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Yucatán Adventure: Mérida


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In Mérida we had our only significant accommodation problem of the trip. We followed our GPS to the Airbnb address near the center of the city and found a nondescript commercial street with no street number corresponding to the address. Trying Google Maps took us around the corner but likewise nothing resembling the Airbnb. We started messaging the host through the app and got a bunch of confusing directions that didn't help. Eventually the host sent us a completely different address which we mapped to a location on the outskirts of town. No way. We weren't going to spend New Year's Eve in the middle of nowhere. Airbnb agreed to pay for a hotel and we began cruising around the center. Unsurprisingly the first few we checked were fully booked but eventually we found one that had a room available. It was a typical low-end hotel room with no atmosphere, but we deposited our stuff and headed to the center to see what was happening.

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Mérida was by far the largest city we had visited on this trip but fortunately most of the markets and activity we were interested in were clustered in a walkable area downtown. There was a rather mellow New Year's Eve party going in Plaza Grande, Mérida's Zócalo, a pleasant mixture of paved walkways and landscaping. It seemed to be a local family scene, busy without being crowded. Three men dressed as the Three Kings in colorful robes circled around the plaza. There were a few vendors but nothing particularly appetizing to us so we meandered north where we eventually found a cluster of taquerias and some oversize chairs for the kids to clamber around on. There didn't seem to be much to be gained from walking around until midnight so we passed into 2018 fast asleep, pretty much the same as every New Year's since Cleo was born.
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On New Year's Day we packed our bags and moved over to a short-term apartment we had found on Booking. It was a big improvement over the emergency hotel of the previous night. We knew the main community market was closed but we were surprised to find a couple of open taquerias in the much smaller Mercado Municipal Numero 2. The market shared a block with a beautiful colonial church and a small park.
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One of the cool things about having our own wheels is that we had the flexibility to cruise out of town with everything in the city being closed for the holiday. Mérida is close to both the northern and western coasts of the Yucatán Peninsula which meant we had our choice of scenic beach towns. For New Year's Day we picked Celestún, a fishing village best known for its coastal wildlife sanctuary packed with wild flamingos.
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It was an easy drive to the Gulf Coast where we found the station from which boats departed for tours of the estuary. We were a large enough group to get our own boat and after a short wait we were off. The powerboat moved quite quickly through the water and the kids all leaned out to feel saltwater spray and get their long hair blown back. I'm not a birdwatcher but the huge flocks of flamingos were very impressive, like pink islands in the middle of the estuary.
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The tour included a visit to El Ojo de Agua, an area of mangroves which can be traversed by boardwalk to a small pond fed by an underwater spring that bubbles to the surface.
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After returning to the car we proceeded to the village of Celestún on the coastline. We walked along a street of colorfully-painted houses and selected the most promising of a row of surprisingly-busy fish restaurants. The rear of the restaurant opened out onto the beach. We enjoyed a leisurely meal of fried fish and ceviche and afterwards the kids played for a while on the beach underneath clouds of aggressive seagulls.
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Back in Mérida we went for a stroll along Paseo de Montejo, a wide boulevard lined with historical mansions and upscale hotels. At the southern end of the avenue we found a street party we hadn't encountered the previous night. There was live music, food and craft vendors, and a winter wonderland lighted display. Mérida had turned out to be a pretty good choice to spend the New Year holiday with kids.
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Tuesday was a typical weekday so we hustled to the main community market, Mercado Municipal Lucas de Galvez. The sprawling market was spread over a few buildings so at first we ended up in a rather lackluster food court of taquerias. We had breakfast there figuring the market was slow because of the holiday. Afterwards we found the real market which was much more interesting but similar to others we had seen. We did find a much better food court and had a second meal of chocolomo (marinated veal) and mondongo (tripe soup).
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This time we drove north to Progreso, another small town on the Gulf Coast of the peninsula. Progreso was somewhat larger than Celestún and had a cruise ship port, so it was a completely different vibe. There were a lot more bars and sidewalk cafes, most of which were filled with Anglos. There were also resort-type hotels along the beach and a tourist market. It was overcast and windy so there wasn't much to do on the beach besides kick the sand around and duck from the diving seagulls. There was an appetizing seafood restaurant so we lagged around long enough for an early dinner that didn't really live up to expectations.
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On the outskirts of Mérida we passed a small amusement park and stopped to let the kids jump around in a bounce house and play with soap bubbles for a while. By the time we got back to the center we had a bit of an appetite again so we went to Mérida's multicultural food hall Mercado 60. Naturally there was an emphasis on Mexican and other Latin American offerings but there were also European and Asian stalls. The bar was spectacular and the lighting and decor made it more atmospheric than most food halls we've been to in the United States.
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The morning we left Mérida we went back to Mercado Numero 2 since it had been mostly shuttered on our first visit. It was certainly much more lively this time around and a great atmosphere to have another satisfying brunch.
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We detoured inland towards the center of the peninsula to visit the Cuzama Cenotes. I had researched the most interesting and child-friendly cenotes before our trip and these were near the top of the list. The special wrinkle here was that the only access to the cenotes is via horse-drawn cart on a disused mining railway, which I thought would be an additional thrill for the kids. Cuzama was in the middle of nowhere and we soon found ourselves driving on a single-lane road with one car behind us. As we drew close to our destination we came to a fork and although our GPS route had us going one way, I could see that the other road took us there much more directly. I decided, like Robert Frost, to take the less-traveled road and saw the car behind us going the way our GPS had directed. Uh oh. We drove for a while longer through dense countryside and the road petered out into a dirt path. I reversed course to the last intersection and drove up a wider road, only to soon realize we were driving over train tracks. I quickly reversed back to the last turn and after debating whether we should return to the fork, eventually decided to push further along the dirt path. Soon enough we came upon a farmhouse and when we drove around it we found ourselves back on a paved road downstream of a few houses. Our direct route had taken us to the opposite end of the village from the part accessed by the highway. The locals were rather nonplussed to see our car emerging from the wrong side of the town but directed us to park and quickly showed us to a horse cart. A few minutes later we were jolting along the tracks to the cenotes.
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Fortunately our guide took us to the largest and easiest cenote first. The main challenge with Cenote Chelentún was descending the steep and rickety staircase but once we had arrived at the bottom safely we found an expansive pool with few other visitors. There were little fish in the water that would nip gently at your skin if you stood for too long in one place. We had a refreshing swim and decided to forgo the other two cenotes in favor of an earlier arrival in Campeche. The guide assured us the other two were smaller and not as well-suited for children. When we got back to the car they cleared a path for us through the horses and carts blocking the road so that we could exit the town the correct way this time.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 06:24 Archived in Mexico Tagged celestun merida progreso Comments (0)

