My Travels in Vietnam and Cambodia Amid the Coronavirus Scare


Having just spent 3 weeks in Southeast Asia, enjoying jaw-dropping sights, mouth-watering cuisine, eye-opening historical and cultural lessons, and connecting with intriguing, kind, generous, and delightful people all over Vietnam and Cambodia, I am feeling really torn about the need to be vigilant about public health safety and the incessant focus on the fear of contracting COVID-19 (commonly referred to by the virus that causes it, Coronavirus) and how that’s creating devastating, rippling effects in global economies, encouraging xenophobia, and making people panic worldwide. 


Let me be clear, the illnesses and deaths related to COVID-19 are serious and sad, but I’m interested in perspective and thoughtful risk assessment as a traveler. And I simply want to share what I’ve found researching medical information and also my own personal experiences from my recent journey.

While the situation is constantly evolving, according to a recent article from John Hopkins Medicine, here are some facts about this novel virus:

Respiratory Illness           X          X
Virus that causes illnessSeveral variations of influenza virusCoronavirus
Symptoms: fever, cough, body aches, fatigues; sometimes vomiting and diarrhea; can be mild to severe, even fatal in rare cases; can result in pneumonia           X         X
Transmission: contaminated droplets in the air via an infected person coughing, sneezing, or talking           X         X
Transmission: contaminated droplets remaining in the air after infected person is gone          —        X
Treatment: antibiotics          —         —
Treatment: antiviral medications          X (currently being tested)
Treatment: vaccine           X (currently in progress)
Treatment of symptoms such as reducing fever, controlling diarrhea           X        X
Treatment: hospitalization and mechanical ventilation in rare cases           X         X
Prevention: frequent & thorough hand washing (min. 20 seconds), cough/sneeze into crook of elbow, stay home when sick, limit contact with infected people           X         X

As of Feb. 28, 2020, the flu is showing much more of an impact on Americans than COVID-19 (source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)).

Worldwide infection cases~1 billion annually~84,119 to date
US infection cases9.3 million to 45 million annually~62 to date
Worldwide deaths~291,000-646,000 annually~2,871 to date
US deaths12,000 to 61,000 annually0 to date

Given all this, I felt fairly comfortable traveling through Southeast Asia and saw no reason for panic, cancelling my trip, or even wearing a face mask regularly (I did wear it on two separate plane rides and for a photo op on a boat). I made it explicitly clear to my tour members that we would not put them in situations as a group where we were engaging with farm animals or having near contact with meat/seafood markets where the local/state governments had expressed concern. Additionally, I advised them to take smart, helpful precautions by frequently washing their hands with soap for a minimum of 30 seconds and, if need be, by coughing or sneezing into the crook of their arms Dracula-style instead of into their hands; by trying not to touch commonly used things with their bare hands (elevator buttons, doorknobs, faucet handles); and by not touching their faces, especially the eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands. And if we noticed someone who was coughing or sneezing, we walked or turned away. IMG_5422

It took a while for people to adapt new habits, but everyone made a concerted effort, and it became second nature. I also used my NeilMed sinus rinse every night with lukewarm water that I boiled with the hotel room kettle. SPOILER ALERT: I didn’t get sick. None of us did. 

As a precaution, most hotels had their staff don face masks, and generally there were many Vietnamese people in Hanoi and Saigon wearing them. Although to me, it wasn’t much more than I had seen a year ago on my last trip—it had been flu season, and many people had worn designer masks as an air pollution precaution and to look fashionable. In Huè, Hôi An, and smaller towns and villages, most people were more relaxed about the masks, however, there were many public market closures throughout the country. 

In Siem Reap, Cambodia, people were seldom seen wearing masks, and other than the 60% drop in tourism, the threat of COVID-19 felt like a non-issue. 

So, based on my personal experiences, it made me wonder: why all the fuss? Statistically, the standard flu virus infects and kills more people than Coronavirus by several orders of magnitude. Sure, we don’t want to it become more prevalent, but if people as a whole are more conscious of and smarter about their own hygiene behavior, that can–and will–help prevent future cases. 

