Tag: Quirky

One of the Most Unusual Things to Do in Madrid

One of the Most Unusual Things to Do in Madrid

As strange as it may seem, one of the most unusual things to do in Madrid is to buy cookies at a local convent. Now, that may not sound unusual in and of itself, but trust me, it’s definitely one of the odder experiences I’ve had while traveling!

On our first night in Madrid, after we ate dinner at the Mercado San Miguel, we decided to explore the area. When we came upon the Monasterio del Corpus Christi, I remembered reading in a travel book that the nuns there sell cookies. But they do it in a top secret manner because they are not supposed to have contact with outsiders.

Getting In

When you arrive at the monastery, you will need to press a special doorbell to gain admittance. It’s fairly easy to miss the doorbell. For that matter, the whole monastery is pretty nondescript… you really have to be looking for it in order to find it.

Unusual things to do in Madrid - the doorbell that gives you access to the Monasterio del Corpus Christi

Once admitted into the monastery, you travel down a winding path to a small dark room.

The Transaction

A sign posted on the wall tells you what types of cookies you can buy:

Unusual Things to Do in Madrid - Buying Cookies at the Monasterio del Corpus Christi

Next to the sign you’ll see a little cubbyhole in the wall that houses a divided turntable. You have to tell the nuns what type of cookies you want and whether you want a kilo or a half kilo. (Note: not all of the varieties listed will be available.) Then place your money on the turntable and watch as it moves to the other side of the wall where you cannot see it.

A few minutes later, the turntable moves back to your side of the wall and voila! A box of cookies now sits where you placed your money.

Unusual Things to Do in Madrid - Tea Cookies from Monasterio del Corpus Christi

I ordered the tea cookies. They were kind of bland, and very expensive but pretty, and very fun to buy.

Unusual Things to Do in Madrid - Tea Cookies baked by the nuns at Monasterio del Corpus Christi

The Experience

It doesn’t always happen, but this time I actually had the forethought to record the experience for you! Take a look:

My Recommendation

It’s not about the cookies as much as it is about having a unique experience that very few places can offer. So, if you’re looking for unusual things to do in Madrid, this clandestine cookie shop should definitely be on your list!

The Monasterio del Corpus Christi sells cookies from 9:30-1:00 and 4:30-6:30 each day. It is located close to the Mercado de San Miguel, at Plaza del Conde de Miranda, 3. If you go, let me know what you thought of the experience!

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Art, Transformed

Art, Transformed

I was only two weeks away from my first solo trip to Paris when I stumbled across an online mention of an immersive art experience called Atelier des Lumieres (Workshop of Lights). From what I could gather, it was some sort of show featuring the art of Vincent Van Gogh.

I’m not a huge fan of Van Gogh, but I appreciate his “Starry Night” and “Sunflowers” as much as the next person. I’ve even seen a couple of his works in person. So I really didn’t get too excited about this art thing. After all, I had set aside an entire day for the Louvre… how could this possibly compare?

But then I kept seeing rave reviews about Atelier des Lumieres and FOMO kicked in. If that many people liked it, I reasoned, then surely I should go see it. You know, for the blog. So I ponied up the $16 or so and made my reservation. (As an aside, I’d like to remind you that I pay for all of my own travels. In the event that I am offered a complimentary admission/lodging/meal when traveling, I will disclose that up front.)

So… what is this art thingy, anyway?

In all of the rave reviews that I saw, not once did I find someone who could really explain what the Atelier des Lumieres experience was, exactly. And, believe me, I looked! So now I find myself in the same unenviable position as those who have reviewed it… trying to put into words something that, for the most part, defies description.

My goal here is to give you a realistic expectation of what the experience is like and to encourage you to check it out if you are in Paris. It truly is a phenomenal, unique experience.

The Immersive Art Experience

Upon arrival, you enter the lobby of the building, which is bustling with activity. You may have to wait a few moments, as they only allow guests to enter in between shows. Then, when the time is right, you will pass through a doorway into a very large, open, and dark space.

Take a moment for your eyes to adjust, and (if you want) look for a place to sit. There aren’t a lot of seating options, and if you really want to sit during the show, you may have to just find a spot on the floor. However, don’t despair if you can’t snag a seat right away. Most people will move around during the show, vacating their seats at some point.

As the show begins, you will see works of art displayed on the walls and floors while music plays. You won’t see dust particles swirling in a beam of light from a projector. You won’t see shadows cast by objects that have come between the image source and the wall. But thankfully, you will be too mesmerized to think about where the images are coming from, or how they are displayed so seamlessly. That’s something that you will ponder afterward.

Act 1: Van Gogh, Starry Night

Rather than keep the big name artist until the end, Atelier des Lumieres starts their show with the works of Vincent Van Gogh.

It begins with music, loud enough to keep you from being distracted by the sounds of others’ conversation, but not uncomfortably loud. The songs are about as varied as you can imagine. Some were fast-paced, some slow; some in English, some in (I assume) French; some relatively modern and others from decades past.

The pictures begin to appear, larger than life, on the walls and the floors. One of the first images I saw was this haunting self-portrait of Van Gogh, painted in 1889. Seeing it in a gallery is one thing. Seeing it larger than life in front of you, eyes fixed on you, is quite another.

