Becoming a Stark: Archery at Winterfell

Tourism based on TV and pop culture is an odd bird, but I have to admit that Game of Thrones is making me a believer. While its story and settings are brilliantly fictitious, many of the filming locations have their own historic, cultural, and eye-catching charms that can be worth a visit for even non-GOT fans.

The first of a series of Game of Thrones stained glass installations in Belfast.

In Belfast, there’s a touring exhibition replete with authentic props and costumes, green screen photo ops, a superb audio guide featuring GOT production staff, and a replica of the Iron Throne. The show has been such a boon to tourism in the Northern Ireland capital that stained glass panels are being erected throughout city. While that’s fun to see and experience, it is a bit removed from any history or native culture.

Just 45 minutes south in Downpatrick, the immense, 832-acre estate of Castle Ward was used as the setting for Winterfell Castle as well as several other fictional locations. Part of the Ward family since the late 1500s, the estate was given in the 1950s to the United Kingdom’s National Trust, which has been tasked with overseeing the 18th-century castle, the stable yard, two tower houses (remnants of Old Castle Ward and Audley’s Castle), the gardens and the surrounding lands.

Along the trails of the Castle Ward Estate

The newer, stately castle of the 1700s is quirky. When you look at the Neo-classical architecture, with its robust columns and palatial, Georgian uniformity, it’s easy to imagine a well-to-do, storied family sipping tea, bedecked in their genteel fineries as a gentle roar of the hearth warms the room. Your state of surprise would be forgiven when you then entered the palace to see one half of the residence done up in classical, refined and subdued elegance and the other “Gothic” half adorned in ornate architectural features, bold patterns, and a “cabinet of curiosities” aesthetic. For a breath of fresh air, step out back and admire the meticulously organized, Victorian-style Sunken Garden.

The 18th-century residence at Castle Ward. (Photo credit: The UK National Trust)

Walking the grounds is a nature-lover’s delight, and since the acreage is so vast, biking is a popular activity, too. The property rests adjacent the Strangford Lough, a large inlet that connects to the Irish Sea. Winding pathways lead you beside colorfully striated shorelines, through ethereal woodlands, and alongside the lonesome watchtower of Audley’s Castle.

Stroll the nature trails that lead you along Strangford Loch and beside Audley’s Castle watchtower.

Back at the Old Castle Ward stable yard (which doubled as the Stark family’s Castle at Winterfell), try your hand at archery. I did. The Winterfell Tours Castle & Demesne instructors are skilled and patient, plus you get to dress up in full medievalesque Stark gear, replete with a padded gambezon layer, a plasteron chest protector, and a cloak (your choice: à la Jon Snow or à la Sansa Stark). Try on the chain mail coif just for fun and imagine how (in)effective and (not) agile you’d be if you had to do battle wearing it. I thought my skull would collapse under the cumbersome weight.

Geared up and read for battle!

The crispness of the air, the chilly breeze, and the sting of rain drops made me grateful for the extra layers, if maneuverably awkward. I had taken several previous archery lessons over the years–in Europe and The States–and found an affinity for it. Still, I’m no expert and it was helpful to have a dedicated instructor coaching me with precision.

How on earth did people fight with all this stuff on?

As I stood on the very same spot as Jon Snow, Bran Stark, and Robb Stark did in Season 1, Episode 1, adrenaline coursed through my body. It made me rush my release. I began to overthink. The pendulum swung and I was now taking too long to aim, making my arms tremble with fatigue. But not long after, I found my rhythm.

I am sooooooo competitive.

After going through several quivers-full of practice shots, I was ready for the “competition round.” Although I was the only participant, I imagined a fierce enemy as my target: a White Walker, a Frey, a Bolton, the Mad King, a Lannister? Perhaps. My shots were relatively consistent, grouping right and mostly at the right height–that is until my final shot.

The North Remembers

When my arrow hit the small white circle in the center of the target, I felt transformed, triumphant. I became a Stark, and a victorious one at that. But more than that, I had just capped a delightful day that was full of history, culture, and nature with a physical activity that made me feel alive and energized. And that is good travel.