Yucatán Adventure: Valladolid and Chichén Itzá


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Valladolid is a small colonial town in the state of Quintana Roo whose main draw for tourists is its proximity to the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá and Ek Balam. Our Airbnb was a surprisingly modern and chic villa in a rather nondescript residential neighborhood several blocks from the city center. Our host was very kind in helping us locate an ATM but we were completely unable to withdraw cash no matter how many we tried thanks to a scratch on the magnetic strip of our debit card. Eventually we were able to get a cash advance on our credit card which came with an irritatingly large fee.
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We spent our first evening in Valladolid strolling around the town. On the way to the center we passed by Cenote Zaci, a huge sinkhole right in the middle of town where many locals were still swimming. Next door was a touristy restaurant where they had dancing waiters and a lady making tortillas at the entrance.
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The Zócalo, or central square, was a grassy space with some kiosks selling street food, toys, and crafts. Surrounding the square were the main church, city hall, and several upscale hotels. We ate at one of the hotel restaurants where we had a good meal of Yucatan standards such as cochinita pibil accompanied by mezcal cocktails.
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In the morning we went directly to the municipal market. Valladolid had a typical mid-sized produce market where we were never far from the smell of freshly-slaughtered meat. There were plenty of food stalls lining the outer wall and we had an excellent breakfast of empanadas and tamales. Something about being around all the raw ingredients in a market makes the cooked food taste even better.
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We had thought Chichén Itzá was just outside town but it was actually a forty-five minute drive. As we neared the ruins traffic slowed to a crawl and it took us another half hour to reach the entrance. The parking area was blocked off and we were directed further down the road which was lined with parked cars. Eventually we arrived at the last car and walked about a half mile back in brutal heat. Long lines of people snaked everywhere and I took my place at the end of the one that seemed to be for the ticket window. For about ten minutes we stood around and nothing moved. Mei Ling went to the front with the boys and did her Jedi mind trick, and then brought me up to a security guard who showed me directly to a ticket window. The river of humanity passing through the entrance was pretty ridiculous.
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Chichén Itzá is by far the most celebrated of all the Mayan ruins and I'm sure there's a very good reason for that in terms of historical significance. However the reason was lost on us and I'm sure on 95% of the other visitors. Some of the buildings were impressive to look at, especially the Pyramid Of Kukulcan. Fortunately climbing was not allowed on the pyramid so we could see it in its original form rather than blanketed by people in their bright vacation outfits. However there were still thousands of people scattered around the large clearing in which the ancient buildings were situated and the setting was nowhere near as interesting as Coba or even Tulum. Hawkers were selling drinks and knickknacks everywhere and some people in indigenous oufits were performing a dance of very questionable authenticity. This was the fifth of the "Seven Wonders of the World" I had visited and the atmosphere was very similar to the other four - the Great Wall, the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, and Christ the Redeemer. I have Petra and Macchu Picchu still to go. Hopefully I'll find them more worthwhile.
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As we walked out of the entrance to begin the long trudge back to our roadside parking spot, we noticed that cars were being waved through into the lot. Except for having jumped the line it didn't seem to have been our day. We hadn't spent as much time at Chichén Itzá as we anticipated so there was plenty of time to visit the local cenote Ik Kil. From above Ik Kil looked just as scary as Zaci and much more crowded, but there were plenty of life jackets so we climbed in and hoped no one would jump on top of us. It was quite different from Cenote Carwash which had been at ground level in a wooded area. Here we could look up and see sunlight streaming in from above as though we were in a stadium with a retractable roof. The cave walls were festooned with green plants and long vines hung down from the surface like the tentacles of a jellyfish. It was a very beautiful and refreshing experience despite the crowds.
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In the morning we trooped back to the market which we were pleased to see was in full swing despite it being Sunday. We had breakfast of roast chicken and tamales and took a short detour north to the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam.
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Ek Balam was as quiet and peaceful as Chichén Itzá had been chaotic and crowded. There were a few other people around but we often had an area to ourselves. I made up for leaving Ian out of the pyramid climb in Coba with a trip up to the top of the structure called the Acropolis. It wasn't as steep or slippery as the Coba pyramid but we still had an awesome view of the surrounding forest. It was funny that after I had resolved not to make any effort to see any Mayan ruins other than Chichén Itzá, we had already seen three other sites that we liked better. I didn't know it then but the best was still to come.
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About halfway between Valladolid and Mérida is the "Yellow City" of Izamal. The town gets its nickname from the yellowish-brown color of almost every building in the town center. We had a refreshing lunch on the outskirts of town and then drove into the center. The Zócalo was surrounded by buildings of different shades of yellow and gold including the Convent of San Antonio. There were a few food carts in the square and we got a dessert of marquesitas, crunchy crepes with caramel filling. Afterwards we walked up the hill to the convent and admired its colonial facade which looked from the front like it had been cut out of clay with an Exacto knife. Once back on the road we set a course for Mérida, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the Yucatán Peninsula. It was New Year's Eve and we were ready to party.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 12:14 Archived in Mexico Tagged valladolid chichen_itza izamal Comments (0)

Yucatán Adventure: Cancún and Tulum


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I've always appreciated our southern neighbor Mexico and I was thrilled to introduce Mei Ling to that intricate and diverse country before Cleo was born in 2012. As I expected she fell in love with the markets, the cuisine, and the creativity of Mexico and we've been back twice since then with many future trips planned. Our most recent visit was a ten day tour of the Yucatán Peninsula at the end of 2017. I'd been holding off on the trip mainly because it looked so easy logistically and I wanted to get more challenging journeys done first. I planned an itinerary for Buenos Aires and Uruguay instead which looked great until I checked the flights which were outrageously priced around the holidays. After that I didn't have a lot of time and energy left so we went with the Yucatán backup plan. The itinerary came together fairly straightforwardly, given the amount of time we had and the placement of the major cities and sights on the peninsula. I had never thought of going to Cancún but once I researched the city I realized that there was enough there to keep us entertained for a couple of days. It was also a convenient airport to fly into and rent a car.

As it turned out, the trip almost didn't happen. As I was going over my travel checklist the night before the trip I heard Mei Ling cry out "Oh no!" in a desolate voice. I jumped up thinking something had happened to one of the kids but fortunately it was just that Mei Ling had discovered that Cleo's passport was expiring the next day, the day of our flight. We had completely forgotten about renewing it. We huddled together and decided that there was no time to do anything but go to the airport as planned and try to get on our flight. Once we arrived in Mexico we could visit a consulate and get some kind of emergency renewal or exemption.