Does that include not traveling to certain areas? I’m not sure about that yet. Government and medical experts still aren’t sure about a lot of things, and the situation changes daily. But I just experienced one of the most meaningful and impactful trips of my life. Had I given into fear–rather than learning the facts, making a thoughtful risk assessment ,and going through with my journey–I would have missed out on connecting with wonderful people whose history, culture, art, traditions, religions, and daily life can teach us so much about our own humanity and the humanness of others. I wouldn’t have been any healthier than I am now, but I sure would have been less connected with this amazing world of ours. 


And because there were so fewer people than normal traveling in Vietnam and Cambodia, we reaped the benefits of lack of crowds, no lines, incredible deals, and more personal and appreciative engagement with the locals we encountered. 

While we hear all about the stock markets plummeting, consider the impact that such massive drops in tourism have on the average citizen in the affected countries, or worse, on those who are living on fewer than $15 a day—the severe loss of income, the insecurity, lack of stability, and demoralization because someone who would normally boost their economy is too afraid just to be near them. 

Your health—and that of your family—is important, and ultimately, you as a traveler need to make your own thought-out decisions about your personal wellbeing and your risk of travel inconvenience (cancelled flights and the like). Whether you’re contemplating a trip across the globe or trying to “stay safe” at home, educate yourself about the realities and true risks of your health situation. Things are evolving every single day. The more we do to stop the spread in our own hometowns and abroad, the sooner things can resemble the normalcy we desperately miss.

Make smart choices to be vigilantly more hygienic as you travel and in your own daily routine. It’s worth repeating: wear your mask in public; avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; and wash your hands frequently for a minimum of 20 seconds. There are 7.7 billion human beings on this planet. We all owe it to one another to put things in perspective, to not overreact, and to make logical, healthy choices.

Rather than encourage fear about isolated cases (even as governments and health organizations are working hard to minimize and contain the problem amid expansion), remember that the vast majority of the entire world population is fine, and most places will eventually be safe to visit. Be patient. Be smart. Be thoughtful. Experiences of a lifetime await you all over this beautiful world, and I hope you you can enjoy them again soon.

Happy Moon Day: Celebrating Humankind’s Greatest Journey

Happy Moon Day, Travelphilers!

Fifty years ago, humankind came together in hopeful solidarity and triumphant celebration as three people—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins—traveled from the Earth to the Moon.

While it was a successful mission set forth by an American space program, the pride of accomplishment was meant to be shared by all peoples across our home planet. And everyone reveled in this magnificent display of the vast potential our species.

After Armstrong left his first footprint on the lunar surface, he spoke what everyone was feeling: That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

On the ladder of the Apollo 11 lunar landing module, a plaque is attached and bears the following for future visitors to the Moon to see:


JULY 1969, A.D.


Our travels, whether near or far, are opportunities for discovery, for connection, for wonderment. On this anniversary of humankind’s most distant (and perhaps one of its most profound) journeys, I hope you set your sights on places you have yet to visit, that you celebrate the things you have in common with another culture as well as its uniqueness from your own, and that you find joy in seeking experiences that shift your perceptions and expand your mind to the stretches of the universe.

Journey well!

Inside Passage, Alaska, USA

The Duomo, Florence, Italy

Edmonds, The Puget Sound, WA, USA

Volterra, Italy

Tulum, Mexico

Old Bridge, Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Monterosso al Mare, Italy

Campo de’ Fiori, Rome, Italy

Healing-Geist-Spital, Nürnberg, Germany

Monterosso al Mare, Italy

Civita di Bagnoregio, Italy

Ponte Sant’Angelo, Rome, Italy

Monterosso al Mare, Italy

Giudecca Canal, Venice, Italy

Campidoglio, Rome, Italy

Diocletian’s Palace, Split, Croatia

River Foyle, Derry (Londonderry), Northern Ireland, UK

Trajan’s Column, Rome, Italy

San Polo, Venice, Italy

Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Chamonix, French Alps, France

The U.S. Capitol Building, Washington, D.C., USA

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

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