I am so afraid I’m going to jinx it that I can hardly type these words: Our long-term railway adventure, so often interrupted and delayed, is back on track. At last. Rich and I leave Monday with our roll-aboard bags, Eurail passes, and sighs of relief. Our work in California is done, and we are once more free to roam the world. Yay! (Short pause while I jump up from my desk to do the happy dance.)
If you suddenly had three months to travel, where would you go?
Industry pundits say that today’s travelers want authentic experiences that let them feel like adventurers and offer unique ways to connect with locals. And yet most international travelers choose to vacation in Western European capitals where they can count on being part of a massive herd.
For as long as I’ve known him, Rich has been coaxing me towards the outer edges of civilization, the cultural equivalent of the places that on the old maps said, “Here there be dragons…” In our younger days, that meant the Peruvian Amazon, the Himalayas, and other rugged territories. Now it means heading to unknown countries in parts of Europe that were once in the forbidden zone behind the Iron Curtain; we still get to have adventures, but with a bit more creature comfort.
So where are we heading next?
For us, the choice was simple: restart the long rail journey we were calling our Balkans-to-Baltics Tour. However, we’re now doing it in reverse; we'll land in Paris and head north to the Baltic Sea.
For those of you who, like me, tend to get a little fuzzy about Baltic geography, the Baltic Sea is situated between Scandinavia and Northern Europe. This morning I Googled a map of the region to include in this post and found this.
The alert reader will notice the large red arrow pointing to the Baltic Sea Anomaly. Five years ago today, Swedish divers uncovered a mysterious shape on the sea floor. Geologists insist it’s rock, military personnel suggest it’s a WWII anti-submarine device, and UFO experts are certain it’s a space ship, possibly the Millennium Falcon. I’d love to think someone from another planet dropped by the Baltic Sea in search of off-the-beaten-star-route intergalactic adventure. But I suspect it’s just a freak rock formation. Of course, I've been wrong before . . .
So what’s our travel plan?
We’re going to pack light, each bringing a small roll-aboard plus a shoulder bag for maps, water, etc. Much as we enjoy luggage-free travel, this journey involves far too many climate changes for a single set of fast-drying clothes.
Travel will be leisurely. We'll take trains for no more than a few hours in any given day and spend three to seven days in each destination, lingering or moving on as the spirit moves us.
Our goal is to get off the beaten tourist path as quickly as possible. From Paris we’re heading to Amsterdam to visit friends who are opening a coffee shop (or possibly a “coffee shop”) there this summer. After that we intend to seek out obscure, smaller cities we’ve never heard of, places that haven’t been turned into theme parks of themselves by an excess of visitors.
We’ve pinpointed the first jumping-off place. After Amsterdam, we’ll head north to the port of Lübeck, Germany, gateway to the Baltic Sea and the place, locals claim, where marzipan was invented. How sweet is that?
From there . . . we’ll decide as we go. Ferries sail from Lübeck to ports in Denmark, Sweden, Latvia, and Finland, with easy rail connections onward. We plan to hang out in Lübeck for a while, nibbling marzipan, reading up on various obscure cities in the region, and deciding which route to take.
The journey will include all three Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Beyond that? Our original itinerary called for touring the Balkans as well, but since we’re shortening the trip to a “mere” three months, we aren’t sure we can squeeze them in and still maintain our leisurely pace. But as I say, we are making this up as we go along . . .
Whatever happens, Rich and I are very, very excited to be back on the road again. Wish us luck and watch this blog for updates from the road.
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“If things don’t go exactly as planned,” a friend told me, “I have a meltdown.” He and his wife were describing their recent visit to Morocco, a place where things rarely go as planned. “I don’t know how you two travel the way you do. If I didn’t know where I was going to stay for the evening?” He shuddered. “I couldn’t deal with that.”
Rich’s face lit up. “Let me show you this app I just found for last-minute hotel reservations…” As the two bent their heads over the iPhone screen, I thought about how many of our friends are anxious travelers. I know a woman whose checked bags were lost for the first two days of her honeymoon back in the 1980s. “That showed me that travel is not for me,” she announced. As far as I know, she never left Cleveland again.
In travel as in life, things always go wrong; the only part we actually have any control over is how we adapt to the change in circumstances. Some years ago, running for a connecting flight, Rich and I arrived as the plane doors were closing; our somewhat heated demands to reopen them fell on deaf ears. “Madam,” said the exasperated manager. “We will put you on tomorrow night’s flight. But for now, you have no alternative but to spend the next twenty-four hours in Paris.” I was drawing breath for a quelling retort when his words sank in. Twenty-four hours in Paris? Fantastique! Fifteen minutes later we had a hotel reservation and within the hour we were sipping vin in a sidewalk café.
Our plans often go awry, and it happened yet again just last Saturday. Thinking we had a clever scheme to get prime parking during the legendary Fairfax Festival parade, we took an early yoga class along the parade route so we could leave our VW in the studio’s lot. By the time we learned it behooved us to move the car, the nearest parking spot was a half mile away. Hiking back to the town center, we found ourselves in the parade’s staging area. Rock bands were playing, costumed characters flew by on unicycles and stilts, dragons roared — it was a condensed version of the colorful lunacy for which the parade is famous.