At the airport we tried checking in using the machine and sure enough we were denied. We played it cool once we got to the check-in desk and handed our passports to the agent. I avoided looking at her and started loading our bags onto the scale. The agent did a double take when she looked at Cleo's passport and pointed out the expiration date. We told her we were planning to get the passport extended once we got to Mexico. She seemed very skeptical but called over a supervisor. The supervisor listened to the agent for a minute, looked at Cleo's passport, and literally broke out laughing and shaking her head. My heart sank. That's when Mei Ling went into action. I don't really understand this ability she has but the only thing I can equate it to is when Obi-Wan Kenobi tells the stormtroopers "These are not the droids you're looking for" in Star Wars. Usually she brings it out when she's bargaining for something, like when she got a jeweler to knock eight thousand dollars off the price of her engagement ring. I saw her close in on the supervisor and I had to walk away from the desk and pretend I was horsing around with the kids. When I finally got the nerve to circle back the supervisor was shrugging and saying something along the lines of "Fine, but don't blame us if they turn you back at immigration in Mexico". We had somehow gotten by.

I took the supervisor's warning pretty seriously. When our turn came to go up to the passport official in Cancún, I had coached Cleo to be as bouncy and cheerful as possible. She can be very cute when she wants to be. I also put on my best demeanor and greeted the official as verbosely as I knew how in my limited Spanish, and Cleo handed him a drawing she had colored on the plane. He was obviously taken aback by the most amiable American tourists he was likely to encounter that day and barely glanced at our passports before waving us through.