For those who doubt, here’s a video of my .09 seconds of glory:

Derry: Faith, Violence, and a Hope for Peace

Derry (Londonderry), Northern Ireland

I just left Derry yesterday afternoon, well before the violence occurred late last night. My time here was spent learning about The Troubles during the last half of the 20th century. For 30 years, the tragedies of fighting, suppression, revolt, and loss multiplied. Efforts to establish peace were highlighted with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and concerted efforts have been made since then to sustain a peaceful coexistence between the Protestants (Unionists/Loyalists/British) and Catholics (Nationalists/Republicans/Irish). There had been hopeful signs of progress across Northern Ireland. But with Brexit looming and the potential chaos that could wreak on the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland, especially along the borders, tensions have been rising and people are finding excuses to sow discontent.

The irony is not lost on me that today, Good Friday, marks the 21st anniversary of that peace accord, and because of all I’ve learned on my visit to Derry, I’m even more keenly saddened by last night’s riots and the shooting of 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said of the events, “We cannot allow those who want to propagate violence, fear and hate to drag us back to the past.”

The rioting was likely a result of search and seizure operations (raids) carried out by the police, who suspected some people of storing weapons and ammunition for upcoming attacks. But violence never solves anything, and it is tragic and shameful that while there are those who, for more than 20 years, have been trying to make progress and have literally built a bridge of peace, there are those who would choose to tear down those links and do so without regard for the safety of those in their community and of innocent bystanders.

Derry’s Peace Bridge is a suspension bridge for pedestrians and cyclists and was opened in 2011. It crosses the River Foyle, connecting the city center, known as the west bank, and the east bank, called Waterside. When viewed from certain angles, the suspension system “arms” appear to be leaning away from each other. Because of the s-curves in the bridge path, from other angles, they can also appear to be reaching for one another in a kind of determined attempt at a handshake. A guide remarked to me, “The pathway to peace is never a straight line. It winds and shifts. Sometimes there’s mistrust and turning away from one another. But there are also opportunities to lean in and support each other when you make the effort to look for them.”

Lasting peace takes work from all stakeholders on all sides, but it is always worth it. I have faith that this incident will provide the people of Derry and of Northern Ireland a chance to find new ways to reach out to one another in search of healing old and new wounds, of compassion for each other’s needs and struggles, and of an enduring peace.

Game of Thrones: The Touring Exhibition Hits Belfast

I don’t know whether winter is still coming, if it’s here, or if it’s already gone because I can’t watch Game of Thrones, Season 8. The first episode of the final season has just aired, and I’m in a (gorgeous) hotel room in Belfast and can’t find a way to watch it.

On the red carpet with Game of Thrones: The Touring Exhibition staff member, Gavin

Luckily for me, I got my GoT fix big time today. As fate would have it, my visit to Belfast coincided with the debut of Game of Thrones: The Touring Exhibition in Northern Ireland’s capital city. It’s making a temporary home of the Titanic Exhibition Centre (April 11- September 1, 2019), across the street from Titanic Studios (where many GoT scenes were filmed) and down the road from the Titanic Museum and the building site of–you guessed it–the Titanic.

Cersei Lannister’s muted color gown, worn at her son Joffrey’s wedding, and Jaime Lannister’s King’s Guard armor.

My visit happened on the fourth day it was open. Many flocked here on the first few days, but most crowds show up earlier in the day. I got here at 5:45 pm and had the whole place to myself–just the way I like it. It gave me time to linger where I wanted, take as many photos and videos as I liked without worrying about holding someone up, and I got to thoroughly immerse into the experience.

The experiences starts with a video that recaps the past 7 seasons. My adrenaline coursed through my body, reliving dramatic scenes and seeing faces who are no longer part of the show and faces of those who will play crucial roles in the 8th and final season.

Authentic props are artfully displayed throughout the exhibition.

Dramatic lighting, wisps of foggy smoke, and a pulsing soundtrack set the mood as you walk from room to room, learning about the key families, marveling at the authentic and incredibly intricate costumes, and admiring the artifact-like props used by your favorite, and most hated, characters.

Get up-close and personal with a dragon skull.

Set design props feature prominently, too, including Stark statues from the Crypts of Winterfell and a dragon skull pit (both are exclusive to the Belfast leg of the tour).

“A girl has no name.”

