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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

1-Crested-Moss ChuteAs I was reviewing my rose photographs during our latest snow storm, trying to envision what our garden will look like in just a few more months, I came across some photos of Crested Moss. I had taken these photos when we visited the Giardino delle Rose in Florence, Italy a few years ago and it was the first time I had ever seen a moss rose.

2-Giardino-delle-rose-FloreI recall walking through the rose garden that day and being delighted when I spotted Crested Moss (also known as Chapeau de Napoleon because the moss-covered sepals surrounding the buds are reminiscent of the tri-cornered hat Napoleon wore). Moss roses are unique because of this distinctive moss-like growth around the buds and bases of the flowers. In the photo above, you can see that the terminal bloom is encircled by at least 10 buds with pink petals peeking through what is often described as parsley-like growth. What a photo opportunity!

Moss roses are believed to have originated as sports, or mutations of centifolia roses. The mossy growth has a strong pine or balsamic fragrance most noticeable if the mossy growth is rubbed between your fingers.

2-Crested-Moss-bud-ChuteCrested Moss is a “Found Rose,” discovered in 1827. It has rich, clear pink flowers with a yellow button eye in the center, a damask, spicy fragrance and is known for its disease resistant. It clearly looked disease-free in Florence with its unblemished foliage. It  blooms once in late spring to early summer for several weeks. Our visit to Giardino delle Rose was in late May just as Crested Moss, as well as the rest of the garden, began to bloom.

We have never grown moss roses since we felt that they wouldn’t tolerate the hot, humid mid-summer Rhode Island weather. Now, after seeing the picture of Crested Moss again, I may just give it a try.

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Sacre Coeur

We are a lá carte travelers. We enjoy creating our own trips, day by day — from starting with months of research to arranging airfare to booking hotels to renting cars and especially to planning a flexible itinerary. This past September we returned to Paris for two weeks and re-discovered this magnificent City of Lights. Our schedule included places we missed on our first visit in May, 2012. This time, in addition to revisiting some of our favorite places, we explored Paris’s rich history of churches and cathedrals. Since we had been to the famed Notre Dame Cathedral several times, we targeted other well-known sites.

We began with a metro ride to Montmartre, one of Paris’s oldest neighborhoods and the location of a thriving artist colony and the Basilica of Sacré Coeur. While we walked from the metro stop to Montmartre, the last leg of the trip was a choice of walking up a some very steep stairs or taking the funicular, an electric tram. Tough choice…we took the funicular. However, that meant waiting in a long line but it went quickly.

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St. Michael

Once we reached the top, the sight of Sacré Coeur was impressive (see photo above). Throngs of people were seated on the steps that overlooked the city of Paris. After climbing these steps, we stood in a short line and passed through a security check in order to enter the church. (Security checks were at all public sites in Paris, churches were no exception.) We viewed the interior and admired a dramatic statue of St. Michael, lit a candle as we did in each church we visited and then rejoined the throng outside. Since Montmartre is the highest point in Paris, the broad steps of the basilica are popular with tourists for their panoramic view of the city.

We walked up the small, winding streets, had lunch at a small café and then roamed through nearby Place du Tertre, where artists set up stalls in the famous outdoor square. We purchased a small original watercolor from an elderly French artist as a permanent reminder of this iconic Parisian neighborhood.

5-montmartre

The next day was Sunday, the day we traveled to Chartres, a small town 50 miles outside of Paris and this called for a train ride. (We found train travel in France to be clean, safe, reliable and reasonably priced — round-trip Paris to Chartres cost €64 for two.) So here we were at Gare Montparnasse to catch the 10:06 train for the 90-minute ride to Chartres. 4-gare-montpanasseThe train was only half full and we enjoyed seeing the French countryside — lots of agriculture and cows, some shabby houses, some nice ones.

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Our Lady of Chartres

We knew when we were getting close to the town of Chartres because the cathedral, aka Our Lady of Chartres, could be seen from a distance, soaring in its gothic glory high above everything. A spectacular introduction to this medieval town.

Since we were here for the day, our plan was to explore the cathedral and the nearby town on our own, have lunch and then take a one-hour guided tour of the cathedral. The cathedral is surrounded by restaurants and small shops but, being Sunday, all the shops and most of the restaurants were closed. Sunday closings seemed to be the case throughout France.