The Hertz rental office was a madhouse with lines snaking around in every direction. After several failed attempts I found a line that eventually delivered me to a flustered agent. He took me outside and brought me to a Nissan Versa, a pokey subcompact that was certainly not the "equivalent" of the full-size car I had reserved. He claimed that it was indeed an equivalent and shrugged me off when I provided him with a list of the real equivalent vehicles from the Hertz website. They were Hertz Mexico, and here it was an equivalent. Then he told me that I had lost my rights to any specific car type by arriving forty-five minutes after my reservation, even though that was entirely due to the late shuttle bus and the long lines at the counter. Eventually I grabbed our three child seats and saw that it was possible to wedge them all into the back seat, although the rear doors had to be slammed in order to close them. I knew the agent didn't give a damn if we took the car or left it so we packed ourselves and our gear into the Versa like sardines and took off. The Airbnb was a welcome respite from the logistical travails of the day. It was comfortable and atmospheric with a cute little indoor spa that the kids were able to take a dip in.
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I think most Americans and Europeans who have gone to Cancún don't realize they weren't actually in Cancún. The vast majority of tourists stay on a narrow strip of land that extends out into the Caribbean called the Hotel Zone. The Hotel Zone consists of a single road which is lined end to end with hotels, resorts, and clubs. Hardly any Mexicans actually live in the Hotel Zone, save for some housing for hotel staff, and there's almost no genuine Mexican culture there at all. It's more like an artificial community created for the housing and entertainment of leisure tourists. The single road through the Hotel Zone terminates at the airport, meaning that those arriving by plane never even need to see Cancún Centro. This is the real, rapidly-growing major metropolis of the state of Quintana Roo with almost a million inhabitants. We weren't in Mexico for beaches or discos, so Centro was where we stayed. I picked a spot close to El Parque de las Palapas, which seemed to be the center of social activity downtown.
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Once we were settled at the Airbnb we drove over to El Parque de las Palapas which was in full holiday mode. All kinds of food were being served from kiosks in the center of the park as well as street food stalls. One popular dish was corn on the cob slathered in spicy mayo and grated cheese. We went for some more substantial fare like pozole and enchiladas. The park was packed with people and had tons of activities from carnival rides to remote control toy trucks jousting with skewers and balloons. Mexico is one of the best countries in the world for fiestas and street life and we had found the perfect place to kick off our latest trip.
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Centro has two major community markets, the larger of which was within walking distance of our Airbnb. Mercado 28 was sizable enough but seemed mostly focused on crafts and dry goods which weren't of much interest to us. We did get an excellent Mexican breakfast at a colorful outdoor restaurant.
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Slightly north of Centro is Punta Sam, from where ferries embark on the short trip to Isla Mujeres. This little island packs in a host of tourist activities such as snorkeling, a turtle farm, and swimming with whale sharks. Most people cruise the island in rented golf carts but we chose to walk to our chosen activity, a swim with dolphins. Mei Ling and I had done this before in Jamaica so we figured it would be a thrill for the kids. It wasn't terrible, but the activities mostly involved standing in cloudy water against a dock while the dolphins bumped by us in a rather aggressive fashion. I think the kids were more scared than entertained. As dusk set in we walked back to the north end of the island where there was a quaint church and a pedestrianized street packed with busy outdoor cafes and craft shops. It was a very vibrant scene and we decided if we ever returned to Cancún we would probably stay on the island.
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We had to wait almost two hours on an atrociously long line for a ferry back to the mainland. For dinner we picked a restaurant in the Hotel Zone called Porfirio's, which turned out to be excellent. The tamarind and mezcal margarita alone justified our choice but the food was excellent and surprisingly daring for a restaurant in a tourist area. Some highlights were a salad with nopal cactus leaves and a sauce with chapulines, seasoned crickets.
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In the morning we were eager to get on the road to Tulum but we still had one community market to visit for brunch. Mercado 23 had a better community vibe than Mercado 28 and a great atmosphere with mariachis and lots of fresh produce. A seafood ceviche with slices of fresh avocado was particularly delicious.
