Where Fairies Must Live

When I was planning my trip to Croatia I was a little surprised to read that the most beautiful national park in Europe was in Croatia called the Plitvice Lakes. I thought this sounded a bit hard to believe. I didn’t think anywhere could beat the pristine views I’ve enjoyed in the Swiss alps or my hike around Mount Blanc. So I viewed this comment with great skepticism, but also with curiosity.

When planning the trip I read that the park could become very crowed by mid-day when tour buses form Zagreb arrived. So my travel companion and I chose to spend the night near the park so we could enter early in the morning. We found a lovely cottage on Airbnb near Parking 3. This way we could easily buy tickets away from the crowd and take the boat into the park once it opened.

Upon our arrival, the inn keeper recommend that we take a one mile walk down the road in the opposite direction of the park entrance to get small taste of what we would see the next day. Her directions were to to climb under the wooden fence near the bridge. This would put us at the top of the Big Waterfall. From there we could easily find the path that would take us to the bottom of the Big Waterfall if we desired. All this could be done in an hour or less. We only had a few hours before sunset and thought this would be a great way to kill some time before our other travel partners arrived.

It was cool with a heavy overcast much like a spring day back home in Seattle. We grabbed our lightweight jackets and headed on our way. We easily found the bridge and fence, but we only needed to follow the roaring sound coming from the Big Falls. After snapping a few guarded pictures on the slippery rocks  we headed down the path. As we slowly descended, each step took us deeper into a new world surrounded by the sound of falling water, misty clouds and fresh sweet air. Within a few minutes we were admiring the cascading water coming from 47 meters above. At the top we could only see a small piece, but the bottom the Big Waterfall is actually many falls all plunging into a crystal clear pool.

Originally we had planned to only see the Big Waterfall and return, but it was as though fairies or the Sirens from Greek mythology were calling us to enter their mystical world. We began to wander down the long twisting wooden paths surrounded by beautiful turquoise water. Each turn brought us to new specular views with more waterfalls falling into another pond that must be the bath for beautiful maidens. My mind returned to the book I had read back in high school called Lost Horizon by the British author James Hilton. Even though I hadn’t been in a plane crash in the Himalayas, it did feel as though we had entered the Shangri-La mentioned in the book that was mystical and harmonious. I felt that if fairies existed, this must be where they lived. My companion turned to me and said, “Is this real?” Indeed, the Plitvice Lakes are real, but you might feel for one short moment that you have passed into utopia.

The following day we arose early enough to be on the first boat across Kozjak Lake. Even though we still shared the park with many other tourists. It was still magical, and I must now agree, Plitvice Lakes is indeed one of the best national parks in Europe.

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Travel Advice

  • Enter as early as possible.
  • Don’t miss seeing the area around the Big Waterfall. It is outside the park down from P3 or ST1. It requires some walking, but worth the time.
  • Wear comfortable walking shoes that work well on wet surfaces.
  • Bring a light jacket and umbrella if you plan to go in the summer and especially in June.
  • If possible, stay nearby. We stayed in an area near the Lower Lakes called Etno Garden, but  I’m sure the hotels near Entrance 2 would also be nice.

 

Getting Around Provence on 2 Wheels

For years I have longed to see the lavender fields of Provence. When I discovered that the lavender usually blooms in early July, I thought a bicycle trip seemed like the perfect way to go. Even though the lavender was almost finished when we arrived, the trip was still quite romantic and charming.

During the trip I shared our daily adventures with family and friends by email.  Below are the emails I sent out during our 6 day bike ride through Provence.

Day 1 – Avignon to St. Paul – 44 miles (71 km)

Our first day was very enjoyable in spite of the 20 mph head or side wind that we had to deal with ALL DAY. Once we were coming down a hill and it felt like we were barely moving! At the end of the day we rode pass many lavender fields. The air smelled like lavender for miles. The hardest part today was getting use to using a touring bike. It is a bit like being on a tight rope with wheels. All I have to do is adjust my hands on the handlebars, and I there I go wobbling back and forth. 

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Day 2 – St. Paul to Mazan – 43 miles (69 km)

We were happy to leave our hotel this morning with no wind, but by 2:00 in the afternoon the temperature was close to 90 giving us a new challenge. We also passed by more lavender fields and stopped to watch some being harvested. 