After lunch, we met Elizabeth, our guide, who began the tour outside the church explaining the history of the cathedral as well as its gothic architecture. This was followed by a descent into the dark and deep Crypt, the remains of the old church. The tour finished with a walk through the cathedral and details describing the extraordinary stained glass windows.

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Stained Glass and Rose Window at Chartres

As we returned to the train station, we looked back one last time at this magnificent Gothic cathedral with its tall pointed steeples, towering stained glass, grand rose windows, gargoyles, flying buttresses, hundreds of statues, and a compelling history.

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St. Chapelle Upper Chapel

Next on our list was St. Chapelle which is located in the shadows of  Notre Dame Cathedral on the Ile de la Cité in the heart of Paris. We arrived at noon on a Tuesday and expected a long queue but found a short one instead. We bypassed the line anyway with our Museum Pass and entered into the lower chapel where we rented audio guides, a must to fully understand the history and contents of the church. (A Museum Pass doesn’t save much money but allowed us to bypass the line at many venues.)

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St. Chapelle

St. Chapelle was built in the gothic style in the 13th century by King Louis IX and has the most extraordinary collection of stained glass anywhere in the world. The church is divided into two chapels, the upper or royal chapel was for the king and the lower was for everyone else. The walls of the upper chapel consists of 15 towering gothic stain glass windows stretching 3/4 of the way up the wall, each a jaw-dropping 49 feet high, with a glorious rose window at one end. Each window has 90 or more panels and relates a biblical story or depicts an old testament scene. St Chapelle is much smaller than Notre Dame and only takes an hour, two at the most, to visit.

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St. Sulpice

If it weren’t for the Da Vinci Code movie, we may never have known about St. Sulpice Cathedral, one of the largest cathedrals in Paris, second only to Notre Dame. After Notre Dame, St. Chapelle, and Chartes, the architecture of St. Sulpice is subdued, lacking dramatic stained glass windows and big crowds. What it did have, however, was a gnomon and an extraordinary pipe organ. It also provided the dramatic setting for a scene in the Da Vinci Code — which was actually filmed on a duplicate stage elsewhere.

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Obelisk

The gnomon, once used in the calculation of Easter, is a brass meridian on the floor that leads to a white marble obelisk. A ray of sunlight passes at noon through an opening in a window opposite the obelisk and rests on the meridian at various points throughout the year.

As luck would have it, we were in Paris on the autumnal equinox and went to St. Sulpice at mid-day along with a small crowd of visitors there for the same reason. We all saw the oval sunray cross the meridian on time at just the right spot. This was an unexpected bonus on the trip.

We returned to St. Sulpice the following Sunday to attend Mass, a little surprised to find the Cathedral only three-quarters full, and stayed for the organ concert afterwards. The 45-minute concert is presented each Sunday after the 11 o’clock Mass with a combination of ecclesiastical and classical  compositions. The great organ with 5588 pipes is a remarkable instrument dating back to the eighteenth century. The sound was amazing, easily filling every nook and crevice of the enormous cathedral. Afterwards, we took our time strolling back to the hotel through Luxemburg Gardens to start packing for the trip home.

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The Great Pipe Organ

This trip was special and we talk about it all the time. The great benefit of being a lá carte travelers is the blend of spontaneous events, chance meetings with locals and other travelers, and serendipitous happenings that occur while we are out and about in a far-away place that would not happen on a more structured trip.

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While we have thoroughly enjoyed vacationing in other European countries as well as the United States, our first trip to Paris in 2012 exceeded our expectations and we made plans to return “some day.” Well that day came last month and we spent 2 weeks enjoying everything the City of Lights had to offer, including its museums, churches and gardens. But when we planned this year’s trip, we kept our daily itinerary to one major attraction, making sure to give ourselves enough flexibility to add or subtract places to see and plenty of time to explore the parts of Paris that weren’t in any guide books.

2-angelinasWe enjoyed revisiting the Louvre and D’Orsay Museums, as well as the restaurant “Angelina’s” which shares my name and has the best hot chocolate we’ve ever tasted. Traveling by train to Versailles and Chartres were adventures we enjoyed and visiting the Bagatelle Rose Garden in the western part of Paris was high on our list. (Stay tuned for upcoming blogs.)  But what added to the enjoyment of this trip was the free time we built in to wander the neighborhoods and stroll the gardens to see how Parisians lived in what we find to be one of the most exciting and vibrant cities in the world.