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On the way to Tulum we passed straight through Playa del Carmen. The adventure parks in the area sounded really cool but our kids were still too young for that. Instead we got to Tulum in the early afternoon with plenty of time to visit the Mayan ruins of Tulum. At the entrance to the ruins the kids were amused by a gathering of coatimundis, small animals in the raccoon family that were accustomed to receiving tidbits from the tourists. The ruins were quite beautiful, scattered around a grassy landscape that extended to the edge of a cliff overlooking the Caribbean. Steps led downward to a narrow beach that appeared to be closed.
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After the ruins we drove to the main beach so the kids could enjoy the sand for a little bit. We tried to find a highly recommended restaurant on the road that went along the shore but as far as we could tell it didn't exist. Instead we ate at a crowded seafood restaurant in town that was quite good.
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In the morning we found a beautiful outdoor taco place for breakfast. On the way out of Tulum we stopped at Cenote Carwash for a dip. The Yucatan cenotes are natural freshwater pools formed by the collapse of limestone into underground caverns. Many of the cenotes are in caves or have steep staircases and aren't well-suited for young kids. I had researched the cenotes carefully to find the ones that would be best for us but I was still nervous as none of the kids were strong swimmers yet and Spenser couldn't swim at all. We needn't have worried about Cenote Carwash, though. It was very easy access and there were plenty of child-sized life jackets available. It was a very refreshing dip in crystal clear water in a beautiful natural environment.
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On the way to Valladolid we stopped at the Coba ruins, an architectural site spread over a wide area of jungle connected by a network of roads. Many people rented bicycles to get around which wasn't feasible for us with the three kids. Fortunately there were also three-wheel bicycle taxis available to transport us to the central pyramid Ixmoja. Surprisingly it was permitted to climb the pyramid and there were about a hundred people scrambling up the steps, most of them clustered around a rope that had been strung up the center. Clearly we were not going to get Spenser up there and it seemed way too risky to take both kids, so much to Ian's dismay I went up with Cleo while Mei Ling stayed at the base with the two boys. It was quite a nerve-wracking climb and just the latest of countless episodes where I've wondered to myself if I was underestimating the dangers I was putting my kids through. When we got to the top the view was quite amazing, what appeared to be unbroken jungle as far as the eye could see even though I knew we weren't far from the town. We carefully made our way back down and then got back on the road to our next destination.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 14:09 Archived in Mexico Tagged cancun tulum isla_mujeres cobá Comments (0)

Around the World 2017: Odense and trip conclusion


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On a cursory inspection of the map of Denmark, the island of Funen (Fyn to Danes) might not appear to be an island at all. The Little Belt strait that separates Funen from the mainland is barely a kilometer wide for most of its length. On closer inspection, rounded Funen looks a little like a soccer ball being kicked between the mainland father and his son Zealand. We had chosen Odense as the last city for the trip mainly because it was close to the midpoint between Aarhus and Copenhagen, but it also had the advantage of having a famous zoo. We arrived in Odense in time to have a few hours at the zoo before it closed, so we made it our first stop. There was a diverse selection of animals that were in very natural enclosures yet were still easily visible. One of our favorites was the manatee, a testimony to the amazing power of natural selection to fill environmental niches. There was a pretty cool playground for the kids as well.
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We had planned on visiting Bazar Fyn, another Middle Eastern mall, for dinner after the zoo but unfortunately the opening hours didn't coincide with what I had researched. Instead we made our way to central Odense but found most restaurants closed on a Sunday evening. Eventually we settled on a gourmet burger restaurant and ate as well as we could, considering there was nothing on the menu whatsoever except burgers and sides. Our Airbnb proved to be a disappointment as well. It was on a second floor that could only be accessed by a ladder-like staircase, so I had to haul up our bags and then the kids one by one. Once inside, we locked and barricaded the door to prevent any chance of the kids wandering back out and falling down the ladder. We also discovered that almost none of the lights worked and the host had only provided us with one stained dish towel for the shower.