There are a couple of things I’d like to point out about this picture. First, notice the scale of the space in comparison to the two people who walked into the frame. Second, as previously mentioned, the art was projected not just on the walls, but also on the floor. Third, the round-ish wall on the right of the picture has a completely different image, which is why it’s best if you don’t stay in just one spot to enjoy this immersive art experience.

As I mentioned, I appreciate Van Gogh’s works, like his Sunflowers, which I saw at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And while I tend to be the old school purist who says things like, ” Nothing can compare to standing in front of it and seeing it with your own eyes,” I would have been unequivocally wrong in this case. I saw an Gogh’s sunflowers in a while new light:

Sunflowers by Van Gogh at Atelier des Lumieres in Paris

Or perhaps you prefer irises to sunflowers?

The colors are intense. Music heightens the mood. The size and scale of the art is nearly overwhelming. Put all that together and you have a completely immersive art experience like no other. But as if that weren’t enough, Atelier des Lumieres adds animation to the mix:

The pictures come to life before your eyes! Birds fly, waves move, raindrops fall. It feels as though you are not looking at a painting, but rather standing inside it!

The Van Gogh portion of the experience ends with the soulful sounds of the 1965 hit, “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by the Animals. It couldn’t have been more appropriate for a man who struggled with mental illness for most of his life. The final image of Act 1 was simply the artist’s signature.

Vincent Van Gogh's signature, the final image of the Starry Night portion of Atelier des Lumieres' immersive art experience.

Act 2: Dreamed Japan, Images of the Floating World

The next act took us from 19th century Europe to ancient Japan. It started with images of nighttime in a forest, with fireflies illuminating the space. Then kimono-clad figures appeared, gradually dissolving into the night.

We left the forest and traveled underwater, entertained by all sorts of aquatic life. They floated and swam past us, and seemed to watch us every bit as intently as we were watching them.

The scene transformed, and suddenly we were standing inside a shoji – a Japanese structure with paper walls. Two women were there, a teapot and cups on the floor by their feet.

Ancient Japanese warriors also appeared on the walls. Their facial expressions cracked me up, because in some cases it seemed as though they were scowling at the spectators.

Two of Japan’s most iconic cultural symbols came to life through the magical animation of Atelier des Lumieres. First, the ornately decorated hand fans, opening and closing in graceful sweeps of motion:

Second, the beautifully illuminated paper lanterns that float up into the night sky at a lantern festival.

Act 3: Verse

“Verse,” presumably short for Universe, is a piece created specifically for the Atelier des Lumieres. Bursts of light against a black background make you feel like you’re floating through space.

In all honesty, I didn’t like this segment of the immersive art experience as much as I did the other two. I didn’t even take any pictures. For me, the appeal of the Atelier des Lumieres is primarily seeing familiar things in a brand new way. The art showcased in Verse was not familiar to me, and seemed to be more of a movie than an experience. Which is not to say that it wasn’t well done or beautiful to look at. It simply lacked the excitement that the other two possessed.

Bottom Line

By all means, if you are in Paris, go see the Atelier des Lumieres. It’s an amazing, completely immersive art experience like nothing else. I highly recommend it for anyone!

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A Post-Election Celebration: Return Day in Georgetown, Delaware

A Post-Election Celebration: Return Day in Georgetown, Delaware

The tiny town of Georgetown, Delaware (population 6000) has a special holiday every election year called Return Day. In many ways, it’s a holiday the whole nation could learn from.

What is Return Day?

Dating back as far as perhaps 1792, Return Day came about after a law moved the Sussex County Delaware seat from the coastal town of Lewes to a more geographically centered site, Georgetown. That same law required all citizens to cast their votes in Georgetown on election day. Two days later, voters  could return to Georgetown to hear the official results of the election.

Voting districts were established in 1811, eliminating the need for a central polling & results location. And today’s technology enables us to know who won within hours of the polls closing. However, the tradition of meeting two days later in Georgetown to announce the final vote tally has continued for over 200 years. It has even achieved the status of state holiday, with government offices in the county closing for the afternoon.

Return Day is celebrated every election year in Georgetown, Delaware.

What Happens on Return Day?

The festivities start with a concert and a traditional free ox roast in the town circle. Like most local festivals, Return Day features food vendors, competitions, musical entertainment, arts and crafts, and  so on.

The candidates – winners and losers from both parties – ride in horse drawn carriages or antique cars in a parade through town and around the town circle.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has participated in Delaware's Return Day tradition more than once.
Former Vice President (and Delaware Senator) Joe Biden has participated in the Return Day celebration more than once.

As the parade draws to and end, the ceremonies open with the national anthem, followed by an invocation and opening remarks by the mayor of Georgetown. Then – can you believe it? – a town crier reads the election results.

On Return Day in Georgetown, Delaware, the town crier reads the results of the elections.

The chairmen of the political parties (Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, and Independent) in Sussex County then partake in a ceremonial burying the hatchet. They meet on stage, clutch a hatchet and together plunge it into a box of sand. Even the sand has symbolic significance, as it’s from the original county seat of Lewes. When party leaders bury the hatchet, that signifies the end of the political competition.

Following the ceremony, all attendees receive a free open pit roast beef sandwich. Another tradition for Return Day is the ox roast and, well, if you’re going to roast an ox, you might as well share it with your neighbors.