9-le-sixWe returned to the Hotel Le Six, a small boutique hotel in the 6th arrondissement in the Montparnasse section on the Left Bank. It’s centrally located, less than a block away from the Boulevard Montparnasse which offers a wide choice of restaurants, bistros and cafes. Plus it was only a few minutes walk from several metro stops, bus stops and even a train station which made getting around Paris easy. We used the Paris Visite pass which allowed unlimited use of transportation and after a few days we were using the metro system to quickly travel from one part of Paris to another.

3-invictus

Since there is no shortage of restaurants in Paris, we decided not to eat in the same place twice. We broke that promise only once and returned to Invictus for our final night because our first meal there was so memorable. Invictus, a small restaurant with 12 tables, is owned by Christophe Chabanel, a former rugby player who played in South Africa for a number of years before returning to Paris, hence the name of the restaurant. He greets his guests, explains the menu in English or French, suggests wines and makes everyone feel welcome. He also assured us that he could adjust any of his meals to be gluten free. I ordered the lamb chops which were the best I have ever tasted and Mike enjoyed his entrecote steak followed by creme brulee for dessert. After sampling creme brulee  in various restaurants Mike declared Invictus’ was the best.

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Lamb Chops at Invictus

There were other memorable French restaurants and we did not have a bad meal anywhere. Paris is full of small, intimate restaurants like Invictus, located discreetly on side streets, with limited menus featuring excellent food. Night after night we feasted on entrees like crispy boneless duck, tender veal stew and chateaubriand, all accompanied by an array of French red wine.

5-creperies

“Crepe Alley”

For evenings after we had indulged in late lunches, we took advantage of the creperies on Rue Montparnasse, a narrow street that we refer to as “Crepe Alley” a few blocks away from our hotel.  Creperies line both sides of the street and, to our surprise, in addition to wheat crepes all offered galettes  — gluten free crepes made of buckwheat that could be filled with a wide array of ingredients. Mike especially liked the one with ham, cheese and egg.

One place that I just had to go to was Les Deux Magot, a cafe frequented in the 20’s by Ernest Hemingway and other well-known writers and artists. It was doing a brisk business when we arrived at 2 PM but we were seated at one of the small round tables along the sidewalk and I ordered my favorite Parisian lunch: a jambon et fromage baguette (ham and cheese). We sat and people-watched imagining what it was like back in Hemingway’s day.

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While we enjoyed our dining experiences in Paris as well as visits to various museums, churches and gardens, what we enjoyed just as much was meandering around the city in order to savor the flavor of this fascinating city. Several times we took the Metro to the Ile de la Cité area, where Notre Dame Cathedral is located, and strolled along the Seine, stopping at the bouquinistes who have their stalls set up along each side of the river. Bouquinistes are licensed vendors and are allocated a pre-determined amount of space for their green painted boxes. These green boxes open up to display shelves with their merchandise and when closed the green boxes are folded up and locked. We had fun perusing the old posters and books (in French) that were mixed in with the countless souvenirs as well as some original art. We took long walks along the Seine and over the bridges that connect the Left and Right Banks, stopping to watch the tour boats taking tourists along the river to see the many sights, including the Eiffel Tower.

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Boats on the River Seine

8-luxumbourg-gardens-chessOn one of our free days, a Saturday, we strolled through Luxembourg Gardens to find the park filled with Parisians, both young and old. There were men and women playing serious bocce, a couple of tables of men gathered around a very lively game of chess, children playing soccer, as well as people basking in the sunshine or reading under the trees that surrounded flower gardens. Parisians love their parks and gardens in the city because they don’t have backyards where they can otherwise enjoy outside activities.

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Edith Piaf’s Tomb

Another day we chose to go to the Père-Lachaise Cemetery, a very old cemetery in Paris. The Père-Lachaise is the resting place for well-known celebrities such as Edith Piaf, Chopin, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, and even Jim Morrison. It was impressive and a little eerie with over 100 acres of tombs and monuments so close together, there was hardly room to walk between one and the other. There was also an area with monuments honoring the French who had died in the WW II French Resistance and powerful remembrances of Nazi Concentration camps.