I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.

Interactive opportunities are scattered throughout the exhibit. You can express your inner Arya with “Needle,” her trusty sword. You can climb–or fall from–The Wall. And your face can (temporarily) join the collection of dozens of faces of the dead in the Hall of Faces.

Recognize anyone you know? Hint: look at the top row.

While there is helpful and informative signage in each room, I found the £5 audioguide to be essential. Featuring the voices of prominent production staff like costume designer Michele Clayton and production designer Deborah Riley, the audioguide provides fascinating insight into technical and psychological aspects of creating these mythic worlds within worlds that comprise and shape the visual landscape of Game of Thrones.

House “Stargaryan”

The piece de resistance for many is the chance to sit on the Iron Throne. You can even hold a dragon egg or wield the sword of your favorite character as you claim your power perch, made from the swords of vanquished enemies of the first king of the Targaryen dynasty, Aegon the Conqueror. [Spoiler alert: that’s Jon Snow’s AND Daenerys Targaryan’s ancestor. But you knew that already, you GoT geek].

The Iron Throne, all the swords, and Hodor’a döppelganger

Since I was the last one there, I had quite a bit of fun with the staff and did several variations of photos–with and without a dragon egg, with staff member Gavin (who reportedly was a stand-in for Kristian Nairn, the actor who portrayed the beloved Hodor), with my legs hanging over the arm of the throne, and with all the swords because, why not?

Trying to get comfy in my new furniture.

Was this worth the £15 entry fee I paid (and let’s not forget the €35 for 6 digital photos)? Absolutely. Would it be worth it to you? Depends.

This tour is a proper HBO production, and the high caliber is evident. It’s curated with the thoughtfulness and discernment of a distinguished museum. It’s organized and explained with the reluctant non-viewer and the faithful viewer in mind. And it’s presented with the theatricality and drama of, well, an HBO production.

Check out this video and wander with me virtually through this stellar exhibit:

If you have even the slightest interest in Game of Thrones, this is a worthwhile exhibition. And if you’re a GoT diehard, you are seriously going to geek out over this…and you should. Bend the knee. Allow yourself to suspend disbelief, and you’ll find yourself immersed in the mythical world of Game of Thrones.

I’m the queen of the world!

The deets:

April 11-May 31, daily 9:00-19:00

June 1-Sept 11, daily 9:00-20:00


McComb’s Coach Travel offers a discount when booking their Game of Thrones tour in combination with the GoT Touring Exhibition ticket.

A Travel Angel at the Vatican: Exploring the Papal City-State with the Wife of a Swiss Guard


Standing in the shade of the obelisk, I paced back and forth. I had arrived early at the meeting place, not wanting to miss out on any minute of my appointment. I was excited and, strangely, nervous. Killing time with selfies against the backdrop of St. Peter’s Basilica, I got a text from Joanne just as she walked up.

We had only known each other for less than 24 hours. My dear friend and tour guide colleague Sarah Murdoch invited me to join her in meeting someone for the first time. “Sure, why not?” I said. “I’m always up for making new acquaintances.”

We met Joanne Bergamin for an aperitivo near Piazza del Risorgimento, just a stone’s throw from the fortified walls of the Vatican City and the place she currently calls home. Turns out, she’s an Australian who’s been living and working in Rome for a number of years, previously for “the Pope’s newspaper” L’Osservatore Romano and currently at the Institute for Entrepreneurship at John Cabot University. But also, she’s the wife of a Swiss Guard.

You can imagine how curious Sarah and I were to find out about what her life was like.

She’s a pretty normal gal: smart, savvy, entrepreneurial, classy, inquisitive, fun-loving and spiritual. And when love came her way via a handsome, shy, and dedicated protector of the Pope, she embraced that gift and accepted the life that came with it. She and her husband Dominic are citizens of Vatican City (Joanne is the first Australian to live there), and they reside in the barracks, just a long shadow away from the papal apartments. When it comes to attire and behavior, modesty and discretion are expected. And as part of Vatican rules for the Swiss Guard who choose to marry (and get approved to do so), Dominic, a commander in the guard, committed to extending his duty to the Pope for an additional three years beyond his original obligation.