Why Talk About Return Day?

In a political environment that seems to get nastier and more divisive each year, there’s a lot we can learn from this little town in Delaware. On Return Day, political opponents come together and symbolically bury the hatchet, signifying the end of their competition, no matter how antagonistic it may have gotten. Additionally, the election is officially declared as finished business.

What’s the bigger message here? Once the election is over, it’s over. Let’s put the nastiness behind us, roll up our collective sleeves, and get to work at fixing the problems that face us.

The next Return Day will be held in Georgetown on November 5, 2020.

Return Day - a unique post-election celebration in Georgetown Delaware.
Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco

Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco

Tour the Catacombs of Lima?

The Monastery of San Fransisco (AKA Convento/Monasterio de San Francisco or the Monastery of Saint Francis) has some delightfully creepy yet somehow artistic catacombs sitting beneath it. For those who like to do something a little offbeat and unusual, maybe even macabre, a tour of the catacombs of Lima is just the ticket! But before I tell you about what you’ll see there, I’d like you to experience it the way we did.

The Site

The Monastery of San Francisco is just a block or so away from Lima’s Plaza Mayor, the Cathedral of Lima, and the Archbishop’s Palace. As such, it is part of the “Historic Centre of Lima,” which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. The monastery and church are yellow buildings that stand out against the grays and browns of the others in the area. Construction began in the middle of the sixteenth century and was completed in 1674. It’s considered to be a fine example of Spanish Baroque architecture.

Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of Saint Francis.

There is usually a small horde of pigeons in the building’s courtyard, and a few vendors selling (among other things) food to feed the pigeons.

We entered the monastery (the building to the side of the church), paid for a tour, and waited for an English-speaking guide.

The Library

After a brief introduction, our guide led us out and up a flight of stairs. I wish I could have taken a photo of the stairway, or rather the ceiling above it. It was a beautiful deep red color and looked more Middle Eastern than Spanish or South American. Before I had a chance to ponder it, however, we moved into the first room: the library. I was awestruck, and I think you can see why;

Tour the catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of Saint Francis, but don't be in such a rush to see them that you fail to appreciate what you see along the way... like this gorgeous library.

Our guide told us that the library contains over 25,000 books, and that some of them dated as far back as the 14th century. The world-renowned library contains the first Spanish dictionary published by the Royal Spanish Academy as well as a Bible dated 1572.

The Art

As with the Cathedral of Cusco, there was a massive Last Supper painting that depicted Jesus and his disciples partaking of Peruvian foods such as cuy (guinea pig) and potatoes. Unlike the one in Cusco, this one included the Devil himself… perched just above Judas’ shoulder. The guide told us how many faces there were in the painting… and while I can’t remember what that number was, it was a lot more than just the 13 men at the table. Looking at the painting more closely, I could see many additional faces – some no more than just a hint of a heavenly presence gazing upon the scene below.

As we walked along the cloister (the covered walkway between the building and the courtyard), we saw beautiful tiles lining the wall:

Tour the catacombs of Lima at the monastery of San Francisco , but make sure you take in all of the other fascinating art & architecture there as well, like these beautiful tiled walls.

One tile bore the date 1620! To think that those tiles have survived nearly 500 years is just mind-boggling. Even more so when you consider that the building experienced three major earthquakes – in 1687, 1746, and 1970. Interestingly, the first two did very little damage.  It was the earthquake of 1970 that inflicted severe damage on the site. And the tiles were not the only art to decorate the cloister – above the tiles you could see the life of Saint Francis of Assisi (“San Francisco” in Spanish) portrayed in a series of murals.

The Courtyard

The inner courtyard of the monastery was quite beautiful, particularly when viewed from the upper floor:

Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco... then step out into the beautiful courtyard for a breath of fresh air.

We enjoyed looking out at the courtyard so much that we lingered there for a few moments at the end of the guided tour, just so we could take it all in.

The building itself was pretty impressive from that vantage point as well.

The Spanish baroque style Monastery of San Francisco allows you to tour the catacombs of Lima.

The Catacombs

Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for: the creepy, crusty, dirty, dusty catacombs!  Actually they weren’t all that dirty but they were bit creepy.

In centuries past, it was customary to bury people under churches. This was commonplace until 1808, when the cemetery of Lima opened. At that time, practices changed and the catacombs were closed, after accepting somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 bodies. The catacombs stayed undisturbed until their rediscovery in 1943. When that happened, archaeologists and anthropologists decided to sort through the skeletons. (I’m not clear on why they thought that was necessary.) Apparently whoever was in charge of sorting had a really bad case of OCD.  Instead of keeping the bodies semi-intact, they put all the skulls together, all the femurs together, all the tibias together, and so on. So we passed bin after bin of bones that were not a person, but rather parts of more than one person. It was weird.

But it seemed to be slightly less weird when we got to the well. That was where the bones were not just sorted into bins but rather artistically arranged in to a geometric design.

Tour the catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco and you will see this artistic display of bones.

I don’t think I would have the nerve to do all that, honestly. Rumor has it that the catacombs also included secret passageways connecting to the Cathedral and to the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition.

If you’re in Lima and you want to see a really amazing, kinda creepy place, look no farther than the Monastery of San Francisco. It only costs about $3 for a tour, and it will be a fascinating one!