In the morning we headed to the pedestrianized center for brunch. We soaked up that familiar Scandinavian atmosphere of cobblestone squares walled by rows of dissimilar townhouses and countless sidewalk cafes. Unfortunately, a large area in the very center of the old town was undergoing some extensive reconstruction and was completely dug up and blocked off.
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Slightly away from the center we found a pretty residential street that led us to the Hans Christian Andersen House. Outside the small museum dedicated to Denmark's most famous author was an outdoor theater with a castle-like stage next to a shallow pond. People had started to gather on a grassy embankment in front of the stage. We were just in time to see a beautifully-performed play incorporating several of the famous fables. After the play, the characters came out and mingled with the audience. Naturally, Cleo's favorite was the princess from "The Princess and the Pea".
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It was time to say goodbye to our last new city of the trip, but fortunately Denmark had one last amazing castle for us to see before our return to Miami. Egeskov Slot is also on the island of Fyn, half an hour south of Odense. We had seen several beautiful castles in Denmark but this 16th century creation was the closest thing to a fairytale that we'd seen since Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. The surrounding moat was filled with lily pads and carpets of bright green algae. The castle itself was just part of a huge complex including the gardens, an extensive collection of vintage automobiles and airplanes, and an adventure playground for kids.
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The gardens provided quite a workout as we herded the kids along the paths through the rolling landscape. In one area the hedges were trimmed into the shape of squirrels, peacocks, and spirals that Cleo immediately identified as poop.
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We skipped the interior of the castle and spent our remaining time in the play area, where the older kids tried out the canopy walk and the zipline.
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We arrived back in Copenhagen in time for dinner on the patio of a Thai restaurant in the center of town. The meal was good enough to help us forget our misadventure with Thai food in Gothenburg.
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We'd selected an Airbnb in the southern district of Amager, close to the airport, to avoid any risk of traffic on the way to our flight home the next morning. I still had to drop off the rental car in Malmö as there wouldn't be any time to do it in the morning. We settled in to our last Airbnb and I took off at about nine fifteen to return the car. I was under a little time pressure because the rental agency had told me their garage would be closing at ten. I filled up the car in Amager and then headed for the Øresund Bridge for the last time. Just as I approached the bridge, my heart sank as I realized I had neglected to bring my passport. Even though Denmark and Sweden are both in the EU and theoretically passports shouldn't be necessary to cross the border, they had checked ours the first time we entered Malmö from the bridge. I believe the policy has something to do with attempts to stem the flow of Asian and African migrants. I only had a few seconds to decide what to do. Returning to the Airbnb to get my passport would lose me half an hour and eliminate any chance of getting to the auto rental agency in time. If I got turned back at the border, I'd lose an hour and also the fifty Euro toll. I'm not sure how my thought process went in the end, but I decided to go for it and took the bridge. I spent the entire time on the span trying to gauge my chances of making it through. I paid the toll and nervously approached the checkpoint. A female agent asked for my passport and I told her I'd forgotten it, and handed her my driver's license. She frowned and told me she'd have to check in the office, and I waited in my car for what seemed an interminable length of time. Finally she reappeared and told me they'd let me through, but next time to bring my passport. That was a huge relief. Returning to Copenhagen at that point would have been a terrible way to end the trip. I raced to the rental agency but the checkpoint episode had delayed my arrival until a few minutes after ten. They'd given me a passcode to use to get into the garage but it didn't work on the only keypad I could find. In the end I parked the car at the curb just outside their office. I still had to walk to the Malmö train station, take the train to the Copenhagen airport, and then a taxi back to the Airbnb. It was almost midnight when I was finally able to get to bed.

