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October 22, 2018

Two-Hour Munich Monuments Walk

Munich can be a tough-go. A lot of travelers use it as a home base for getting to Salzburg, Neuschwanstein, Dachau, Nuremberg, and other World War II sites. Munich itself gets bogged down by tourists at the end of September for the annual Oktoberfest, but this expat does not really recommend you waste your time, money, or energy on the Munich version unless you want to be rampaged by millions of other drunk tourists. The better - and much more authentic, populated by jolly Germans - "Oktoberfest" parties are found elsewhere, but that's for another post on another day.

München. It's not one of my favorite European cities, but it does grow on me each chance I get to spend the day there. I am happy to say I finally have a reasonable and interesting two-hour loop to get acquainted with Munich's history and identity that I know I will continue to enjoy taking my friends and family on for many years to come.

No matter the season, just dress for the weather - especially your shoes - and join the Germans and tourists milling about the streets of Munich. Most European cities are best met on foot, and Munich is no exception!

The most efficient plan if you're coming from out of town is to begin at the Munich Hauptbahnhof no later than 10:30 in the morning. If you're already in town somewhere, grab a quick pastry or pretzel breakfast in one of the lovely Deutsch bakeries, and make your way by foot or via subway to Marienplatz. Our day begins here, in the heart of Munich, at 11:00. Wait for the huge Neues Rathaus clocktower to strike 11:00, and the dancing and jousting figurines to come to life in the giant version of a traditional German cuckoo clock. The whole "show" takes about ten minutes. I recommend turning off your phone and just watching the figures with your own two eyeballs and use your memory to experience it. Then you can laugh off the rest of the tourists who are glued to their phones, creating a video they will probably never watch again!

From Marienplatz, we will sidle our way toward the Altes Rathaus which now houses the Toy Museum (Spielzeugmuseum). If you look up to your back right, you will see a tower with people overlooking the square. It's not very expensive (€3 in 2018) to climb the 306 steps of St. Peter's Church up to the "Alter Peter" balcony, and totally worth the amazing views over Marienplatz.

Whether you climb the tower or not, it's definitely time for an eclectic snack at the Viktualienmarkt. This market may not technically be a town square, but, as far as I'm concerned, it's my favorite platz in Munich! Over 200 permanent stalls are selling fresh goods, from fruits and vegetables, to Spanish meats and French cheeses. You can find nearly every kind of hot, cold, sweet, healthy, caffeinated, smooth, alcohol drink possible and build an entire meal to enjoy at the open outdoor picnic tables. There are even restaurants that will bring you ready-made meals if the task of putting together a picnic is a bit too daunting!

Taking the roads just east will bring you to Isartorplatz, with the beautiful Isar Gate as the centerpiece. From here, you can opt to wind back northwest to take a peek at the traditional royal beer hall, Hofbräuhaus, or continue east to walk along the river Isar. St. Luke's Church is a gorgeous brick building that is wonderful both up close and from across the river. Either way, get yourself to Maximilianstraße and turn right. Cross the bridge over the Isar to arrive at the base of Maximilianeum, covered in beautiful ivy and housing the Bavarian State Parliament.

You are now in the Park Maximiliansanlagen and free to wander northward as you please! Eventually, the paths will guide you to the Friedensengel - the stunning golden angel monument to peace. Take a moment on the viewing deck here to consider this was built in the 1890s to commemorate the peace they had experienced since another Franco-German war in the 1870s. The tensions between European countries had been mounting for several hundred years before the World Wars broke out and transformed the entire global landscape.

Take the Luitpoldbrücke back across the Isar to arrive at the very cool Eisbachwelle, where real surfers are really surfing on an everlasting wave in a river setting. It's much more popular in the warmer months, but still possible to find surfing enthusiasts braving the chill in their heavy duty wetsuits as long as the water is not frozen!

