow, so we were well-prepared for the rest of our weekend. We said our goodbyes and headed back into the neighborhood, full and happy and more than satisfied. If you find yourself in Krakow, check out Delicious Poland – in addition to food tours, they also do vodka and craft beer tours, so there’s something for everyone!

Next time: the Salt Mines, castles and cathedrals, and a visit to one of Krakow’s hidden treasures: the Pinball Museum!

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Kings, castles, and unexpected elves

I’m already a week behind in reporting on our long and festive four-day weekend! Well, better late than never. We begin on April 27th:  Koningsdag, the Netherlands’ annual celebration of the King’s birthday and all things Oranje. King Willem turned 50 this year and the country celebrated with the usual mix of parades, music, boats, and lots of drinking.

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So. Much. Orange.

Koningsdag is a day like none other. First, it is the one day of the year that you can sell things without a permit, so Amsterdam becomes one giant flea market. Weeks before the holiday, people claim their space on sidewalks, marking their territory with chalk or masking tape. There are some traditional activities: children play music or organize games of chance, hoping to earn some small change. For a euro or two, you can throw eggs at someone who has volunteered for this strange duty.

In the city center, there are stages and DJs and food and drink everywhere. The first year we experienced Koningsday, we were both surprised by the atmosphere and the attitude. When you consider that most people have been drinking (some heavily) for hours, the party is remarkably friendly and festive. This year, we spent the morning in our new neighborhood, which had a festival that covered several blocks. In the afternoon, we met up with some friends in the busiest part of town, just off of the Prinsengracht. After getting through the worst of the crowd, we did have a good time, enjoying the people watching and learning some classic Dutch songs at a corner bar.

Continuing with the royal theme, on Sunday we decided to go to Kasteel de Haar, located outside of Utrecht. A colleague had gone recently and recommended it. Although it involved two trains and either a bus or a bike ride, we figured it was a lovely day for an adventure, and we headed out. I will note that on the Castle’s website, I read that the visiting hours were different due to an event (“Elfia”), but I didn’t think much of it. I really should have paid more attention to that.

In Utrecht, while we waited for the next train, we noticed a number of people in costume. A Hobbit here, a sort of anime-elf woman, there…no theme that I could figure out. When we got off the train in Vleuten, there they all were again. And more. It seemed clear to us now that something was indeed happening at de Haar, and it involved a lot of mythical creatures and very creative costumes.

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Every soldier needs a broodje.

With some help from a young Dutch couple (who were as puzzled by all the costumes as we were), we made our way via shuttle bus to a stop about 15 minutes from the castle. As we walked closer, we saw even more: zombies, British redcoats, guys from Braveheart, angels and demons and teddy bears. By the time we arrived at the entrance, it was clear that this was no ordinary day at the Castle. The Elfia fantasy festival was in full swing, and a visit to the castle would require a €24 festival ticket for each of us. Our curiosity was pretty high, I’ll admit, but not high enough to justify the cost of entry. We gave the elves their victory.

We did manage to rescue the day from complete failure. Another bus ride and a short train ride brought us back to Utrecht, a city we both really enjoy. We found a table in the sun at one of the many lower-level canal-side restaurants, and I enjoyed the season’s first glass of rosé.

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This is as close as we got to the castle.

What I still can’t figure out – and I’ve given it more thought than it merits – is the underlying theme of Elfia. In what universe do Luke Skywalker, fairies, Scottish warriors, Victorian ladies, Harry Potter and zombies co-exist? Maybe I’m looking for something that isn’t there, and, much like Koningsdag, Elfia is a celebration just for the sake of celebrating.

We will make another attempt to visit the Castle. Next time, though, we may try to convince some friends with a car to join us. And we’ll check the website first.

Copenhagen, or Who Goes North in April?