4-boulangerieWhen we made our way back to the hotel late in the afternoon after a day of sightseeing, we detoured onto side streets and found small shops and markets. We shopped like Parisians — got cheese at the fromagerie, bread at the boulangerie, and wine at the local wine shop. We’d take our purchases home (back to Le Six which had become our home away from home) and be greeted by the staff  who always asked about our day. After chatting for a while and getting recommendations for dinner, we’d return to our room where we would slice the cheese, pour some wine, put up our feet, and come to the conclusion that this was the life.

Now that we’re home, we ask ourselves what was the best part of our trip to Paris. It’s hard to pinpoint just one part. We’ve come to realize that a really good trip is more than the sum of its parts — it’s the whole experience melded together into an incredible adventure and the memories only get better with time.

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Stanley-Park

We knew we had arrived in Vancouver when we caught sight of the tall glass towers with rounded corners that dominated the dramatic downtown skyline. Since we only had four days to spend here, our agenda was packed with plans to visit Stanley Park’s Rose Garden, Granville Island, the Museum of Anthropology and a drive to Whistler.

Along the Sea to Sky Highway

Along the Sea to Sky Highway

Originally, we had wanted to include a foray into the Canadian Rockies but our schedule only allowed time for a day trip to Whistler via the famous Sea to Sky Highway. While the drive time from the Lion’s Gate Bridge in North Vancouver to the town of Whistler was only two hours, we planned on a whole day to include time for scenic stops and breaks.
The Sea to Sky Highway is a much improved upgrade from the old Highway 99 which had been a harrowing twisty two lane road carved into the steep cliffs along Howe Sound back in the day. The road received a major makeover for the 2010 Winter Olympics and offers a spectacular panorama of Howe Sound at sea level segueing into stunning mountain vistas as we climbed toward Whistler in the Rockies. (You know this a serious mountain road when there are frequent turnoffs cautioning drivers to install tire chains for winter travel.)
Oympic-RingsAfter this amazing morning drive, Whistler was anticlimactic. After a so-so lunch, we walked around a bit. We half expected an intimate alpine ski village but found a busy upscale ski area with lots of dining, trendy shops, and galleries. Visitors were mostly interested in eating and taking selfies in front of the Olympic rings in the village square.
The return trip in the afternoon exposed different vistas and was just as rewarding as the morning’s drive. The trip did take the whole day and could have gone longer. The Sea to Sky Highway has been described as one of the top drives in Canada and we can attest to that.

A bed of Julia Child roses

A bed of Julia Child roses

The following day we went to Stanley Park in North Vancouver to see the rose garden. This 80-year-old garden has 3500 rose bushes planted in large beds surrounded by lawn. Most beds consist of many bushes of the same variety creating a dramatic color palette when in bloom. Unlike the rose garden in The Butchart Gardens in Victoria that we had seen the week before, this garden displayed lots of color even though peak bloom was supposed to be two weeks away. One section of the garden had a long arbor with climbers scrambling up and over both sides and beds of seasonal plantings of annuals, perennials, and spring bulbs planted along the side – perfect companion plants for roses.Stanley-Park-Arbor
The garden is maintained by a professional staff and looks it. The bushes are fertilized and well-pruned; the beds are clean, attractive and weed-free. We chatted with a gardener who told us that the garden is organic by design and no pesticides are employed. They even create their own garden soil with a park-wide composting system.
Municipal rose gardens are intended to display the color, fragrance and beauty of the genus rosa to the public and the rose garden at Stanley Park does just that.

Ballerina Rose

Ballerina Rose

Before leaving, we meandered through the park, stopping at the gift shop with an impressive array of locally carved totem poles displayed outside.
Totem-Poles-in-Stanley-POn our final day in Vancouver, we headed over to Granville Island, a one-time industrial area now gentrified with a huge indoor public market as the main attraction. It features local produce, seafood, baked goods, interesting arts and crafts, and lots of eating. With over 10 million visitors annually, we had expected numbing congestion with little parking. But on the drizzly Tuesday morning in May we arrived, the crowd size was modest and the parking plentiful. While smaller, Granville Island is somewhat akin to Pike’s Place Market in Seattle but with more open space and a little more subdued.

Granville Island

Granville Island

After lunch we drove to the UBC Museum of Anthropology 20 minutes away. This museum is well known for its collections of art and culture of the Canadian First Nations of the Pacific Northwest. The Great Hall displays an impressive number of totem poles, canoes and other carved sculptures. However, the center piece in the museum is the iconic wooden sculpture titled “The Raven and The First Men” carved out of yellow cedar by Bill Reid. The museum collection is massive, too much to digest in one visit, but an ideal way to spend a rainy afternoon. We left Vancouver the following day returning to Seattle and the long flight home.

