A new and highly-praised museum called the Museum of Tomorrow (Museu de Amanhã) opened in Rio shortly before my arrival. As with any new thing in Rio, I heard horror stories about the expected waiting time to get in (4 hours. In the sun. No bathrooms. No seating, etc. etc..). So I tried to be smarter than the smart people and arrive there on a Thursday (Tuesday is a free-entry day, so I reasoned that probably this was reason for the lines). I was partially right, and the line was “only a 2-hours wait.” No way. The Museum of Tomorrow had to wait for tomorrow; I don’t do lines outside of state bureaucracy and supermarket in Brazil (can’t get food otherwise).
Today, a month later and once school summer vacation was over, I finally was able to get in with no line at all. Good things happen to people who wait. The building itself is a spectacular architectural structure. The exhibitions are really creative and inspiring us to think about how the world was created (a 360 dome theatre shows the evolution from the big bang), how different nature phenomena work (noteworthy is an installation of floating intertwined scarves that simulate the motion of oceans), the role of human interactions (fascinating photography exhibition from around the world) and how our consumption impacts the world we live in (pretty cool simulation games where one can see the footprint that his or her habits make on the world and how different personal choices can impact overall scarcity).
In a random women entrepreneurs networking event in Austin, I met a lovely woman called Danielle who turned out to be a founder of a company called Chalk Ink. We hit it off immediately and she invited me to an event she was holding at her office. She seemed nice and I had no plans for the next day so I of course signed up (I might tattoo “Never Stop Exploring” on my chest of forehead soon).
The story of the company is quite interesting. Danielle used to work as a designer for Whole Foods and create their store graphics and signage. She then realized that the chalk markers they were using were not adequate and created her own high quality markers which is now used in all Starbucks, Whole Foods and many other restaurants and establishments. I was also surprised to learn that they are also used in industrial plants and even by the US army to temporarily mark some equipment!
Chalk Ink came up with a very cool event to promote their brand. They invited a bunch of successful Do-It-Yourself and other artsy bloggers to come and hang out in Austin and create stuff with the markers. I had a really fun morning getting inspired by all these talented people and learning how to draw, something I haven’t done since high school. It was such a liberating experience.
Belgium is one of these countries you don’t really hear too much about so it has never been on my bucket list. It happened that I was attending two weddings in Europe and had to kill the time in between somewhere. Since my significant other has academic collaboration at the KULAK university in Kortrijk, we decided to hang out in Belgium and combine work with pleasure.
I have been getting progressively worse about planning trips and therefore didn’t even bother buying a travel guide or researching the top sights to see. I figured that we could wing it by asking some locals once we get there. And this is what we did. Winging it around Belgium turned out to be a wonderful experience!
Belgium has a really nice railroad system that lets you get anywhere in the country within 1-1.5 hours. The trains drop you off in the center of all the action of each city, then all you need to do is localize the main street and start strolling towards the main square, which is always called the Grotemarkt. The Grotemarkt always has a cathedral, whose size may vary with the wealth of the city (or perhaps the ambition of its former architects). Normally, it also has a city hall which is decorated with statue tributes of all the former mayors. I could never figure out at which year cutoff happened though (as in when did they run out of space?!)..
From the Grotemarket there are always opportunities to explore side streets, visit delicatessen shops or chocolatiers and discover cute architectural treasures. There is really no need for a tour guide or a guidebook because one can just absorb the lively atmosphere instead.
Even though Bruges is the famous touristic spot these days (probably due to Colin Farrell’s In Bruges movie), my favorite city by far happened to be Antwerp. It’s much more lively, combines the ancient and the modern, has many wonderful museums and a rich history of being a port city transporting merchandise and immigrants to the New World. Especially noteworthy is the Red Star Line Museum which tells the stories of the 2 million emigrants who went to the USA onboard of the Star Line ships in the beginning of the 19th century. The museum focuses on their story, on that of the shipping company that transported them and on the city and port from where they embarked on this journey.
On this trip I also visited Brussels and dropped by some local friends’ house, getting to experience Brussel’s version of suburb life (beautiful!) plus surveying some of the most amazing dessert displays around town. We had a meeting in the university town Leuven, where I actually tried some of the best artisanal desserts possible. Finally, since Lille was only about 35km from where we were staying in Kortrijk, we got to have a french experience by eating (French!!) fries in a nice garden bistro, visiting their fine arts museum and stocking up on some baguette and pastries from Paul (I know it’s a chain but it was still so so delicious).
Belgian culture is a mix of french and dutch cultures and this is something quite weird for an outsider. Even though it’s a small country, you may start your journey from Brussles to “Cortrei” and 1.5 hours later arrive at “Kortrijk” – meaning that your journey starts in a french speaking area. By the time you arrive, you’re in dutch Flanders region, where everything is in Dutch instead of French, even though your’e taking a train with the same railroad company. I have to admit that reading menus and figuring stuff out in French was much easier than in Dutch! (Good thing everyone spoke in English anyways..).
A piece of modern architecture on a beautiful day.