Looking at our long and ever-growing list of places to visit, Copenhagen seemed like an easy win: it’s close to Amsterdam, everyone speaks English, there’s a lot to see, and the dining scene boasts more than a few darlings of the foodie world. We kept with our habit of planning long weekend trips to coincide with U.S. holidays, and booked for Easter weekend.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect that Copenhagen would be warm and sunny, or that we’d be biking blissfully around the city in t-shirts and shorts. I know that northern European countries have weather patterns all their own. We were prepared for rain and 10 degree weather. We were NOT prepared for 2 degrees. But there’s nothing a few layers can’t solve.  So, wearing almost every item of clothing I had packed, we set out to explore Copenhagen from our base in Vestboro.

(I have to start with a note about the bike situation. In my mind, Copenhagen was second only to Amsterdam in its cycling culture. I was shocked to see that the number of cyclists was nowhere near what we have in Amsterdam. Yes, the city is big, and yes, it was really cold, so maybe that impacted the tally. But there were just a handful of people traveling by bike. The lanes and infrastructure were quite good, but it just reinforced that when it comes to bikes, there is no place on earth I’ve seen that rivals Amsterdam.)

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St. Alban’s Church, next to the Kastellet

We arrived around lunchtime, so after checking in to our hotel, the first stop was Torvehallerne, a great food market with over 60 vendors offering everything from meats and cheeses to Danish smorrebrod and Spanish tapas. We found Ma Poule, a lovely little piece of France in the middle of Copenhagen, and had a good glass of wine and an amazing duck sandwich. It can be a challenge to find a seat inside the market, but we managed to grab a little table. On warmer days, (or for heartier people) there are picnic tables outside. It’s a great place to shop and graze and assemble your perfect lunch.

After walking around the Kastellet (and, yes, seeing the Little Mermaid, which, frankly, is over-rated), Friday afternoon brought the first of three attempts to get to the Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior’s Church) in the Christianshavn neighborhood. I’ve mentioned before that I like to climb. Finding towers or churches that I can ascend is a standard part of my pre-travel research. When I read about this church and its helix spire with an external staircase, it jumped to the top of my must-do list. Unfortunately, the church hours and the tower hours are not the same. By the time we arrived, the tower was closed.

We woke up to a rainy and windy Saturday and headed to the cisterns in Frederiksberg. Until recently, the cisterns were a museum of modern glass art. Now it is an exhibit and event space; the current exhibit is by Japanese architect Hiroshi Sambuichi. Although the cisterns are a bit out of the way, they are a unique and lovely place to visit, and the park and Frederiksberg neighborhood would be good for a wander.

That afternoon we made another go at the church tower, with hours to spare before closing time, only to find that it was closed due to rain. Sigh.

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The view from the gallery

Easter Sunday dawned clear and dry, but cold. I was worried about the tower being open on Easter, but the helpful hotel staff called to confirm, and we were on our way, hoping the third time was the charm. We arrived to find that I was not the only person in Copenhagen waiting to climb this tower. A long line – one that didn’t seem to be moving much – stretched from the entrance door. I hesitated, but my dear husband insisted. It took about 40 minutes to get inside, but once I started climbing I was surprised by how un-crowded the stairs and the tower were.

The first 300 or so steps are inside the tower, and were a nice, easy climb (although I did hit my head on the way up. And again on the way down.) There is a viewing gallery at the base of the spire, and then a broad staircase that narrows as it winds its way, counter-clockwise, four times around the spire to the top. It was awesome. There is an

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On my way down…

iron guardrail at about shoulder height, and I thankfully do not suffer from any fear of heights. The views were incredible, and being able to climb outside just made me giddy.

The whole trip up and down took about 90 minutes, and (apart from bumping my head) it was easy and painless. And, of course, totally worth the climb.

You can’t go to Copenhagen without seeing or learning something about Danish design, so we set off to the Danish Design Museum and arrived in time for the daily free tour of the current exhibit, The Danish Chair. This 30-minute tour was given by an enthusiastic young woman who spoke near-perfect English. The tour gave a brief introduction to the principles of Danish design, and also helped me understand why and how something as simple as a chair could be so revolutionary. The exhibit itself is beautifully designed (of course), and displays more than 100 chairs in what they called the “chair tunnel”.