Hearing the condensed version of Joanne’s life story—growing up in Australia, traveling to Europe with her parents, moving to Rome as an adult, converting to Catholicism and marrying a Swiss guard—fascinated me. But I wanted to know more. See more. Understand more. That’s when she offered me an opportunity of a lifetime: to go behind-the-scenes with her inside the Vatican. And when opportunities like this come your way, you simply do not refuse.

The next day, a couple of hours before sunset, we reunited. Golden yellows of the warm, late afternoon light bathed St. Peter’s Square. The crowds were thinning. The basilica would soon be closing. But that mattered little for us.

Just left of the church’s façade, we approached the guarded gate. While visitors, tourists and church-goers were taking pictures of the stoic Swiss soldiers, clad in the iconic and vibrant red, blue, and goldenrod uniforms, Joanne showed her identification and asked one guard’s permission to take a picture of me as I passed through the gate. “It’s always best and respectful to ask permission, rather than be caught in the act by the guard,” she told me.


As I walked between the two guards, I felt nervous…excited…and hesitant. I didn’t know if I was allowed to turn around to look at Joanne. I fixed my eyes forward and concentrated on each step. For me, I was entering a City of God, the home of the leader of the Catholic faith, hallowed ground. Raised Catholic, I still have a strong reverence for The Church’s traditions and majesty. I find a certain comfort in it. And to enter its domain of spiritual and administrative power was staggering.

We explored the Teutonic Cemetery, a lush and evocative space of contemplation filled with voluminous trees, whimsical shrubs and expressive memorials. Layers upon layers of history rest here: from its Roman Empire days as Nero’s circus and a place of Christian martyrdom to its stint as a hospice, church and burial place for German-speaking pilgrims under Charlemagne; and from the founding of a German confraternity to the establishment of a Teutonic college for priests. The adjacent chapel holds the remains of Swiss Guardsmen who gave their lives during the sack of Rome in the 1500s. The pope formerly known as Benedict XVI used to serve weekly mass here (before he became the leader of the Catholic faith).

A back-way staircase lead us to the atrium of St. Peter’s Basilica. Seeing the same Swiss Guards who let us enter—but from the opposite vantage point of what most people see—reminded me that this was no ordinary tour. And as we stepped into the basilica, I felt small, humbled, and awestruck. It was different than any of the other numerous times I’d been here as a tour guide, tourist, and even as a Christian. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what I was feeling at the time, but somehow it felt…more personal, more special.

Only a handful of people were still left inside. Closing hours would soon be upon us, but wherever we went inside the church, Joanne had only to ask permission of the officials and we could enter without problem. As a resident of Vatican City and one of only about 15 other women who live in the smallest country in the world, they all knew her. We ambled down the length of the largest church in Christendom and talked about Joanne’s decision to convert to Catholicism and my own Catholic upbringing. We glimpsed her favorite chapel and admired details I had never noticed on Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s epic, bronze baldacchino—the canopy above the Papal Altar, which itself sits above the supposed tomb of Saint Peter. A simple, small replica of a rosary drapes the pedestal of one of the columns. It’s a hint of faith that lends humanity to this Baroque masterpiece. Seeing it suddenly made me feel more intimately connected to this church and to my own faith.

Back outside, we strolled the grounds and discussed the practicalities of living here. Just meters from where the current pope lives is a gas station (rather than in the Papal Apartments, Papa Francesco—as the Italians call him— lives in the dorms with his fellow priests). Across the way is a kind of mini PX department store. Further on is the church where Joanne and Dominic were married (there are several churches and chapels within the walls of Vatican City), and her running route is nearby. In a massive courtyard parking lot is the Vatican Fire Station. And down the street are the Vatican Post Office and a grocery store where you can get pontifical bovine dairy products, fresh from the farm at the Pope’s Castel Gandolofo (there’s a “holy cow” joke in there somewhere).

We peeked into the Giardini Vaticani. It seemed as though we were the only people here…at these gardens, on these grounds, in this entire 100-acre city-state. The stillness of the verdant landscape enveloped my senses. The setting sun still felt warm on my skin. I felt the breeze brush my cheek as the songs of birds danced through the air, and I whispered aloud, “We’re in God’s garden.”