During my graduate studies on Russia, I learned of an interesting element in Russian folklore: the theme of man’s connection with the land, with nature. We came across it in the mystical children’s stories, in Chekov’s plays and in more modern pieces such as Nikita Mikhalkov‘s films. I always appreciated this esthetic but found it hard to comprehend; why was it that with all the modernity and attractions of big cities, one would want to return back to his or her origins in the countryside?
As I grew older and accumulated more polluted air in my lungs, I started realizing the special allure of pure nature and simple things that make our lives more real and meaningful. Jericoacoara, a quiet beach town in the northeast of Brazil (of which I wrote some time ago here) was the first place that had a transformative effect on my mental state. Even today, when I am asked to think of a special place that makes me calm, I imagine myself walking on top of the Sunset dune in Jeri with the sandy wind touching my skin and rippling through my clothes as if it’s trying to lift me up in the air and set me flying.
When I was debating with my boyfriend about our last vacation, we’ve almost settled on yet another sightseeing frenzy but then I remembered the calming effect of nature and how much we all need it in today’s crazy world. So we we decided on the mountains of Colorado instead.
Renting a very little car (as always, I was being cheap), turned out to be a good idea on one hand because it was excellent for all the turns on the mountain highways. On the other hand, merging or accelerating turned out to be a good exercise and in peddle pressing and praying as it huffed and puffed trying to get to a speed of 65 mph. Mitsubishi Mirage is not for the outdoors but great gas milage 😉
We first stopped to visit friends near Boulder and took a trip to Estes Park, which I previously saw in its winter glory. The next day we drove up high in the mountains to visit the breathtaking Brainard Lake, which was surrounded by snowy peaks even in the hot August time.
After Boulder, we headed to Aspen, which is what I would call a yuppie Switzerland (very beautiful but very expensive and full of wealthy people in fancy clothes and fancy cars). We stayed in nearby half-yuppie Snowmass Village and enjoyed several sunny and lazy days of eating, hiking, cycling and people-watching. The highlight of this part of the trip was visiting Maroon Bells, the view of which from the Maroon lake is the most photographed scene in Colorado (google this). There were several trails around this park so we randomly picked the Maroon Creek trail which turned out to be very versatile (forest, river, open fields, rock formations, etc) hike, that we had all to ourselves. Hooray to random guessing!
On our way back to Austin, we stopped for one day in Denver, which was kind of a nothing city in the middle of all the beauty so to compensate ourselves for its nothingness, we went to visit the Red Rocks Amphitheater, which was full of people jogging and doing all sorts of sports that I would never do during a 90F / 30C scorching heat. We were not surprised at all to see this as throughout the trip we learned about all sorts of crazy things that Coloradans do in the name of fitness (think of riding mountain bikes at 45 degrees incline at 8k ft/2.4k meters and smiling while at it).
Maroon Bells, Aspen, Colorado
Maroon Bells, Aspen, Colorado
Maroon Creek Trail
Riding bicycles between Snowmass and Aspen
Between Snowmass and Aspen
Sculpture Park in Aspen
Street signs in front of Aspen’s Museum of Art
Aspen Museum of Art
My favorite restaurant in Aspen, Pyramid Bistro: Really healthy food at this hidden spot above a bookstore
Secret stairways are a big thing in the hilly San Francisco, so much that there are entire books and websites dedicated to mapping and telling the history of these places.
My first stairway was the Greenwich/Filbert Steps next to the Coit Tower. I wrote about them here. It’s an amazing secret walkway between extremely well-kept community gardens with gorgeous flowers, leafy trees and all sorts of vegetation. They are also known for a colony of green parrots who were brought in some years ago and have multiplied ever since. I was so lucky to see only one parrot. These guys are a pretty sneaky bunch! These stairs are quite difficult to find but you will manage too if you look hard enough behind Coit tower’s parking lot (and on Google Maps). There is a way to get to them from the Embarcadero side, but I think that going from higher to lower points offers the better views.
My next stairway was in Fort Mason. I was exploring the area and then saw a woman and a child coming down a stairway along the hill. I got really curious and climbed it. It took me to the top of a hill and inside a very quaint park. It was full of teenage boys and homeless men so I kind of had to make myself into a getouttathere. The view from the top was kind of worth the risk, anyways.
My third stairway was the Lyon Street Steps in the Pacific Heights neighborhoods. I was just wandering around and being impressed by all the beautiful mansions when I suddenly stumbled across this stairway from a fairy tale, perfectly manicured with a breathtaking view of the Palace of the Fine Arts. I later on found out that the beautiful mansions are actually located on a street nicknamed “Billionaires Row”, home to some very famous rich people like the Getty Family, Founder of Oracle, and Senator Dianne Feinstein. Rich Bastards. They got the best views.
Lyon Street Steps
Lyon Street Steps
Lyon Street Steps
Lyon Street Steps
The last stairways I discovered were Vulcan and Jupiter stairs in Castro district. I thought that Castro was all about the sex shops, nightclubs and bars but turned out that there are many quiet and very green sections of this neighborhood. The steps were not as impressive as the ones I saw before, but I had fun looking at all the beautifully designed houses around them.
If you’re looking for other tips on San Fran, you can read my other posts