The Raven and the First Men

The Raven and the First Men

As New Englanders, Angelina and I travel to faraway places out of broad curiosity of the world beyond home plus a keen sense of adventure. As in past trips, after months of planning, this one came and went in a blink. The Seattle and British Columbia trip was satisfying and we are glad we went. Now we’re looking toward 2016 and our next adventure.

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Garden of Glass Chihuly Garden and Glass

Garden of Glass
Chihuly Garden and Glass

When we traveled to Seattle Washington last May, we had planned an active itinerary of what to see and places to go. High on our list was Pike’s Place Market, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Woodlawn Rose Garden. Of course, the list included the Space Needle – the iconic symbol of Seattle – and while we were there we were also eager to go to the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition that was located right next door

Pike's-PlaceOur hotel was within easy walking distance of Pike’s Place Market, so the day we arrived in Seattle, we decided to have lunch at Pike’s Place. However, visiting on a Sunday turned out not to be a good idea, since it was so crowded that we could barely move, let alone find a place to sit down and eat. But we did enjoy watching the crowds swarm around the big fish stalls and especially liked the very busy flower stalls that were absolutely packed with a never ending supply of inexpensive floral bouquets. Every one we saw seemed to be carrying a bunch of these colorful flowers.

Flower-Stall

Fish-StallWe find it helpful to go on a city tour early in our trips in order to get a sense of the layout of a new city. Mike had chosen Shutter Tours, an excellent small-tour company that brought us to some out of-the-way places we would have missed on our own. As a bonus, the tour guide provided welcome tips on taking photos. So on the day after our arrival in Seattle, we were driven through the city of Seattle then a ride out to Snoqualmie Falls. Then it was on to a stop at the Fremont Troll under the Seattle highway overpass followed by a look at Ballard Locks and Fisherman’s Terminal. The Locks were particularly interesting since it was Memorial Day and we were able to see the traffic jam of pleasure boats queuing up in the locks to get home.

Troll

Ballard-LocksThe next day we took the hotel courtesy car out to the Space Needle with plans to view Chihuly Garden and Glass. We were a little disappointed to find out that most of the indoor exhibits, like the Northwest Room, Sealife Room, and the Ikebana and Float Boat room we had seen at the Chiluly exhibit at Boston Museum of Fine Arts a few years ago. But we were fortunate to arrive just in time for a fascinating demonstration of glass blowing.

Glass-BlowingThe most impressive part of our visit was the Chihuly Glasshouse, a 40 foot tall structure where a colorful display of glass flowers hung above and around us, part of a 100-foot long suspended sculpture. It was an amazing piece of art and as I looked up, juxtaposed above the sculpture was the iconic Space Needle.

Greenhouse

Space-Needle-and-GreenhAs impressive as the Glasshouse was, I think the Chihuly Garden outside was just as striking, not so much for its live plantings but for the monumental glass sculptures and colorful installations of glass art displayed artfully among and around the trees, shrubs, and plants. The bright colors – blues, oranges, purples, reds – were truly amazing.

Chihuly-GardenIf you visit Seattle, put the Chihuly Garden and Glass on your ‘must-see” list. This Garden of Glass is a garden like no other and one you’ll never forget.

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The Butchart Gardens

Angelina and I had arrived in Victoria, British Columbia on the second leg of our recent trip to the Pacific Northwest. We had crossed the border into Canada the day before and drove to the ferry landing at Tsawwassen, just south of Vancouver, for the 90-minute boat ride to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island followed by a short drive to Victoria. The BC Ferry was huge and we were amazed at how quickly they unloaded and reloaded hundreds of cars and trucks in less than 45 minutes. The weather was perfect and the island scenery was stunning, an unanticipated benefit to the trip. Since we only had a few days to spend here, our primary goal was to visit The Butchart Gardens.
The Butchart Gardens are located 14 miles north of the town of Victoria on the Saanich Peninsula. Here is where Robert and Jennie Butchart settled in the late 19th century. They built a home and constructed a factory utilizing nearby limestone deposits to manufacture Portland cement. It was the quarry left from mining this limestone that would become the fabulous Sunken Garden, the premiere garden at Butchart.
Hanging-BasketAs we entered the parking area on the morning we arrived, we noted that the parking lot was paved with thousands and thousands of pavers, not asphalt or concrete, the first indication of the standard of quality we would see throughout the gardens. Once inside, we saw hanging baskets, flower boxes and large beds of annuals, perennials and flowering shrubs everywhere; even the trash containers had pots of blooming flowers on top – the garden was a tsunami of color. Planter
We headed to the rose garden first, hoping there would be at least some bloom – this was mid-May and still early for roses in BC. Arches of ramblers provided a dramatic entrance but unfortunately were still in bud stage. This was the case with most of the roses with only some varieties of shrub roses in bloom – peak bloom was still two weeks away. I noticed that a handful of alfalfa pellets were spread about the base of each rose and a gardener said this was to add organic content to the soil around each bush. The pellets quickly break down when wet and add some nutrients as well. I may try this in our gardens next season. (But I wonder if this might attract unwelcome rabbits.) Rose Arches