The Monastery of San Francisco in Lima has more to delight visitors than the creepy catacombs. It's on the top ten list of places to see in Lima, Peru!
A Still Life Drama… Whatever That Means

A Still Life Drama… Whatever That Means

The Problem with Monday Evenings

On our most recent trip to the UK, we found ourselves with odd chunks of time to fill in London. Sunday evening, Monday evening, and Tuesday morning. American Airlines took care of Tuesday morning by changing our 2:25 pm flight to an 11:00 am flight. On Sunday evening, we rode the London Eye. Monday evening turned out to be a bit more problematic.

You see, we were going to the Warner Brother Studio Tour Harry Potter experience in Leavesden on Monday, and estimated our return to London at about 4:30 pm. Most museums close at 5:00 or 5:30, and by the time we rode the tube to get there, we would have very little time to actually see anything. I was very excited when I found out that Dennis Severs house was open on Monday evenings, and booked a reservation.

dennis-severs-house-exterior london


About Dennis Severs’ House

If you haven’t heard of Dennis Severs House, I will try to explain in as straightforward, unbiased manner as possible.

The house is (according to its creator, Dennis Severs) a “still-life drama” – an imagination of what life would have been like inside for a family of Huguenot silk weavers. Mr. Severs recreated the rooms of the house as a time capsule in the style of former centuries, adding components that make the rooms appear lived-in, as if the inhabitants of the house have just stepped out a few minutes before you arrived.

There is no gift shop, and there are only a few rules.

  1. Do not touch anything in the house
  2. Turn off your cell phone
  3. Do not talk, to yourself or to others.  You must complete the tour in silence.

Rule #3 proved somewhat more difficult than I would have expected, because I kept wanting to ask WHY?  First and foremost, why can’t we talk? But also, why is each room so different from the one before?  Why did Severs choose these time periods?  Why Huguenots? Why silk weavers?  Why, why, why?

That being said, I did manage to hold my tongue for the entirety of the tour, save one barely audible whisper to my daughter when we got close to the end to see if her thoughts were tracking with mine. More on that later. Here’s how the tour went down.

Just before entering, we received instructions about The Rules.  We were warned that candlelight was the only illumination in the house.  Thankfully, it was early in the evening, and some additional light entered in through the windows.

The Cellar

We entered the house and were directed to the cellar.  There we found a dark room with a crater in the ground and an explanation about the Spitalfields area, which was named for St Mary Spital, established in 1197 to treat lepers. (Notice the similarity to the word hospital?)

dennis-severs-house-cellar london

I had no background knowledge on the area when we visited, but in trying to gain a better understanding of the house after our visit, I read up on it. In doing so, I learned that Spitalfields was historically associated with Huguenot refugees from 1685 onward, and that many of the refugees were silk weavers by trade. They settled in the Spitalfields area (then outside London) to avoid the restrictive legislation of the City of London guilds.

The Kitchen

Our next stop was the kitchen. It was rustic and cozy… a nice change from the dankness of the leprosy crater next door.

dennis-severs-house-kitchen london


The Eating Parlour

Back upstairs we went to the ground floor. We were motioned away from one room (the grand finale, as it turns out) and directed to the other. It was the “Eating Parlour,” which according to the house’s web site, is in the Baroque period, and a study in contrasts.

dennis-severs-house-eating parlour london

Notice the bright white objects and how they contrast with the darker colors of the room? It is supposed to signify politics in the era following the English Civil War – Catholic or Protestant, Whig or Tory – King George or King James, etc. A note in the room alluded to the fact that the next generation, located upstairs, lived more extravagantly.

Sadly, this detail went right over my head. As an American, I haven’t learned enough about the English Civil War to pick up on these nuances or understand the significance in the time period. However, it was a lovely room, and I enjoyed the sounds and smells that made it so realistic.

When we finished looking around the Eating Parlour, a guide motioned us upstairs. A huge multi-tiered display of fruit stood on the landing. According to the house’s web site, we were entering the Georgian era, and their placement on what English call the first floor (we Americans would call it the second floor) is symbolic of being more noble and refined. Everything seemed delicate and expensive. We even skirted carefully around the fruit display for fear of knocking it over.

The Smoking Room

The first room on this floor was the Smoking Room. Essentially, it was the Man Cave of that era, symbolized quite well by the William Hogarth painting on the wall “A Midnight Modern Conversation”:

rsz_william_hogarth_-_a_midnight_modern_conversation at dennis severs house london

We failed to pay much attention to the painting until we read a note on the table. It told us that the room replicated the one in the painting, complete with overturned chair.

dennis-severs-house-room-with-painting london

This room, according to the web site, symbolizes the practical disadvantages of all-male extremes. In this room (and all the others), there is a great amount of attention to detail.

dennis-severs-house-details london


The Withdrawing Room

Moving on, we entered the Withdrawing Room.

dennis severs house withdrawing room london

In contrast to the Man Cave next door, this room contains a female presence. Evidence of etiquette and gentility abounds.