Since it was Sunday there were many bicyclist on the road. Before 11:00am we had seen more bikes on the road than cars. We are guessing we saw over 250 bikers, but only about 10% were women. When I thought I couldn’t ride any further because of the heat, we came into a small village and stopped for some cold drinks. We found a bike shop where Jim got me some new bike shorts hoping they would help with my very hard bike seat. (Answer: a little.) While in the shop Jim saw bikes that cost over 6000 euros (around $6700.) But bicycling is King in Provence. The Tour De France comes through here each year. We saw more than one serious rider yelling at vehicle drivers if they thought they came too close. Believe me, I’m passed frequently as if I’m standing still by these avid bicyclist. On our last hill of the day we learned that the Tour De France racers had followed the same route just 3 days earlier. 

 

Day 3 – Mont Vetoux Loop – 24 miles (38.6 km)

We both started out happy this morning knowing that we would be doing 10 less miles than the 2 previous days, but that enthusiasm was quickly dissolved by all the hills on the route. I have no idea of the elevation that went up and down, but it was significant enough to fatigue my legs by 2:00pm. On the last big hill I was forced to walk my bike up the last quarter mile. If it hadn’t been for the 90+ temp. I might have made it. Jim hung in there, but was sweating profusely once he reached the top. Everything that goes up must come down. Not sure of my speed but I’m sure we reached 35 mph on many downhills. Along the route we saw the mountain called Mt. Ventoux that is always included on the Tour De France. Wisely we chose to avoid this.

Provence is very lovely. Each little village we ride through is just plain cute. Then the vineyards, miles and miles of grapes. I’m sure we have passed 100’s of wineries by now. On this touring bike I didn’t trust myself to stop for a wine tasting. 

Another great day. We are both exhausted but loving the trip.

Day 4 – Mazan to Gordes – 25 miles (40 km)

After 2 days in Mazan we rode to a lovely hillside village called Gordes. We started as early as possible hoping to get to our destination before the hottest part of the day. We continued to ride past many vineyards and a few sunflower fields. We had one hard climb in the morning but the best was saved for last. The last hour was a very long and hot steady climb. The temp. took its toll on my energy making the climb take twice as long.  But no worries, once we arrived in lovely Gordes we treated ourselves to 2 scoops of lavender gelato. Not a bad way to end a day.

Day 5 – Gordes to St. Remey de Provence – 30.5 miles (49 km)

After our French breakfast on the terrace of our hotel we were off to St. Remy. This was our first day without hills to climb. Can we all shout at once “Yippee!” My body was thanking me the whole day. We made one long stop at the lavender museum along the way and learned a great deal about types of lavender and how the oil is extracted from the flower. I was surprised to learn that lavender oil isn’t just for perfume, but has many medicinal purposes. 
Once we arrived in St Remy our 1st stop was the Saint Paul Asylum where Vincent Van Gogh lived for a year recovering from his mental condition. It is where he painted some of his most famous pictures such as Starry Night, Iris, and Sunflowers. The asylum is still used today but the area where Van Gogh lived is kept as a museum. A visitor can easily visualize where he got his inspirations. 

Day 6 – St. Remey to Avignon – 26 miles (42 km)

We finished our ride around 1:00pm. It was a fun and easy day even though we got a little lost the last hour. Both of us have very sore bums, but other than that we are feeling great. I even grew to really like my high speed touring bike which was far from true on the 1st day.

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In Conclusion

I’m happy to say that we did survive our 6 day journey with only a few bumps and scratches. Along the way I learned to pay close attention to those tiny stop lights the size of 2 coke cans. On the first day I ignored one and had a wreck that sent me over my handlebars. Check out the video to get a small taste of our adventure.

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Paris the 2nd, 3rd, 4th….. Time

If you’re really lucky in life, you will get to visit great destinations in the world more than once. But, how do you retain the magic that you felt on that first trip? Years ago when I lived in Berlin I had a friend who visited the same small art museum several times each year. I asked her how she always came back with fresh eyes. Her answer was simple, she focused on something different on each visit. One time it might be the hair, the next time the jewelry.

So this summer when I returned to Paris I chose to keep the tradition of having a Crouque Monsieur Sandwich at a sidewalk cafe, but also doing things I had never done before. With search engines such as Google and Trip Advisor this was very easy to accomplish. I quickly found new places to explore and even wished I had more time.