Moving on to the Swiss Guard barracks, we got to see the impressive arsenal. As you enter, there’s a humble and tiny museum-like space with the time-worn remnants of an antique Pontifical Swiss Guard banner, an older and a current version of the guard’s uniform, and the ceremonial armor. The middle of the next room was immaculately organized with weapons of all sorts: the traditional halberds, rifles with bayonets, swords, and what looked like semi-automatic weapons. Three different uniforms were displayed along one wall. The personal helmets and breast-plate armor of the current guardsmen regally lined the other walls. The Swiss Guard recently celebrated their 500th anniversary, having served as the protectors of the popes since 1506. Standing in this room and looking at this perfectly arranged arsenal-museum, the history and pride of the Guardia Svizzera Pontificia was practically palpable.

Before Joanne had to leave to meet her husband, who would be off-duty soon, we visited the the Church of Saints Martin and Sebastian of the Swiss—the private oratory chapel for the Swiss Guard. As we approached the entry, Joanne showed me the precise spot where Dominic had proposed to her. Even at this twilight hour, I could see her face was aglow as she mentally relived the moment.

From outside the oratory, I could hear singing. Angelic tones in a language I couldn’t distinguish greeted us as we entered. Joanne explained that these were Polish nuns who sometimes came here to sing and pray. We crossed ourselves with holy water and knelt across the aisle from the nuns. As I closed my eyes and bowed my head to pray, the sound of their voices resonated in my head and in my chest. It was as though I could feel their prayers. I prayed for my loved ones and for the comfort of people in need. And then I prayed the simplest and most honest prayer I know: Thank you, God. Thank you. Thank you. My eyes began to shed streams of tears, and I felt Joanne put her arm across my shoulders, comforting me like my own guardian angel.

So often when I travel, I feel like the universe conspires in my favor. Perhaps I’m inclined to be more open to adventure and opportunities that come my way, or maybe, because I seek those moments, I recognize them more readily. Or perhaps there truly is a divine hand at work that guides me towards people and circumstances that stretch and shape me for the better. Whatever the reason, in that chapel and in that moment, I knew precisely how fortunate I was, and I was grateful.

We finished the Vatican visit at the Porta Sant’Anna. It all still felt surreal, exploring what Joanne affectionately calls “my backyard.” It was more than I could have imagined, and it left me wanting to see and learn even more. Joanne, although not a licensed guide, shared worthwhile historical and cultural information about the the Swiss Guard, the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. But she also made me feel comfortable about asking questions about her own experiences and insight into living within the walls of the Vatican, her spiritual development, and the nitty gritty of life as the wife of a Swiss Guard. No subject was really taboo. I think she recognized my honest curiosity, my respect for the Catholic faith, and my eagerness to know her as a person. And I recognized what an amazing gift I was being given to have access to a world beyond what most people ever see.

We hugged each other goodbye, promising to stay in close touch. She headed off to make dinner for Dominic, and I crossed the border back into Rome.

Join me and my friend Sarah ( as we check out the scene in London’s Theatre District during Pride.

Men at Work in Salzburg’s Old Town 

Travel provides so many opportunities for cultural insights. It’s easy to find them via the historic, artistic, and culinary experiences that most people encounter. But how much do you pay attention to the stuff of everyday life in a town you’re visiting?

Let yourself be mesmerized—like I recently was in Salzburg’s Altstad, or Old Town—by workaday activities that might be done differently than where you live. You might just get an insight into how a culture thinks and operates. 

While on a guidebook research mission in the historic center on Getreidegasse, I had to stop in my tracks because two guys and crazy-looking machine were doing something I’d never seen before—making a road with concrete blocks and a suction cup. 
It made me think about the Austrian work ethic, technology, and efficiency and how it might be helpful in the U.S.. The paving technique requires few workers, can be done quickly, and, if later down the road, repairs need to be done to pipes or wires or whatever’s below the pavement, a small section can easily and neatly be removed and replaced instead of jack-hammering an eyesore of a hole. And while this technique or mindset might not be embraced in other countries, it seems like a smart option to consider.