Up once more we climbed the stairs. We entered the more intimate areas of the house – the bedrooms. According to the web site, this is the meaning behind the bedrooms:

Now “I think” should develop into “I feel”, and the colours in the Chamber and Boudoir are the pastel hues of sea and sky – to lift the imagination and inspire it on. So intimate – femininity, family, children’s toys and humour – as well as evidence of ‘a passion for’ – ephemera, oriental porcelain and flowers. The idea being to warm cold Reason so that you might look down on the same primitive and brutal world from which you once rose to see it as ‘picturesque’. In doing so you enter the back door to the romantic age from 1780 – 1837.

They were lovely rooms, and I especially enjoyed looking at the woman’s vanity table. But I didn’t get any deeper meaning from it, and this is where I started becoming frustrated. All the way through the house we had seen notes that were telling us to look deeper, to find the connections, to experience the setting before us, etc. I was beginning to feel that I must have missed something because I didn’t see much of a deeper meaning, regardless of how well done the rooms were.

The Upper Floor

That nagging sense of confusion exploded into a complete sense of bewilderment when we went to the uppermost floor. Hanging in the stairwell area were multiple lines of laundry hanging to dry. The paint on the walls was chipped and peeling.

rsz_dennis_severs_house_top_floor_laundry london

Shabbiness and squalor continued into the final room.  A huge bed dominated one side of the room, its once luxurious velvet curtains frayed and faded, its covers rumpled and unkempt. Beside it was a threadbare chair with a lumpy cushion seat.


In one corner of the room opposite the bed was a desk, quill pens, books and papers. Forever in love with books and papers and writing instruments, I felt a great attraction to that corner of the room. I found the rest of it, however, revolting, and half expected a rat to scurry across the floor at any moment.

rsz_dennis_severs_house-dickens-room desk london

What you can’t see in this photo is a note implying that you are standing in Ebenezer Scrooge’s room from A Christmas Carol. That totally blew my mind, but not in a good way. I was (sort of) buying into the whole presumption that this was the house of 17th/18th century Huguenot silk weavers. So what does Dickens have to do with that? If you know, please clue me in. If you’re as confused as I am, this is what the web site says:

However, on the Top Floor, now stripped of any prettiness and filled with lodgers, what good are Reason and Romance on their own? You are 100 years old; you are wise. And with harder times and the Spitalfields silk trade sweating towards its collapse – a visitor joins with an age to reach more deeply – through sentiment to the Soul. A sense of angst is necessary to understanding the house’s next generation of Early-Victorian reformers.

The Back Parlour

Having completed that room, it was time to journey back to the ground floor and enter the grand finale room. It is the back parlour, decked out in regalia to signify the beginning of the Victorian era.

dennis severs house back parlour london

I was so thankful not to end the tour on the creepy upstairs derelict room! Once we finished looking around in the back parlour, we stepped out onto the London street, looked at each other, and said, “What the heck WAS that?” before bursting out in laughter.

So, Should You Go?

Here’s my take. If you enjoy historical reenactment and fantasize about how cool it would be to go back in time, you would probably enjoy touring this house. If you hated literature classes that had you analyze the writings of an author and presume to know why he chose to say that the bird in the tree was a canary instead of a mockingbird – and what deeper, philosophical meaning that choice implied – you should probably pass on seeing this place.

Me? I’m somewhere in the middle of those two camps. I certainly appreciate the attention to detail and the thoroughness of the scenes. However, I resented the implication that if I didn’t get all of the connections, I was (as the Brits say) thick.

I think there should have been some more background information provided prior to the tour.  It would have been especially helpful for the non-British who don’t know about Huguenot refugees, the silk trade, or the English Civil War.

Your mileage, of course, may vary. If you’ve been to Dennis Severs’ house, please let me know what you thought of it by commenting below!

Dennis Severs House is located at 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, London, E1 6BX. Telephone:+44 (0) 20 7247 4013. The house holds tours at various times on selected days of the week.  Consult the web site or call when planning your visit.  

The White Horses of Britain

The White Horses of Britain

There are nearly 60 carvings of giant horses, men and other animals in the British landscape. These figures are typically made in chalk and limestone areas.  The figures therefore appear white, which contrasts with the darker surrounding soil or grass.

The most famous of these horses is the Uffington White Horse, which is both the oldest and the largest. It has graced that hillside in Oxfordshire for at least 2000 years, perhaps as many as 3000 years, and it is a whopping 360 feet long.


Another white horse in Osmington measures 323 feet and includes a figure riding it. The rider is probably King George III, who was the reigning monarch at the time of its creation in 1808 and measures. Osmington is near the southern coast of England, in Dorset.


The Kilburn White Horse is in the North York Moors National Park in Yorkshire. Created in 1857, it is 318 feet long and covers more than an acre and a half of land.


In Southeast England there is the Folkestone White Horse, overlooking the English end of the Channel Tunnel (or “Chunnel”) in Kent. It is the newest addition in the White Horse family, and as such, the most controversial. Environmental groups opposed the project, which first sough approval in 1998 but did not receive it until 2002. The Folkestone White Horse is 267 feet long.


Another hill figure known as the Cherhill White Horse, located in Wiltshire, dates from the late 18th century. It measures 220 feet.


Also in Wiltshire is the Westbury, or Bratton Downs, White Horse. First cut in the mid-1700s, it is the oldest white horse in Wiltshire. People as far away as 16 miles in every direction are able to see the 180 foot figure.