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Inside the chair tunnel.

It was also interesting to wander through the museum and see just how many everyday items, from lunchboxes to routers, are influenced by Danish design.

Add in some good meals, another stop at Ma Poule, a self-guided city walk, and a stroll along the harbor in Nyhavn, and you’ve got a weekend getaway in Copenhagen. I imagine that in the summer months the cyclists rule the city and the waterfront restaurants are filled with sun-basking tourists. We may have missed that Copenhagen, but even in the cold of April, we saw some lovely views.

Holy Mole (Enchiladas)*

We’re often asked what we miss about living in the U.S. Other than family and friends, our most common answers involve food. Sometimes it’s a very specific meal from a very specific restaurant, like a slice of Sicilian pizza from Gino’s in Williston Park (my hometown), or the crab cakes at Legal Seafood. At other times, it’s a more general nostalgia for breakfast cereals or unlimited soft drink refills.

The Amsterdam food scene is diverse and vibrant, and always seems to be getting better. We’ve found good Indian restaurants, great Italian, we’ve been introduced to Indonesian…in short, we eat pretty well in Amsterdam. One notable exception is Mexican. Now, I should admit up front that we’ve never actually been to Mexico. We have, however, eaten at restaurants owned by Mexicans, where we were at least led to believe that we had eaten and enjoyed “authentic” Mexican food. We’re also smart enough to recognize that American chain restaurants like On the Border or Chili’s may fit an occasional need, but should not, under any circumstances, be mistaken for Mexican food.

So we don’t have many Mexican options in Amsterdam (although we seem to be drowning in tapas places). One well-known and well-reviewed Mexican restaurant has gotten our business twice, but the service was so bad and the attitude of the staff so off-putting that I don’t want to go back, no matter how good the enchiladas were. And then a friend-in-the-know, a displaced New Yorker who has some expertise in the field of tacos, suggested we check out Mexico Boulevard.

Located in a part of town we’d never visited before, not far from the Amstel and somewhere between the IJsselbuurt and the Rijnbuurt neighborhoods, Mexico Boulevard certainly looked the part of an authentic Mexican restaurant. Steel sculptures of a mariachi band greeted us from the window, and the interior was bright and colorful and comfortable. We received a warm welcome from Jan, the Dutch half of the restaurant’s pair of owners, and we knew that behind the scenes in the kitchen was Ana, who brought her family’s authentic recipes and love of tradition with her from Mexico. (Yes, of course, we looked at the website and the menu before we visited. Doesn’t everyone?) Together, they created the best Mexican meal we’ve had in Amsterdam. Period.

We both had enchiladas; my Suizas Enchiladas had the tangy, acidic bite of fresh tomatillos, and the Enmoladas met my husband’s high standards for mole sauce. The portions were generous and the black beans – which I usually don’t give much attention – were especially good. We paired our food with a couple of glasses of sangria, naturally. No room for dessert, this time, but the lemon cream pie caught my eye. Finally, our long-standing itch for good Mexican food was scratched.

*Credit for the title of this post goes to my husband. “Holy mole” were the first words he spoke after his first bite. That’s how much he liked the mole. And yes, he can be as cheesy as the enchiladas.

Lifelong language learning

We breathe in our first language and swim in our second.

-Adam Gopnik

About 25% of non-Hispanic American adults speak a language other than English well enough to have a conversation. The figures here in the Netherlands tell a very different story: 90-93% of Dutch people speak English, 71% speak German, and 25% are conversant in French. Do the math, and you’ll realize that proficiency in a 2nd and 3rd language is as Dutch as bicycles or bitterballen. It is a reflection of the size of the country (small), its location (surrounded by Germany and Belgium), and its history (global commerce). While I can’t comment on the German skills of Dutch people, I can say that their English is quite good, something that many attribute to television. In neighboring European countries, English-language programs are dubbed in the local language. Here, TV and films have Dutch ondertitels, which means that people hear a lot of English, and that the English spoken by many Dutchies is peppered with British or American slang.