“And to think we never would have been in the staging area if we hadn’t needed to move the car," I said to Rich. "Are we lucky or what?”
Spotting a particularly colorful trio, I asked if I could take their photo. “You don’t dress like this,” said the big man with the hot pink wig and purple glitter in his beard, “if you don’t want to have your picture taken.” He grinned and introduced me to his wife, dressed as a rainbow unicorn, and his strapping transvestite son.
Looking at his son, the man’s face glowed with love and pride. While the family mugged for the camera, I thought about how lucky that boy was to have parents who didn’t just accept who he was, they celebrated it — wholeheartedly, and with passion, wit, style, and zest. They were, as my yoga teacher would say, putting compassion into action.
Which made it all the more shocking when, just hours later, Omar Mateen opened fire on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people in the worst act of terrorism since 9/11. Along with the rest of the world, I am still reeling. I keep thinking about that sweet-faced boy in the blue wig; so many of the victims were kids like him, just out for a bit of fun in a place where they felt safe and accepted. We will never know all the demons that drove Mateen to mass murder, but we can be sure that one of them was fear of people who are different.
It's common, even sensible at times, to feel fearful when things get strange. That’s why it’s so important to figure out how to handle ourselves when that happens.
My favorite of the stories my friend brought back from Morocco was about the night he got spooked in the old marketplace and left his companions, heading back to the hotel alone. Needless to say, he became hopelessly lost, and eventually asked a local for directions. “You will get lost again. Ask one of these fellows—“ the man gestured toward some nearby male prostitutes "— to guide you, and pay him a little for his trouble.” Seeing my friend’s appalled discomfort, he added, “They’re just looking for some money. It will be fine.” And it was. The youth politely escorted my friend to the hotel and went away happily pocketing a modest tip. And my friend grew a little less fearful about dealing with things that don’t go as planned.
Yes, the world can be a scary place, and only a fool takes foolish chances. But testing ourselves against the unknown is how we learn and grow. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” Mark Twain wrote. “And many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” Not everyone needs to travel to learn wisdom and compassion. But it helps.
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“Is this one of those eat-in-the dark places?” Rich asked as we stumbled out of the bright heat of late afternoon into the near-black interior. I was taking him out for a birthday drink at Sacramento’s Dive Bar, chosen because Rich loves a casual gin joint with low lighting and slightly seedy charm. In darkness so dense we could barely navigate, we groped our way towards the gleam of backlit bottles and the glow of a forty-foot aquarium where large, colorful fish swam among fake rocks and treasure chests. Then a live mermaid slithered into the tank.
She wasn't a real mermaid, of course, but a young woman dressed in a fish tail and a few strategically placed clam shells. She swam back and forth, blowing languid, bubbly kisses to the crowd, which at that hour consisted of Rich, myself, and one or two others. The act wasn’t particularly racy; in fact, it looked like cold, hard work to me. I backed up to get a photo and almost bumped into two young women staring up at the tank.
“Aren’t you glad you don’t have to do that for a living?” I remarked.
“Actually, that is what I do for a living,” one said. “I work here as a mermaid.”
Oops. “Wow. Really?" I turned to her companion. "You too?”
“No, I don’t work here,” she said. “But I am a mermaid. I have my own traveling tank.”
We chatted a while about the life of a professional mermaid, and I reflected that Sacramento was turning out to be a lot more interesting than I'd expected.
Sacramento suffers from constant and, if I am to be brutally honest, not terribly flattering comparison to San Francisco and LA. As a California city in which to pursue business or pleasure, it’s considered an also-ran. That must be disheartening for a town that was once the hottest destination on the planet. In 1838 the discovery of gold at nearby Sutter’s Mill made it the epicenter of the California Gold Rush, and everyone with a get-rich-quick itch showed up, many adding their own brand of wildness to the legends of the Old West.
Since then, Sacramento has settled down into something of a cultural backwater, and now locals are working hard to renovate the city’s infrastructure and reputation. Four years ago, the mayor declared it America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital, citing the area’s year-round growing season and 1.5 million acres of farms and ranches. OK, we thought, they had plenty of fresh ingredients available, but did that guarantee quality? We decided to give the town’s cuisine a test run with a Local Roots Food Tour of K Street, once the city’s main thoroughfare.
Our knowledgeable and vivacious guide, Cearra, first steered us to Mayahuel, named for a Mexican fertility deity. Under the slightly unnerving gaze of the goddess, we sampled así sabe (fresh watermelon, cucumber, lime, and tequila rimmed with chile), accompanied by the signature chile poblano soup. Wow.
Next came the Ambrosia Café, a casual eatery beloved by nearby office workers. “Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger used to stop in,” Cearra said. Easy to see why. Our grilled cheese sandwiches were amazing: crusty, homemade focaccia bread, gruyère cheese, artisan herbed cream cheese, and thin slices of apple. Yum. “I’ll be back,” Rich told the hostess.