Another interesting feature here was the “tree roses” established throughout the rose garden. These standards were supported by wire frames that looked like big inverted “baskets” atop the four-foot interstems where the grafts were made. This allowed City of York, a white climber, to be trained by wrapping its long canes around and around the baskets creating an unusual pyramid shape when the laterals bloomed. We did enjoy the purple, blue and white delphiniums in full bloom planted among the roses that added early color to this garden.

Rose Standard

Rose Standard

The path from the rose garden led to the shady cloaked entrance to the Sunken Garden, the signature garden at Butchart. This amazing garden was created in the limestone quarry between the residence and the cement plant. Serpentine paths wind around bed after bed after bed ablaze with seasonal color that almost defies description. Each bed was freshly edged and surrounded by immaculate lawn. (One bed featured jet-black petunias. I had never seen this color before. I inquired about them at the information booth but no one could ID the variety.) The tall grey quarry walls have long-since been covered in ivy. This garden alone was worth the trip.

Sunken Garden

Sunken Garden

Black Petunias

Black Petunias

We wandered over to the Italian Garden, a former tennis court, transformed into a formal garden of symmetrical beds in a paved courtyard. These beds changed seasonally with an outstanding tulip display in springtime. Next to the Italian garden was a perfect lawn, a salute to turf, a meticulously mowed green sward that looked like Fenway Park.

Italian Garden

Italian Garden

Afternoon-TeaNow it was time for lunch or should I say Afternoon Tea at the Dining Room Restaurant in the Gardens. This was our first experience with a formal Tea and we had reserved the meals weeks in advance. The best part was they had a gluten-free version of Afternoon Tea which meant I could have some too. In fact, my Tea was much the same as Angelina’s as the kitchen staff had developed excellent gluten-free substitutions for the bread and pastries. We enjoyed both the food and the experience in an elegant setting surrounded by beds of flowering shrubs and annuals.

After tea we roamed through the Japanese Garden and then stopped by a life-size chess set where Angelina played a game. The large gift shop was our last stop on the way out to buy something to bring home. Chess
The Butchart Garden was on top of our bucket list of must-sees for the trip. Based on our research we had high expectations and we were not disappointed. The gardens were fresh and immaculate. A small army of gardeners patrolled the property – each with a rake, pruners and a wheelbarrow – weeding, raking deadheading, and chatting with visitors. The structures and hardscape were well maintained and we were especially impressed with the lofty standards of cleanliness reminiscent of the pristine environment found in Disney properties.

Climbing Roses

Climbing Roses

The Butchart Gardens in its own unique and special way was the equal of the best gardens we’ve seen both in Europe and the United States. We hit the road back to Victoria by mid-afternoon well satisfied with our visit.

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Irish Countryside

Irish Countryside

It’s been a couple of months since our trip to Ireland and we talk and laugh endlessly about our Irish journey as we go through photos and recall our Irish happenings. Travel experiences, like fine wine and cheese, get better over time.

Narrow Irish Street

Narrow Irish Street

One such happening was the decision to rent a car in Ireland and go where the locals go. Or so we thought. When it was time to depart Dublin, we picked up the mid-size, four-door Chevrolet sedan from Hertz then got a five-minute tutorial on driving-on-the-left-in-Ireland-with-a-six-speed-manual-transmission from Fintan, our new Irish friend. I will not soon forget following Fintan out of the Hertz car park (Irish for parking lot) onto the left side of a busy main Dublin thoroughfare, fumbling with the 6-speed stick shift. I was a bit nervous, Angelina was speechless.