Westbury white horse.jpg

These are just a few of the hill figures in Britain. In addition to horses, hill figures include swans, rabbits, men (including one that’s semi-pornographic in Dorset), and a donkey. They each have their own history and story, so they’re worth checking out if you’re near one.

Finally, if you would like to learn more about the hill figures of Britain, check out these great books:

50 of the Strangest Place Names in America… and How They Came to Be

50 of the Strangest Place Names in America… and How They Came to Be

I love looking at maps and checking out the names of places.  Some of them are unique, while others are funny and a few are just downright weird.  Here are some of my favorites, including how they got their names.

Scratch Ankle, Alabama got its name from train workers who always saw the locals scratching their ankles from mosquito bites.

Mary’s Igloo, Alaska took its name from an Inupiat woman named Mary, who welcomed miners, trappers and others into her home for coffee. During that period, Mary’s Igloo was a transfer point for supplies for the gold fields upriver.

Why, Arizona derives its name from the fact that two major highways, State Routes 85 and 86, originally intersected in a Y shape. As a result of Arizona law that required city names to have at least three letters, the town’s founders named the town “Why” as opposed to simply calling it “Y.”

strange town names why arizona

Smackover, Arkansas comes from the name that French settlers gave the town in 1686: “sumac couvert,” which translates to “covered in sumac bushes.”

Weed, California has nothing to do with marijuana or poor landscaping.  Rather, the town gets its name from the founder of the local lumber mill and pioneer Abner Weed, who discovered that the area’s strong winds were helpful in drying lumber. The town motto is “Weed like to welcome you.” (ha ha ha!)

Troublesome, Colorado takes its name from nearby Troublesome Creek.  The creeek got its name because soldiers had difficulty crossing it.

Yeehaw Junction, Florida got its name in the 1950s. Some say the community’s name comes from how locals would yell “Yeehaw!”  Others believe the name is close to the Seminole language word meaning “wolf”. According to town historians and several original newspaper articles, the town’s original name was either “Jackass Junction” or “Jackass Crossing.” That strange town name stemmed from local ranchers ring burros to visit the Desert Inn (the local brothel).

Experiment, Georgia took its name from the University of Georgia’s Agricultural Experiment Station, which is located there.

Dickshooter, Idaho received its name from Dick Shooter, a man who “established a homestead there.”

Goofy Ridge, Illinois was a camp near the river bank where moonshiners and other carousers met weekly to do their drinking. One night, a local game warden declared his relative sobriety by vowing that he could shoot a walnut off the head of a volunteer. The game warden placed the target on the volunteer’s head, aimed his .22 rifle, and shot the nut right off. A witness described the incident as “one damned goofy thing to do,” and the camp was consequently known as Goofy Ridge.

French Lick, Indiana (also hometown of NBA legend Larry Bird) was originally a French trading post built near a spring and salt lick.

strange town names french lick indiana

Fertile, Iowa got its name due to the quality of the soil in the valley there.

Protection, Kansas received its name from a political issue in the 1884 presidential selection.  There was a lot of popular support for a protective tariff, and the town drew its name from that.

Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky got its name because when looking at a map of Ballard County, it resembles a monkey’s head. The town Monkey’s Eyebrow is, of course, where the monkey’s eyebrow would be.

Boring, Maryland‘s name was not chosen for the pace of life, but for postmaster David Boring.

Hell, Michigan offers multiple theories for the origin of its name. My favorite: the original settler, George Reeves, was asked what to name the town when Michigan achieved statehood. His response was a surly, “I don’t care, you can name it Hell for all I care.”

strange town names hell michigan

Sleepy Eye, Minnesota took its name from Sleepy Eye Lake, which was named after Chief Sleepy Eye of the Sioux. Chief Sleepy Eye was known as a compassionate person with droopy eyelids.

Tightwad, Missouri got its name when a store owner cheated a customer, who was a postman, by charging him an extra 50 cents for a better watermelon. (Some sources claim the transaction involved a rooster rather than a watermelon.)

Two Dot, Montana got its name from the cattle brand of George R. Wilson, who donated the land for the town. “Two Dot Wilson” had a cattle brand of two dots, placed side by side on the hip of his cattle.

Searchlight, Nevada (hometown of US Senator Harry Reid) received its when George Frederick Colton was looking for gold in the area in 1897. He supposedly said that it would take a searchlight to find gold ore there.

Loveladies, New Jersey began as a small, 10-acre island in the bay adjacent to a US Life-Saving Station was owned by a man named Thomas Lovelady. The area was called Lovelady’s, which eventually evolved to Loveladies.

strange town names loveladies new jersey

Rush, New York was either named after the rushes growing along the creek, or after Dr. Benjamin Rush, Founding Father of the United States.

Whynot, North Carolina came from residents debating a title for their community. A man asked, “Why not name the town Whynot and let’s go home?” Nearby towns at the time with equally interesting names include Erect, Hemp, and Lonely.

Zap, North Dakota got its name because of a coal mine at the edge of town. The railroad company official in charge of naming new villages knew a coal-mining town in Scotland called Zapp, and thought that would be a good name here. However, he chose to Americanize the name and spelled it with only one “p”.

Pee Pee Township, Ohio took its name from Pee Pee Creek.  The creek got its name when an early settler inscribed his initials (P. P.) on a tree along its banks.