The following morning we had one final hurdle which was getting from the Airbnb to the airport. Uber had been banished from Denmark earlier that year. I had attempted to reserve a taxi on a local app I had downloaded the previous night but based on prior experience with European taxi apps I didn't have much confidence. I had also figured out the bus route, but it required a two block walk to the stop as well as a change of buses. Around seven in the morning we brought all our bags to the curb hoping to flag down a taxi on the street, but we hardly saw any cars at all at that early hour. Just as we were about to start schlepping all our belongings to the bus stop, a taxi suddenly pulled over. It turned out to be the one I'd reserved from the app. It was a tight fit since the app didn't have any option for requesting a larger vehicle, but we packed everything in and got to the airport in plenty of time for our flight.
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This had been our longest and most ambitious trip ever, but we made it through again without any significant adverse events. Looking back a year later, the most memorable parts were the night markets in Taipei and Shenyang, Copenhagen, and the Norwegian fjords. I can't think of anywhere we went that wasn't worthwhile, and the time allocation was perfect. Enjoying such a long trip gave me the confidence to plan our longest European road trip yet, a five week Odyssey through Iberia and Southwest France that begins two weeks from today.

Posted by zzlangerhans 05:04 Archived in Denmark Comments (0)

Around the World 2017: Aarhus


View Around the World 2017 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Now that we were back in Denmark, I could feel the circle of our road trip beginning to close. However, I knew that there was still a lot for us to see and do over the last three days of the trip and I wanted to end things on a high note. We'd already seen Denmark's most famous and international city, but our route back would take us through the next three largest cities in the country. I was curious to see if these lesser lights had their own distinct identity or if they were just miniature versions of Copenhagen.

I had already cleared a late arrival in Aarhus with our Airbnb host, so we decided to stop for dinner in Aalborg. We arrived just as dusk was settling in and didn't really have time to drive around the city. We headed for the center of town hoping to find a historic old neighborhood but instead found a gloomy and mostly deserted area that seemed more like a red light district. What little activity there was seemed to be centered around the numerous Irish pubs in the area. TripAdvisor guided me to an Italian restaurant nearby that seemed like a good prospect. I parked the car and went in by myself to scope the restaurant out. We've learned from experience that we can't always tell from a TripAdvisor listing if a restaurant is right for us. Sometimes the place turns out to be more high end than we expected, sometimes it's overcrowded, sometimes they have tall tables and barstools. It's no fun getting all the kids out of their car seats, walking a block or more to a restaurant, and then figuring out we aren;t going to be eating there.

In this case the restaurant seemed to be fine. It was pleasant but not stuffy, half-empty, with a decent selection of Italian food. I confirmed with the owner that they had room for five and retrieved everyone from the car. Things started to go sour pretty much as soon as we sat down. The kids had their iPads and a waiter immediately came over to grumble that we were disturbing the other diners, well before anyone could possibly have complained. Now I'm as considerate as anyone of the restaurant experience, and we're very careful with the kids to make sure we don't spoil anyone else's peace of mind while they eat. Part of that process is letting them have their iPads so they won't play with the cutlery, fight with each other, blow out the candles, or do any of the million other annoying things that small children normally do when they get taken to a restaurant. We're very conscientious about the volume too, and make sure the kids adjust it to the lowest level that they're able to hear. That's usually well below the ambient noise level in the restaurant, so the only people being disturbed at that point are the ones who just hate to see kids. Well, tough luck.

We had a table well away from anyone else, and the noise level in the restaurant was pretty high. I looked around and none of the other tables were paying us the slightest bit of attention. It was clear that the only displeasure was coming from the owner and the staff. I guess they felt that iPads didn't belong in the best Italian restaurant in Aalborg's red light district. The waiter was fairly nasty about it as well. I think he told us "This isn't a McDonald's". Now, if we weren't already on track to arrive at our Airbnb well after ten PM or if there was anywhere else to eat nearby other than Irish pubs, we would have cheerfully walked out at that point. As it was, I much preferred to get dinner over with and get back on the road. I smiled and asked the waiter if he'd prefer us to put all the iPads away. He had the sense to recognize what the alternative was, shook his head and took our order. The kids couldn't have behaved better. They were as quiet as mice until the food came, then we put their iPads away and they ate very peacefully. I think the staff was actually a little abashed by the end of the meal. We turned down dessert and Ronald McDonald held the door open for us on the way out. "You're the rudest person I've ever met," Mei Ling snarled at him as we exited. She takes these kinds of things personally.