Fintan led us through a maze of Dublin city streets to the N11, a modern motorway in Ireland, and pointed us towards Powerscourt in County Wicklow. Then with a wave and a toot of his horn he peeled off back into Dublin and we were on our own. The adjustment to left-side driving and shifting was surprisingly quick, only an hour or so, but it would be negotiating the very narrow roads and lanes that provided high driving drama throughout the rest of the trip. We had included a Garmin GPS in our rental agreement, thinking it would be a back-up in case we got lost. Bridget was the name we gave the silky voice with the Dublin accent in the GPS. Her smooth directions turned out to be very accurate and I don’t think we could have found half the places we went without her. She was our steady companion for eight days. It was on the next leg from Powerscourt to Kinsale that we discovered another feature of Irish driving – roundabouts everywhere. Roundabouts re-direct traffic without stopping and often take the place of traffic lights. I found them to be quick and efficient…as long as you select the right exit. If not, simply turn around in somebody’s driveway and try it again.

Rugged Irish Coast

Rugged Irish Coast

After two days in Kinsale, we took a travel day, spending the entire day meandering down to the southern tip of Ireland and then up the famed rugged western coast towards Killarney, stopping along the way on a whim.Heritage-Museum

First stop was in Skibbereen at the Heritage Museum dedicated to the devastating Irish Potato Famine in 1845. The 6-year famine, another bitter, tragic event in Irish history, led to the starvation deaths of 1 million and the loss of another million to immigration, a total loss of 30% of the population in less than ten years. We walked to a nearby memorial burial ground full of famine graves, a sober moment on our trip.

Famine Cemetery Memorial

Famine Cemetery Memorial

On the road again we made short stops in Bantry and Kenmare. By now I’m quite comfortable driving; downshifting smoothly into countless roundabouts, flying out the other side by centrifugal force much to Angelina’s chagrin. The narrow and twisty drive from Kenmare to Killarney on the N71 through the western mountains and part of the Ring of Kerry was absolutely spectacular even though I dared not take my eyes off the road.

Emerald-QuiltIn Killarney, we took a tour to the Dingle Peninsula, similar to the Ring of Kerry but with less traffic. By now, I was more than willing to sit and enjoy a ride in the country with someone else doing the driving. This trip to Dingle is where we saw Ireland as a stunningly beautiful green tapestry. The fields are defined by ancient stone walls forming an emerald quilt and filled everywhere with sheep. Homes and barns were built of concrete blocks covered with stucco; no wood structures at all. Walls were stacked field stones, just like New England; again no wooden fences. The best part of the day was the drive more so than where we stopped. The small towns were all quaint but filled mostly with gift shops and pubs for tourists. They started to look alike.

Thatched Roof Cottage

Thatched Roof Cottage

The following day we hit the road once more with another travel day stopping in Adare for lunch. Adare is where we found several of the increasingly rare thatched-roofed buildings. It’s also where we found aubretia planted in gaps in a stone wall in front of a boutique. We would see these bright, blue-violet floral clusters growing as feral flowers in nooks and crannies everywhere we went. I wish we could have brought some home.

Aubretia

Aubretia

Limerick was the next and final destination of our trip. We spent a very pleasant afternoon with cousins of mine that I had never met. The following day we went on our second day trip, this time out to the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher. The Cliffs were impressive in every way but it was the Burren that I found more fascinating. “Burren” comes from an Irish word meaning “rocky place” and rocky it was.

Cliffs of Moher

Cliffs of Moher

It’s a large area of rolling hills of limestone, a moonscape of archeological sites megalithic tombs, portal dolmens, Celtic high crosses, and ring forts along Galway Bay.

The Burren

The Burren

Going to the Poulnabrone dolmen, an ancient burial site, in the Burren was on my wish list for the trip and I was the last one back in the van after our visit. This was one of the trip’s high points and a fitting end to our Irish getaway as we headed home the following day.

Poulmabrone Dolman

Poulnabrone Dolman

We have come to realize that the best part of travel is the suspension of daily routines and putting worries on the shelf for a couple of weeks. It’s a calculated and delicious leap in the dark to somewhere new and wonderful. And despite careful planning, you never really know how the details will unfold. And, like fine wine and cheese, much of the reward lies in great expectations.

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