One of my favorite cities in Portugal hands down is Sintra. The city imbues a romantic scene, from its palaces to its winding cobble-stoned streets. One palace in particular stands out in my mind as an unforgettable experience: the Pena Palace.
The Pena Palace looks like a fantasy version of a castle, with rising towers, brightly colored buildings, lush views of the surrounding countryside, and ornately carved gargoyles. On the day that I visited, the morning sky was grey and stormy, just adding to the fairytale feel of the scene. As I stood atop one of the highest turrets, the wind whipping my hair, I breathed in the fresh air and felt myself transported back in time, as if I were surveying my own kingdom. The Pena Palace is so convincing in its authenticity, that it allows visitors to create their own fantasy, even if just for a moment.
Winter blues got you down? I used to dread the coming cold fronts, camping out in my apartment with the heat on full blast and a pile of blankets perpetually wrapped around me. While my love for the heat hasn’t changed, I have learned to appreciate certain locations that thrive in the winter months. On a visit to Switzerland some time ago, I was awestruck by the majestic mountains, soaring up all around me. I joined of group of Snow Shoe-ers and began my trek up the mountainside. With each rise my eyes were full of the view around me, scarcely even stopping to blink, lest I miss even a moment of this magical scene. As the minutes passed, the cold slowly dissipated and I found myself shedding my layers one by one.
After my long journey, I rewarded myself with a stop at one of the countless truffle shops in Interlaken, followed by a dinner of fondue. The city roofs were all dusted with a soft coat of snow and the air seemed muffled in silence. It was a beautiful peaceful moment, and I felt warm from head to toe.
On Wednesday night I joined France Passion Magazine in celebrating their one year anniversary at the French Institute Alliance Francaise with Atout France, the French Tourist Office. The event was a celebration of all things French, with a perfume bar by jeweler Mauboussin, a Saint Germain cocktail station, and a live jazz band, calling to mind the romantic entertainment outside most Parisian brasseries. The room had a hazy blue shade, adding a soft glow to everything and in true French fashion, creating a warm, romantic glow. The night made me recall my days wandering the Marais, a handsome man on my arm, and the wind in my hair. I think a return to the city of lights is now firmly in order.
Sometimes it’s ok to be selfish. Like when you discover that hole-in-the-wall restaurant that changed your world, and you don’t tell everyone you know about it. Because, you know, then it wouldn’t be special for you. But then there are places that are so special that it seems a crime not to share them, even if that does eventually lead to an unwelcome change of foot traffic.
Such was my dilemma with the Quantati island on Lake Titicaca.
The floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca are world renowned, definitely no secret to the throngs of tourists who pay to visit the islands for a few hours, experiencing a watered down version of the traditional way of life. However, there is one island only that allows guests to sleep on these floating reeds, serving as a tiny hotel on the water. Quantati island is run by a small family that has lived their whole lives on the lake. Upon arriving at the bus station in Puno, my two companions and I were met by a smiling face (albeit little English) and were promptly taken to a tiny motorboat at the water’s edge. We chugged along, the small, dark shapes getting closer and closer until it became clear that these masses were large floating mounds of reeds. They started off small, some completely abandoned while others had a small herd of cows grazing. Slowing, the islands grew larger and signs of habitation emerged.
We approached our designated island, and jumped off onto the springy ground. As I looked around I noticed that the island contained a mini replica of a village, all forged out of reeds. There were comfortable sized huts, lounge cushions, a lookout tower, even boats, all thatched from the same substance as the ground I was standing on. Over the next three days I spent my time lazing about in the warm sun (reeds are surprisingly comfortable!), going on fishing trips with our hosts, eating some of the best meals of my life, and daring to cannonball into the ice-cold waters of Lake Titicaca.
It was a magical time, where time seemed to stand still, and life was comprised of simple pleasures.
One of my favorite things to happen during a trip is an unexpected stopover. While I used to plan out my trips so aggressively that I had a detailed itinerary for every minute away, I now have a loose idea of where I want to go, and try to just be in the moment. If I like a city more than I expected, I have the time to extend my stay there. If someplace is not living up to its hype, than I have no issues leaving sooner. However, there are those wonderful moments when you discover a place you did not even know existed, and your trip changes its entire course.
That was the story of how I came to visit Chala. During my 2012 trip to Peru, I was at the southern tip of the country, having completed the Inca Trail, and was ready to head back up to Lima. However, after my previous experience with a 20 hour bus ride I knew that I needed to break up the trip. After consulting several bus schedules, and numerous maps I found a tiny village that would give me a 12 hour respite from the stomach churning bus journey. It was Chala.
This tiny fishing village was so small, it is no wonder it escapes the well worn gringo path. The buildings are mostly dilapidated, there are no historic sites to explore, and speaking English is a huge challenge. Yet the quiet of this small town drew me in, and I found myself wandering the beach and admiring the strange patterns drawn by the seaweed washed ashore. The cluster of colorful fishing boats were a beautiful site, looking more decorative than you would imagine from the chief industry of a city. Finally, as I prepared to leave for the bus station on the second leg of my journey North, I watched a sunset so fiery and pure, that it looked as if it had been painted onto the sky.
Indeed, this trip out of necessity had turned into an indelible memory of simple joys.
Lima was the first stop on my two-month tour of Peru, and it was an unforgiving welcome. The December heat swept through the city, and was a strange but welcome respite from the harsh New York winters I was used to. Upon first glance, Lima looked like a dirty city, covered in a blanket of fog. The air was so thick that it reminded me of the nothing from The NeverEnding Story; a thick, choking layer that consumed everything in its path. The beaches were heavily pebbled and made for an uncomfortable, yet therapeutic sunbathe. The locals warned us against taking taxis at night. Or alone. Or really at all.
However, as soon as I stopped looking at the city as a whole, and began to explore its neighborhoods and attractions individually, it began to win me over. The friendliness of the Peruvian people, combined with the beautiful contrast of brightly colored alpaca against the grey city proved to be an alluring combination. I ended up tripling the amount of time scheduled for Lima, and slowed my pace down from a tourist to a traveler, in search of that local laissez-faire.