Hopefully, you have enough free time to wander north deep into the Englischer Garten, and maybe you can even find the beer garden at the Chinese Tower. There is plenty in the park to see and do, and more restaurants and snack stops, if you want to continue in Munich's largest green space. However, usually at this point I take my tour out of the wooded area and back into the city at Siegestor, because I love all arched monuments. This "mini-platz" is also typically graced with some kind of artistic display and makes for a unique statement of current culture against the backdrop of a huge sculpture from the 1800s.

Heading southwest will take you to the museum section, where you can spend a rainy (or snowy) afternoon browsing the arts in Alte Pinakothek, Neue Pinakothek, and the Pinakothek der Moderne - in that order - before you end up in Königsplatz. Other museums in this area cover the following topics: architecture, minerals, multimedia, sculptures, Egyptian history, natural history, geology, graphic arts, photography, and more!

By way of Karolinenplatz, take Brienner Straße until it dead ends into Odeonsplatz. Here you'll find a grand stage area where Hitler himself made speeches, right between a large Catholic church, Theatinerkirche, and the traditional Munich Residenz city palace of the Bavarian royals. Off the southeasterly corner of the square, you can find an assuming door to the quiet restaurant Pfälzer Residenz Weinstube. There's no German beer here - only wine! - but you can find great prices for great German meals and step back in time for a little while.

Stepping out of the wine hall, go left to soon arrive at the opera area in Max-Joseph-Platz. The square is very pretty, and just imagine it filled with expensive cars bringing their fancy occupants to enjoy the latest German opera or ballet performance. You can also still enjoy these fun events, and come in whatever level of formality you like!

Start making your way east toward the two large green onion-shaped domes of Frauenkirche, Munich's version of Notre Dame. It's usually under a little bit of scaffolded construction, but still an impressive church with a quiet and shaded square in front of the entrance. Take the shopping street of Neuhauser Straße to head back toward the train station and into Karlsplatz for another castle-like city gate.

If the Theresienwiese (the German equivalent of their fairgrounds, where Oktoberfest is held, as well as the winter festival Tollwood and several other events) is hosting something, do go! It's bound to be fun and crazy, and at least worth a walk-through. Head due south from the Hauptbahnhof to find it, and it can be hard to miss with Ferris Wheels and high-flying rides piercing the skyline.

The other way to end your tour is to stay north of the Hauptbahnhof by foot, or take the S-bahn train to stop Laim to get to Schloß Nymphenburg, where you can finish your day in royal style.

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September 12, 2018

Leave It To Legendary London




Let me try to calm down and explain it better to you.

I traveled to London for a long weekend to spend time with Marc's sister, Alex, and her husband, Cory, who are currently living near Cambridge.

I realize Cambridge is not that close to London.

But with a few expensive train rides, anything is possible!

There were four parts to this weekend, all of which could stand on their own as great moments. I'll take you through the three others before I get to gushing about Tommy Steele and Glenn Miller. [OMG. Focusing.]

Honorable Mention... Tea!

My adorable and delicious tea picnic came from B Bakery (also known as "Brigit's Bakery") in Covent Garden. It was August, I wanted to walk around, and the picnic was a fantastic idea. Until it started raining and never stopped. I did have an umbrella, and I did find a covered door stoop, and I did enjoy my tea time, much to the amusement of the British people passing by.

I could have totally let the rain ruin my tea picnic, but instead, I just accepted it as London luck. I mean, how many other opportunities will I really have to spread clotted cream and strawberry jam onto a scone outside in the middle of a downpour?

Third Place... Wine!

Alex and I got to meet up with Michael, one of the Vilas' "umpteenth umpth cousins" (there are hundreds of them, and this one, we think, is a 4th cousin). Michael has lived in London for years, and he suggested we meet at Terroirs.

We enjoyed some great wine, of course, but then also the very creative and tasty share plates while catching up on each other's news and stories. Food in London is always impressive and Terroirs follows that standard excellently.

Second Place... Church!