Dessert began at Andy’s Candy Apothecary, winner of the city’s first Calling All Dreamers competition, which awarded the owners startup costs plus services donated by local pros. “Andy wanted apothecary in the name,” Cearra explained, “because candy cures all ills.” I certainly felt better after sampling the dark chocolates, salted caramels, and other treats.
Our final stop was Cornflower Creamery, where owner Cynthia explained her “farm-to-scoop” approach: fresh, local ingredients sweetened with fruits and vegetables, using minimal sugar and no artificial flavors or corn syrup. Somewhat skeptically, I tried the current special, Pride Confetti, flavored with purple carrot juice, studded with candied fruit and granola. To my amazement, I loved it.
Strolling up K Street, Cearra regaled us with city history, such as the devastating floods of 1853 and 1862 that caused the town to raise whole neighborhoods ten to twenty feet higher. This left many underground rooms that are, naturally, said to be haunted. In fact, our Dive Bar host told us hair-raising, first-person tales of whispering voices and demonic laughter. “And of course,” he added casually, “the Crest Theater across the street has been haunted ever since the marquee fell down and killed two people.” Yikes!
This kind of vivid backstory is a boon to locals who are working to redefine Sacramento’s future. Will the city become a vibrant alternative to overpriced, traffic-choked San Francisco/Silicon Valley just two hours to the south? With ghosts, mermaids, and a hot new foodie scene, I think they’ve got a good shot. Good luck, Sacramento! We’ll be back.
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Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I do not accept sponsorships of any kind. All gin joints, mermaid tanks, and eateries mentioned in my blog posts are included solely because I believe you might find them interesting and/or useful in planning your own adventures.
“We’ve never met,” a guy said to Rich at a recent event. “But I feel I really know you.” My husband looked a bit startled; this being California, the comment could have meant anything from “You give off a good vibe” to “We met on the astral plane” to “I’ve been stalking you for years.” Then the guy added, “From Karen’s blog.”
Then a few days later a friend wrote to ask, "So when does Rich get to share his packing tips?" That got me thinking that while my readers hear rather a lot about Rich, they've never heard much directly from him. Until now. This week I asked Rich to share his views on the really important topics: packing, life, and the healing power of duct tape.
What was your first great packing experience?
Rich: Boy scout camp. I took a big, brown duffle bag. I can’t believe you’re asking this right now, because just yesterday I was up clearing out stuff in the attic and I found that old duffle bag. I remember being ten years old, and I was so excited; I was going away on my own for the first time in my life! I threw in a bunch of clothes and took plenty of food, mostly candy bars and Hostess Cupcakes. The duffle bag probably weighed more than I did.
What’s your packing philosophy today?
Rich: Less is better. Just think of all that stuff we took with us on our honeymoon to Costa Rica, where we spent most of our time hiking around the jungle. I had a sports jacket, dress pants, dress shoes … and I didn’t wear any of them. That was an epiphany for me. I decided then that I was going to go as minimal as possible. A few years later we were in Belize carrying only a couple of gym bags. Then eight years ago, I read an article by a flight attendant called “How to Pack for Two Weeks in a Carry-On,” and I thought, “Why just two weeks? What would it be like to travel for two months with just a carry-on?”
What attracted you to the idea of luggage-free travel?
Rich: Freedom. I imagined getting on a plane without having to hassle with bags, checking luggage, security, overhead bins, worrying if there would be enough space, wasting time at baggage claim, filling out lost luggage forms. That led to the thought, “What if I could travel without any encumbrances at all?”
Was it as good as you imagined?
Rich: Better. It was great. And it really taught me the difference between what I absolutely need on a trip and what I want. (Pauses.) Isn’t that a song? (Hums the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.)
How is packing different as you age?
Rich: Your pill cases grow larger. And you’re more interested in being comfortable than looking cool. Not that you dress like a slob, but you tend to choose clothes that are practical and versatile. And you invest in good shoes, because you learn the importance of taking care of your feet when you’re on the road.
You talk about traveling with little or no luggage as a form of freedom. What do you mean by that?
Rich: Not being encumbered by things. You’re going on a trip to get away from the normality of life. So why take things with you that are going to keep you locked into that normality?
I know you want me to ask, so I will. What’s with you and duct tape?
Rich: Everyone should travel with a roll of duct tape; you can use it to fix anything. Your suitcase breaks? Duct tape. Your glasses break? Duct tape. Need to improvise a bandage? Duct tape. Remember when the spine of my little notebook was fraying? Duct tape. It’s true that I’ve never actually had to reattach the wing of a plane with duct tape, but I feel certain that I could. That leaking boat on our honeymoon, on that deserted river? I wish I’d had duct tape then, that’s for sure.
Want more on packing? With Rich’s help, I have revised and updated my little guide Pack Light: Quick and Easy Tips for Traveling Everywhere with Just the Right Stuff. I’ve added a section on luggage-free travel, packing checklist templates for men and women, and links to apps we love.
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As my regular readers know, I never get free or discounted goods or services for mentioning anything on this blog (or anywhere else). I only write about things I find interesting and/or useful.
I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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