Check it out for yourself:

Men at Work in Salzburg’s Old Town (Altstadt)

Rome by the Dozen: 12 Images of The Eternal City

Anyone who’s ever been to Rome knows that it’s impossible to contain all of its magnificence in a handful of photos, but that doesn’t stop most travelers from trying. There are (quite literally) millennia of things to see, explore, taste, and experience in this city that was once the center of the largest empire in the world. 

It’s no wonder that people ritually throw their metal Euros into the Trevi Fountain to ensure their return to this Eternal City. A good traveler comes back to Rome repeatedly to truly get to know its history, discover the charm of its neighborhoods, savor its delicious cuisine, apprciate its nighttime ambience, and embrace the bella chaos that is Rome. 

If you’ve never been to Italy’s capital or even if Rome is like a second home to you, I hope these twelve images inspire your affection for this one-of-kind city. From ancient ruins and Baroque fountains to gorgeous skylines and lip-smacking gelato, there’s no place like  Rome.

The Flavian Amphitheater, better known as The Colosseum, is an iconic symbol of Rome and is the architectural inspiration for all our modern day stadiums.
Mistaken for centuries as the first Christian Emperor Constantine, this sculpture of Emperor Marcus Aurelius is the only bronze equestrian statue with a pre-Christian emperor in existence. All others were melted down for coins, weapons, or building materials. This original is now housed in the Capitoline Museums, while a faithful replica caps the Campidoglio of the Capitoline Hill.
Sunset and wispy clouds create a dreamy backdrop for the dramatic Baroque arms of Bernini’s Colonnade on St. Peter’s Square and Michelangelo’s majestic dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.
While some claim that pizza might have been invented in Naples, it’s certainly a staple in Rome.
It’s hard to imagine but much of Ancient Rome (some say up to 80%) is still buried. Thanks to the 19th-century archaeology fervor that began with the discovery of Pompeii, modern-day visitors to Rome get to explore much of the remains of the Roman Forum.
It’s often said that Rome is like a lasagna, with layers and layers of history whereever you turn. But it’s also remarkable to think that history stands proudly side-by-side with the present. On the Piazza dellla Rotonda, you’ll find the Pantheon (a former Roman temple and now a functioning Christian church since the early centuries of the first millenium A.D.), a fountain built originally in the late 1500s and crowned in the early 1700s with an Egyptian obelisk built 1300 years before the Roman Empire, surrounding buildings dating back two or more centuries, and present-day locals and visiting admirers of history, architecture, and la dolce vita.
Moved by Michelangelo in the 16th century to the Palazzo dei Conservatori Courtyard (now part of the Capitoline Museums), these fragments of the Colossus statue of Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Emperor) once stood in their complete form in the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine (a kind of Roman Hall of Justice, and the largest of its kind) in the Roman Forum. The statue would have been of an enthroned emperor. To imagine its immensity, note that the head is alone is about 8’3”—more than a foot taller than Shaquille O’Neal
Rome’s Catholic heritage is evident in its skyline. This view from the Capitoline Hill features the domes of S. Andrea della Valle Church (right) and St. Peter’s Basilica (center).
From the Palatine Hill—one of the seven hills of Rome—gaze down upon the Roman forum and across to the Quirinale and Viminale Hills.
Gelato. Enough said.
Take a twilight passeggiata or stroll through Rome and watch it come alive under dramatic skies and evocatively lit monuments. The Castel Sant’Angelo was the former Mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian, and was then used by the Popes as a fortress, residence, and prison. Today it houses a museum of art and military memorabilia.
Newly restored, the Trevi Fountain welcomes more visitors than ever and helps them to part with lucky coins that presumably ensure the visitors’ return to Rome. All those coins are collected nightly by the City of Rome and given to charity. Whether you’re superstitious or not, the popular myth is helping those in need. So go ahead, throw in your coins, and hopefully you’ll return to this beautiful and incomparable Eternal City we call Rome. It’s always worked for me.

Italian Experiences with Rick Steves

It’s been more than Rick Steves has led one of our Rick Steves’ Europe Tours, but you’d never know it. His enthusiasm, energy, stamina, knowledge, and love of Europe seems only to have increased with those passing years. 