Okay, Oklahoma took its name from the OK Truck Manufacturing Company. Okay? OK.

Idiotville, Oregon got its name because of its remote location.  People said that only an idiot would work there.

Intercourse, Pennsylvania in Amish country, received its name in 1814. In those days, the word ‘intercourse’ meant the social interaction and support shared in the community of faith.

Ninetysix, South Carolina has several different theories for the origin of its name. My favorite is that it is an interpretation of a Welsh expression, “nant-sych,” meaning “dry gulch.”

strange town names ninety-seix south carolina


Two Strike, South Dakota received its name in honor of Lakota Chief Two Strike, whose native name was “Nomkahpa,” meaning “Knocks Two Off.” The chief’s claim to fame was that, in a battle with the Utes, he knocked two warriors off their horses with a single blow of his war club.

Sweet Lips, Tennessee received its name from settlers who declared water from a creek to be “sweet to the lips.”  Alternative versions of the story say it was wandering hobos or thirsty Civil War soldiers.

Uncertain, Texas derives its name from surveyors who were attempting to delineate the border between Texas and Louisiana.  They were uncertain as to which side of the line they were on, hence the name.

Humptulips, Washington comes from a local Native American language, meaning ‘hard to pole’, referring to the difficulty local Native Americans had poling their canoes along the Humptulips River.

War, West Virginia took its name from the nearby War Creek.  The creek got its name from the frequent battles between Native Americans near the stream.

strange town names war west virginia

Spread Eagle, Wisconsin got its name from the Spread Eagle chain of lakes. When seen from above, the lakes resemble an eagle with its wings spread.

Travel Trivia

Travel Trivia

I often joke that I can remember a fact that I learned in fifth grade, yet I can’t remember why I walked into another room.  It’s not quite that bad, thankfully, but I do have a knack for holding on to useless knowledge.  So I thought I would share some of my favorite bits of travel trivia.  I hope you find them as interesting as I do!

  • One state in the US has more national parks than the other 4 – California is home to nine national parks. (Alaska is a close second with eight.)
  • The largest active volcano on earth is Mauna Loa, in Hawaii. Its last eruption was in 1984.
  • The Philippines has the only national flag flown differently depending on whether it is at war. The blue portion is on top in times of peace and the red portion is on top during war time.

philippines-flag travel trivia

  • At 5772 miles long, the Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest railway in the world. It crosses 3901 bridges.
  • The Republic of Nauru, an island nation in Micronesia, has no capital.
  • South Africa, by contrast, has three capital cities:  one administrative/executive, one legislative, and one judicial.  Fourteen other countries have two capitals.
  • Three countries in the world are completely surrounded by only one other country:  Lesotho, San Marino, and Vatican City. Lesotho lies within the country of South Africa, whereas San Marino and Vatican City are within Italy.
  • In the list of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only one still stands today – the Great Pyramid of Giza.

great_pyramid_of_giza travel trivia

  • Many people have heard that the city of Venice Italy is slowly sinking. However, it may surprise them to learn that Mexico City is also sinking – at 10 cm per year, a rate that is ten times faster than that of Venice.
  • The world’s oldest subway is London’s Underground. At its opening in 1863, it measured four miles long. Today, it is approximately 250 miles long.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these bits of travel trivia! If you have a fun fact to share, please comment below.

The Winchester Mystery House -San Jose, CA

The Winchester Mystery House -San Jose, CA

If you’ve heard of Winchester rifles, you have heard of the same Winchesters who owned the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Sarah Winchester, the widow of the gun magnate William Wirt Winchester, once called it home.

Upon the death of her husband in 1881, Mrs Winchester became the subject of gossip. One story claimed that a medium in Boston told Mrs Winchester that her family and fortune were haunted by ghosts.  She also said Mrs Winchester would only be able to appease these spirits by moving west and building them a house. Construction began in 1884 and took place day and night, around the clock, until Mrs Winchester passed away in 1922.  If that sounds terribly expensive, don’t worry – the widow Winchester inherited more than $20 million and had an ongoing income of $1000 per day.

Whether or not the story about the Boston medium was true, Mrs Winchester did, in fact, believe that the spirits of people killed by Winchester rifles haunted her family and fortune. As a result of her fear, she would not permit construction on the house to stop. Without the benefit of either architect or blueprints, the house grew and grew until it became a seven story mansion.  In an effort to confuse the evil spirits, the house contains doors and stairs that go nowhere, windows overlooking other rooms and stairs with odd-sized risers. Due to damage from an earthquake in 1906, it is now a four-story building, but the remaining oddly-placed windows, doors, and stairs are still very much intact.

A window in the floor. Photo via Flickr by Alberto Garcia.

There is a seance room in the mansion, because Mrs Winchester consulted the spirits every night to get building instructions in an ongoing quest to appease them.  The room has only one entrance but three exits. One of the extra doors is a cupboard that opens secretly into the room behind it.  The other opens onto an 8 foot drop into a sink in a kitchen below.

Mrs Winchester had severe arthritis in her feet, so many of the stairs in the house are “easy risers,” small and close to each other.  It was easier for her to climb those.

Photo via Flickr by samswitzer.