New Place #1Shakespeare and Company

On any trip to Paris it is hard to miss the Bouquinistes booksellers selling books and magazines out of large green wooden boxes near Notre-Dame on the Left Bank. As the story goes, a boat full of books was sinking into the Seine River during the Middle-Ages. The sailors on board grabbed what they could and sold the books to Parisians along the Left Bank. Viola,  a Paris tradition was born.

But if you are looking for an English book, then head for Shakespeare & Company located a block away on the Rue St. Julien le Pauvre. It seams like everyone in the world knows about this small English bookstore, but it has avoided my knowledge until now. The store was opened in 1951 by the American George Whitman. The original name was Le Mistral, but George renamed it on William Shakespeare’s 400th birthday. He renamed it after Syliva Beach’s former Paris bookstore which was frequented by famous American authors such as Hemingway, Joyce and Fitzgerald.

The store is a bibliophile’s paradise.  The words charming, cute, rustic, old, squeaky, crowded, mysterious all came to my mind when I entered through the green doorway. It feels more like someone’s home than a bookstore. WARNING: if you love books, you might have trouble leaving. The store left me with one thought as I walked out the door, “I wonder where the other great bookstores in the world might be?” Time to do a Google search.

New Place #2The Rue Mouffetard Market

Like many women, I love to shop and want a bargain, but please no crowds. In London I love the Portobello Road Market, and I wanted to find something similar in Paris. With a quick search on Sunday morning I discovered the Rue Mouffetard Market in the Latin Quarter. If Ernest Hemmingway could mention the street in A Moveable Feast, then it was worth my time.

The market is advertised as a place to meet, eat, drink, shop, sing and dance. It holds true to this promise. You can wander down the cobblestone Rue Mouffetard gazing in the old shops while you enjoy some fresh fruit, one of the 200 varieties of cheese or a pastry. The tourist crowds are far away allowing you to imagine what it might be like to live in this neighborhood. If you go on the weekend, bring along a dancer partner. At the southern end you can enjoy some lovely French accordion music as the locals dance and sing along. My Video: Sunday at the Rue Mouffetard Market.

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New Place #3Sainte-Chapelle

As many Americans, I’m a fan of Rick Steves’ European travel books. I have found his advise to be usually helpful. I highly recommend downloading the free Rick Steves’smartphone app for the audio walking tours. I have found these walking tours to be both fun and extremely informative. The Paris walking tour took us to Sainte-Chapelle. I’m very puzzled on why we have never been here, but I’m so glad we stood in line for 30 min. to visit this exquisite cathedral. It was built by Louis IX, king of France, to be the home for Jesus’ Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross. You won’t find them at Sainte-Chapelle, but you will be surrounded by stunning stained glass windows.

New Experience #4 – The Top of the Eiffel Tower

Back in the early 1980’s I went to the first floor of the Eiffel Tower, but never to the very top. The top floor is a nice way to put the city into perspective. I quickly realized why my feet were so tired from walking everywhere. I also enjoyed reading the facts posted at the top and seeing Gustave Eiffel’s restored office that he shared with his daughter. If this sounds like something you would like to do, BOOK EARLY (1-3 months) unless you like to wait in very long lines.  Then if you have the time and your knees are willing, take the stairs down. There is also an Eiffel Tower app available to download.

Even though I’ve been to Paris many times, I hope this article lets you realize that you can return to any destination many times and always find something new. You can even embellish on your favorites. Remember the Croquet Monsieur traditional? A part of our time in Paris was spent tracking down restaurants known for this popular French sandwich.

So what will I find to do the next time I am in Paris? I already have my eye on taking a cooking class at Alain Ducasse Cooking School and for a summer trip a bike tour posted on Trip Advisor that goes around Versailles . Then at the top of the list,  I really want to visit Monet’s Garden of Giverny. It is always nice to save a little for the next time.

Additional Articles on this subject:

I recently read an article in the NY Times Magazine about using Instagram and other apps that offer geolocation to help with finding new places to explore. I think this could also be helpful for telling you where the photographer stood to take that awesome picture of the Eiffel Tower. Check out the article Turning Instagram Into a Radically Unfiltered Travel Guide.