So that was Aalborg. Not the greatest stop, but at least we were full and we could just fall into bed once we got to Aarhus. A little over an hour later, I was rummaging in the dark in a planter outside our Airbnb for the house key. There was a bad moment when I thought it wasn't there and then my iPhone flashlight caught a glint. Opening an apartment door never felt so good.

I was excited to get going the next morning, as I had a list of markets to visit. The first was the Saturday farmers market on Ingerslevs Boulevard, just a short walk from our apartment. There was a good mix of prepared food, produce, and crafts that took care of breakfast and kept us occupied for an hour.
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When we retrieved the car I encountered a bank of large bins I initially thought were for recycling. On closer inspection I saw they were for donating clothes which are then sold, with the revenues earmarked for aid programs in Africa. Sounds nifty, but when I had time to research it a little I found the program is actually somewhat controversial. Is Scandinavia an altruistic paradise, or is it a haven for exploiters of human goodwill? It's funny how things are often not at all how they seem on the surface.
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On the western outskirts of Aarhus is Bazar Vest, a large shopping center mainly devoted to Middle Eastern and South Asian goods. It was good to get our mulitcultural fix, but overall the atmosphere was a little gloomy and sterile compared to real Asian markets. When I took a picture of Mei Ling in the food court area, I noticed there was a guy next to her bent forward in his chair showing his butt crack. Gross. He sat up but as soon as he saw me taking another picture he bent over again. Either he really didn't want his face to be seen, or he really wanted his butt crack to be seen.
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We got a quick bite to eat and stocked up on fruit at a Middle Eastern supermarket. On the way out we passed a barber shop, which was great because I love getting my hair cut when we're traveling. It's one of those experiences that always seems to bring me closer to the experience of actually living in the country I'm visiting. This time was no exception. My barber was from Kuwait and his coworker was from Ethiopia. We had a interesting discussion about their native countries and what it's like for them living in Denmark. I got a great haircut and Ian got to be an airplane.

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We decided to continue onward out of town to Rosenholm Slot. The 16th century Renaissance castle is majestic and beautifully preserved. We were the only visitors when we arrived so we didn't have the heart to turn down the tour, although we weren't particularly interested in the interior.
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Back in Aarhus we parked near the train station and walked into the downtown pedestrian zone. Our first stop was Aarhus Central Food Market, which seemed rather low energy compared to others we'd visited in Scandinavia. Or perhaps we just weren't hungry. Across the street was a pretty little Catholic Church.
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We continued north along Søndergade pedestrian street until we crossed the bridge over the Aarhus River. On the other side were the Aarhus Cathedral and the Aarhus Theatre. Just south of the cathedral in Bishop's Square there was a jazz festival and people were relaxing outside and listening to the music.
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The narrow river was lined with crowded cafes, and we followed the river bank under the bridge to the sounds of a party. Just after we found the band playing outside a cafe, the singer launched into a killer version of "What a Wonderful World".
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Our last stop of the day was Aarhus Street Food, another food hall a short walk from the pedestrian zone. The place was similar to the Copenhagen version if just a bit smaller, and it also had a play area for the kids. At this point we were used to the food court style of eating and we collected an assortment of dishes quite efficiently. The informal setting was quite a relief after our stressful experience the previous night.
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The next morning we had another delicious Scandinavian breakfast and then took a walk around a quaint older neighborhood we had seen from the car. We found a park with a great view of the rainbow panorama walkway atop the ARoS Aarhus Art Museum.
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On the way out of Aarhus we encountered a strange sight from the coastal road. A crane appeared to be hoisting a waterlogged small car out of the North Sea. Even though the car was in my sight for just a few seconds, some thing didn't sit right about what I was seeing. The car was suspended motionless in the air, yet water continuously gushed from its undercarriage. How much water could fit in one small car? At the first opportunity, I made a U-turn and doubled back to the crane on the side of the road closer to the shore. Soon it became clear that we had not stumbled on the scene of a bizarre accident. A quick Google search revealed that we were actually looking at an abstract sculpture, part of a program of art installations along that stretch of coastal road.
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Not much further, the road disappeared into a forested area and eventually brought us to Moesgård Strand, a scenic beach within the forest. A group of Danish kids in waders were milling around a rock jetty with nets. They didn't seem to be catching anything, but further up on the beach I saw a woman stirring a large pot. It turned out to be crab soup, but it wasn't ready to be tasted yet. They offered to rent us some waders and nets but the sky was overcast and the water looked quite cold, so we opted to drive on to Odense instead.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 05:57 Archived in Denmark Tagged aarhus aalborg Comments (0)

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