Unfortunately, the practicality ends there. There is a “goofy staircase,” for instance, to reach the Hayloft on the next floor only 9 feet above. It has 44 steps and seven complete turns.  There is also a staircase that descends seven steps and then rises eleven.

The Grand Ballroom in the mansion was built almost entirely without nails. It cost over $9,000 to complete at a time when an entire house could be built for less than $1,000. Ironically, the ballroom never hosted any social events. The story goes that Mrs. Winchester believed the earthquake of 1906 was a warning from the spirits that she had spent too much money on the front section of the house, which was nearing completion. After the workers repaired the structural damage, she immediately ordered that they seal up the front thirty rooms – including the Grand Ballroom.

Organ in the Grand Ballroom.  Mrs Winchester was an accomplished musician. (Photo via Flickr by Jere Keys.)

Because of Mrs Winchester’s extravagance, the normal parts of the house are quite lovely.  Some rooms have Tiffany stained glass, others have hand-inlaid parquet floors and trim.  The house also had state-of-the-art modern conveniences like indoor plumbing and push button gas lights.  It’s luxurious and grand, even if it is wacky as all get out.


Sarah Winchester’s bedroom, although by some accounts she slept in a different room each night to prevent the evil spirits from finding her. (Photo via Flickr by Jere Keys)


One of the stained glass windows at Winchester Mystery House. This window contains 13 colored stones because, in addition to her other quirks, Mrs Winchester had an obsession with the number 13. (Photo via Flickr by Jere Keys)

The house by the numbers:

  • 24,000 square feet
  • 160 rooms, including 40 bedrooms
  • 2 ballrooms (one completed and one unfinished)
  • 47 fireplaces
  • over 10,000 panes of glass
  • 2000 doors
  • 52 skylights
  • 40 staircases
  • 17 chimneys (with evidence of two others)
  • 3 elevators.
Winchester Mystery House by the Nubers at Travelasmuch.com

The Winchester Mystery House is located at 525 South Winchester Blvd. in San Jose, CA. Telephone 408-247-2000.  Hours vary by season, so call or check the web site when making your plans.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Wizard of Oz Road Trip

Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Wizard of Oz Road Trip

Are you a fan of the classic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz? Well, have I got a road trip for you! (Technically, it may be more of a bucket list than a road trip.  These sites are on both coasts of the USA and a few places in between. It really isn’t practical for driving unless you have a lot of time.)

Start in the northeast with Chittenango, New York.  This town is the birthplace of The Wizard of Oz author Frank Baum, and also the home of the All Things Oz Museum. According to the museum staff, “All Things Oz is more than a tribute to a book series; it is a fascinating trip through the life of its author, his wife, Maud Gage, and all the many experiences that shaped his imagination and his world.” The museum also coordinates a yearly Oz-stravaganza festival.

wizard of oz road trip All Things Oz Museum
All Things Oz Museum, Chittenango, NY

From New York, head south to our nation’s capital and visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington DC.  There you will see one of the four original pairs of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the movie. (Size 5!)

wizard of oz road trip dorothy's Ruby Slippers judy garland
Ruby Slippers, National Museum of American History, Washington DC

From DC, keep heading south. If you’ve scrolled through Pinterest, you may have seen an abandoned Wizard of Oz theme park in North Carolina. Well, it was a theme park, and it is in North Carolina, but it is not abandoned. The Land of Oz is a privately owned property that is under 24 hour surveillance, and trespassers are prosecuted. Fortunately, however, the site is open to the public at various times throughout the year.

Wizard of oz road trip Land of Oz NC
Land of Oz theme park in Beech Mountain, NC

In Chicago, visit Oz Park.  Take a stroll through the park and you’ll be greeted by statues of the Tin Man, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and everyone’s favorite, Dorothy & Toto.

wizard of oz road trip_park_scarecrow_statue
Scarecrow Statue, Oz Park, Chicago

In Wamego, Kansas, there is the Oz Museum, which features a collection of over 25,000 Oz artifacts. Since the founding of the Museum in April 2004, other small businesses with the Oz theme have opened, including the Oz Winery and Toto’s Tacoz. In addition, on the first weekend of October, Wamego holds its Annual OZtoberFEST, an Oktoberfest-type celebration with an Oz theme. OZfest typically features Hot Air Balloon Rides, Tallgrass Brewery Beer Garden, the Yellow Brick Road Bike Ride, and a local stage or music production.

Wizard of oz road trip Oz Museum Wamego Kansas
The Oz Museum, Wamego KS

And now, head west to the California coast.  We’re going to Hollywood!

Visit the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, and look for the stars of Judy Garland (Dorothy), Ray Bloger (Scarecrow), Jack Haley (Tin Man), Frank Morgan (The Wizard), and Billie Burke (Glinda). The Munchkins’ star, added in 2007, is the most recent Wizard of Oz addition to the Walk of Fame.

Wizard of oz road trip Munchkins Star walk of fame hollywood
Hollywood Walk of Fame

After visiting the Walk of Fame, head over to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.  The cemetery contains a memorial to Terry the Cairn Terrier, also known as Dorothy’s dog, Toto.

wizard of oz road trip Toto Memorial hollywood
Toto Memorial in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery

And when you’ve finished touring all of these great locations, remember to click your heels three times and say, “There’s no place like home…”