Along with 28 happy tour members, my guide colleague Ben Cameron and I (we’re Rick’s assistants on this tour) are exploring and enjoying The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy,  Switzerland, and France under Rick’s impassioned and skilled guidance. He is firmly committed to connecting our tour members with European cultures through meaningful experiences. From history and tradition to cuisine and art, we savor the best of what Europe has to offer.

To get a dose of all the fun we’ve been having, click the link below and take a peek at some highlights of our time in Italy (Venice, Florence, Rome, and Orvieto). And you’ll see why we all agree, la  vita è bella (life is beautiful). ​​

Rick Steves Europe: Italian Experiences YouTube
For more behind-the-scenes photos and videos of this tour and other travels, follow me on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram @thetravelphile

Summer Nights in Beaune

France. Burgundy. Beaune. 

Any one of these place names might conjour thoughts of remarkable wines, pungent cheeses, or exquisite meals—and rightly so. But in the last few years, Beaune has been luring visitors to linger after their decadent dinners and explore the town with its Animations Nocturnes (Evening Animations).

Beaune is a picture of bustling restaurants and modern storefronts tucked into centuries-old buildings strung along the tiny town’s tangles of narrow streets and encircled by substantial remnants of medieval ramparts. And throughout the summer, residents and travelers alike meander through the town to discover whimsical sound and light shows—a different one on each of six historical buildings. 

In many European towns these days, this kind of creative and colorful display of CGI (Computer Generated Images) married with local history and architecture is engaging its viewers in sensory ways that enhance one’s appreciation and understanding of the town. Countries like France (Lyon, Reims, Blois, Beaune), Belgium (Ghent), Germany (Berlin), England (York), and Finland (Helsinki), now routinely re-purpose building facades as artistic canvases for animated video and photo images that are a must see for any traveler. 

To get an idea of what you might find on your next summer night visit to Beaune, check out this video of some of the Animations Nocturnes. You might find it…illuminating. 

Why Climb Every Mountain When You Can Take the Lift?

Oh, the Alps. Glorious. Majestic. Breathtaking. They’re the mountains of your dreams, every hiker’s delight, and a “must” destination for so many. For the past week and a half, Rick and I have been leading 26 tour members through the Alps from Austria to Italy to Germany and to Switzerland. And now we’ve arrived in the French Alps, in the resort-y town of Chamonix, at the valley base of the mother of all Alpine mountains: Mont Blanc.

Rick and our My Way Alpine tour members with the statues of the first two men to summit Mont Blanc: Jacques Balmat and Dr. Michel Paccard

Scraping skies at 4809 meters (16,043 ft), Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe and was first summited in 1786. These days, 20,000 mountaineer-tourists annually—loaded down with rucksacks, mountain boots, crampons, ropes, harnesses, carabiners, ice axes, and many layers of clothes—make all-day hikes to trudge through vast and often steep snowscapes, past abyss-like crevasses, eventually reaching their ultimate destination: the top of Mont Blanc.
But we’re not all mountaineers, and thankfully we don’t have to be in order to experience the thrill of being surrounded by the sheer massiveness of this area’s alpine terrain. All it takes is an early morning alarm and a ticket for a cable car to Aiguille du Midi, a mountain that’s part of the Mont Blanc Massif and is as close as you can get to the perpetually white mountain without any alpinist skills. 

The gods of weather were smiling on us. While the valley floor wore low clouds like a shawl around the neck of its foothills, lush blue skies awaited us above the cloud line. And after two days of wet and grey, we were quick-stepping out the door to beat the crowds and catch one of the first cable cars to the Aiguille du Midi. 

This is as close as I get to attempting mountaineering—wearing some mountaineer’s helmet.

Waiting in line, we observed men and women of all ages geared up for their snow trek. Knowing that I would never in my right mind attempt what these adventurers were doing, I gathered up enough courage to ask one of them to try on his helmet, just to feel, for a brief second, like I too, was a mountaineer.


Cable car sardines

Fifty of us shuffled into the surprisingly large cable car and stood like vertical sardines, jetting from Chamonix to the top of the Aiguille du Midi in twenty minutes. At 3842 m (12602 ft) above sea level, the chill from the surrounding snow-capped needles and the intermittent wind gushes were biting. Seven layers of tops and 3 layers of bottoms seemed to do little to diminish the shocking cold.  