If you grow up in the U.S., a second language is an academic exercise, not a necessity. Many students stumble through high-school level French or Spanish, learning just enough to pass the required test, never really understanding the use or benefit of a second language. In contrast to the modern English spoken by the Dutch, the French I learned in school always seemed from another era: formal, stuffy, a bit archaic. The things we really needed to know – the idioms and everyday expressions that give real-world confidence – were never taught.

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Language apps only teach the most useful phrases, right?

(That said, I will never forget that during my first visit to Paris I was approached by a woman on the street who asked, “Où est la bibliothèque?” It was a text-book question, pulled from one of the endless, useless dialogues we practiced in class, right up there with, “Est-ce que vous voulez jouer au tennis avec moi?” I swear I looked around for my French teacher Madame Clines…it had to be a joke, right? Never in my life have I been so prepared to answer a question.)

For me, language learning has become a life-long pursuit. I’ve shared a lot about my experiences learning French, including the immersion program that I did several years ago. French remains both my favorite language and a constant challenge. I don’t do as much as I should to keep it up. I progress and forget, I have periods of more intense practice and study, and then I’ll go weeks or months without using it at all.

Then there’s Dutch. To be honest, I’m embarrassed that my Dutch is as poor as it is. We don’t plan to stay here forever, and we don’t technically need to speak Dutch, especially in Amsterdam. But after 2 years, I feel like I should know more, or at least try harder. My comprehension has improved a lot, in part because my co-workers often just speak Dutch in front of me. And I know enough to get by. I can introduce myself and read a menu and order a drink and probably ask for directions. But as with my early French lessons, I often feel that the little Dutch I do know is formal and not very useful. It’s the practical, every-day things I miss. Those small expressions and pleasantries that act as social and conversational lubricant. Maybe with a few of those in my pocket I’d be more likely to chat with a neighbor in Dutch, or finally agree to “Nederlands vrijdag” in the office.

In the meantime, at least I’m prepared if anyone in Amsterdam ever asks me about grandparents and farm animals…

Looking back on Sicily

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The view from Erice’s medieval fortress.

It’s been about a month since our long weekend trip to Sicily. I’ve started to post about it a few times, never with much enthusiasm. We didn’t love Sicily, to be honest, and it’s been hard to write about it without feeling like I’m being too hard on it, somehow. It’s not as if anything went wrong. We survived our first experience of renting a car (driving in Italy is serious business), had nice weather and some good meals. From Palermo, we drove to Trapani and made our way to Erice, where we toured a medieval fortress and savored the views earned by the sometimes-harrowing route up the mountain.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve been spoiled by the travel experiences we’ve had since we’ve been in Amsterdam. We’ve eaten meals in Tuscany that we’re still talking about two years later, had conversations with 7th-generation winemakers in the Beaujolais region of France, and made friends in Berlin over beer and curry wurst. So when we travel, the bar is a bit high…we’re expecting a magical moment or two, or a great story to look back on.

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The Cathedral in Palermo

 

On the surface, Sicily didn’t provide those moments. Everything was…fine. But “fine”  doesn’t, at first glance, make for much to write about. In the weeks since our trip, I’ve been thinking more about our experience, trying to be more balanced about my impressions. But the truth is that not every place is going to “wow” you, right? Maybe due to weather or language or food or expectations, you connect with some places more than others. It’s not entirely fair, but that’s the reality of travel. I shouldn’t be too hard on Sicily, or on myself.

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Trapani’s coastline

Looking back, we did, actually, have one memorable moment. (Most of the other good memories involve cannoli.) Mid-February is not high season for tourists in Erice, and at times we seemed to have the little town to ourselves. Walking down a side street, we stopped and stood still for a moment and just listened.  Complete silence. Not a dog barking, or a car horn, or a human voice. Just silence, and a little wind. Magic.