Coming up here and seeing these views really makes me understand the word “breathtaking”.

But the goosebumps I felt weren’t because of the temperature. They were induced by the utter splendor all around me. You know that tingle you feel in your cheeks and the electricity that pulses at the base of your neck when all your mind can process “Wow!”? That’s precisely the sensation I felt as I walked through a tiny cave and onto a metal platform with an eye-level view of the French Alps. It wasn’t my first time here, but seeing this simply never gets old.  

Mountaineers towing the line as the cautious descend the snowy slope.

It was nice without the midday crowds. Everyone had space to take their wide shots and their selfies. You could linger at views of the so-close-you-could-almost-touch-it-yet-still-pretty-far Mont Blanc. Almost as impressive to see were the tow lines of mountaineers who were just starting their hikes and those who had a least an hour of slogging under their belts. It’s a fine line between brave and crazy, and I think they all stayed roped together so they don’t cross it.

In a bubble pod built for two (or four…as need be).

From Aiguille du Midi, Rick and I cozied up in a bubble pod for two (or four when it’s busy) for a 40-minute ride to Hellbronner, the border peak shared by France and Italy. We floated high above the silence of the snow fields. From this vantage point, it was difficult to look at the jagged cliffs and get a sense of scale, until you saw the teeny tiny mountaineers still hundreds of meters or more away from the base and realized, “Whoa! Those are some big needles!” How numerous the pinnacles, how deep the crevasses, how far this mountain range extends, how small we are in comparison to all this grandeur!  

The small specks you see scattered throughtout the photo aren’t specks; those are snow hikers.  
The Mer de Glace serpentines its way down towards Chamonix Valley.

And then came the Mer de Glace or The Sea of Ice. The glacier begins in this high-alps valley of ice and snow and serpentines its way down towards the Chamonix Valley, well to the east of town. From high above it, it’s deceptively massive. You can see its “original” claw print that scraped the mountain facades. The glacier has receded drastically in the last 50 years at significantly faster rates than in the previous 200 years. But despite it’s reduced profile, the Mer de Glace is still a stunner— 5.5 km (3.4 miles) long, 200 m (660 ft) deep—and is the 2nd longest in the Alps. In 1777, the English historian William Coxe wrote, “I can no otherwise convey to you an image of this body of ice, broken into irregular ridges and deep chasms, than by comparing it to waves instantaneously frozen in the midst of a violent storm.”  

Gliding out of our bubble pod, we emerged in Italy and immediately scrambled to the top of the observation deck. My earlier goosebumps multiplied and once again, “wow!” was all I could utter.  

We might not ever hike to the summit of Le Mont Blanc (seen behind us), but we sure are grateful for the man-made machinery that so easily gets us this close to it.
To think, just three hours earlier, I had been comfy and warm in my hotel room bed. And now I was embraced by an Alpine wonderland near the top of the world. No, if the mountain won’t come to you, you don’t have to go and climb it. Just take the lift, and you’ll be close enough.  

PHOTO COLLECTION: It’s a challenge to verbally capture the immensity and magnificence of the French Alps, but I hope you’ll enjoy some more photos from our excursion to the Aiguille du Midi, Hellbronner, and the Mont Blanc Massif to get a better visual sense of the amazing experience we had.

Getting above the cloud line in Chamonix
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!
I’m contemplating becoming a mountaineer.
We hardly broke a sweat getting all the way up here.
Yeah, birds just fly up here like it’s no big whoop.
The Alps. What’s not to love?
In order to make people feel like there’s more to do at the Aiguille to Midi (and to attract more people who would spend the money to get all the way up here), the new “Step Into the Void” experience is now open and ready to freak you out. Acrophobes need not apply.
The tippy top of the Aiguille du Midi
This is what some would call “crazy”.
Uhh, yeah no.
Bubble pods take you smoothly and safely from Aiguille du Midi to Hellbronner and back.
Oddly, “Step Into the Void” didn’t give me vertigo, but this does.
By the time this hiker makes it to Hellbronner (straight ahead of us), we’ll already be back down in Chamonix.
When you reach Hellbronner, you’ve made it to Italia. Benvenuti a tutti!
Looking down at Courmayeur, Italy from Hellbronner.
Mont Blanc

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