Somewhat spiritually incorrect, but this is just the honest truth (and at least it's ranked ahead of wine, haha). Plus, Pastor Tim Chaddick is still young and not quite as limited edition as the winner of this blog post. Back story: when I was in college north of Los Angeles, my friends' and my favorite church to road trip to was Reality LA in Hollywood.

Pastor Tim is a very gifted speaker and communicator, and he always just lays the truth down in a direct and transparent way. His Easter sermon circa 2008 is still the best sermon I've ever heard. Anyway, Tim Chaddick and his family have ended up at Reality London, and I knew it was time to wrap a Sunday into a trip to visit Alex and Cory. It was everything Reality LA had been ten years ago and more, embellished with British accents and expat friendliness.


I will NOT apologize for FREAKING OUT. I planned this weekend around seeing Alex and Cory, having at least one tea time, going to Reality, and taking in some random theatre show. I had just been on a high from seeing Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again!, and thought Mamma Mia! might be a fun idea. Thought about Aladdin, pretended Hamilton was an available option, and Alex just told me straight up: "Christy, pick whatever you want because I probably won't be that into it anyway."

I'll take a carte blanche no matter how it comes! I went through the listings once again, and I read, "Tommy Steele in The Glenn Miller Story." You might be asking, "Who's Tommy Steele?" but I was asking, "Who's Glenn Miller?"

Because, people, Tommy Steele is in two of my favorite old movie musicals ever: The Happiest Millionaire and Finian's Rainbow. One involves frozen crocodile pets and the other a magical pot of gold. Both are perfect.

After I figured out who Glenn Miller was and that his entire genre of big band and swing music is exactly part of my journey of discovering my most adored kind of music, my next question was, "Wait. How is Tommy Steele still alive?!"

He's 81 years old and still performing live on the West End. See what I mean by limited edition?

Plus, his run of The Glenn Miller Story was already scheduled and planned to last just seven weeks in London.

And 9-year-old little Christy Swagerty who remembered Tommy Steele's hilarious Irish butler and leprechaun movie parts already had plans to be in England that weekend.

If you can try to imagine even half of what I was feeling during this show, then you'll know it was overwhelming. Tommy Steele appeared on stage and my eyes filled with tears. It was being in the presence of a legend. His dynamic spirit and contagious energy filled the entire London Coliseum and he interacted with the audience and costars alike with ease, grace, and generosity. His enormous smile radiated all 81 years of loving to make people laugh and sing. Also of note was how funny it was to see such an old man "running" (more like trotting) across the stage during various numbers. But Tommy Steele could hack it!

Besides Tommy Steele's magnanimity, the production itself was awesome, of course. The stage was set with lighted arches that could become any color to fit the scene and number. The choreography included both tap and swing dancing, all wrapped into perfectly selected vintage costumes, tuned expertly to Glenn Miller classics like "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "Moonlight Serenade," "Pennsylvania 6-5000," and my personal favorite, "In the Mood." Pleasantly surprising was the inclusion of very famous "At Last," which turns out was written for one of Glenn Miller's films, Sun Valley Serenade (that I made Marc watch with me after I returned home).

Never mind the fact that Glenn Miller died during World War II at the all-too-soon age of just 40 years old and Tommy Steele was acting as a man half his age. If anything, it made it a little bit sillier and more nostalgic. Apparently, Tommy Steele was inspired by Glenn Miller's music on the radio as a child and was thrilled to play this part on the stage because it was all of his favorite music!

During the intermission, the people sitting in our row said to us as we walked by, "Aren't you two a little too young for this show?" After we responded with laughter and that I liked the music, etc., the second question came quickly, "And...you're American?!" One of my beloved pastimes: being different and a tad bit confusing for people to figure out.

I held it mostly together until the end, then Glenn Miller's character died and was shown playing his music in heaven while his grieving wife looked on. At that point I was a mess of tears, dancing, and sob-singing. Granted, this is not a sad show; it's a definitely happy show with happy songs and happy dancing that just happens to have a sad ending. However, ever the entertainer, Tommy Steele resurrected for the encore like a true champ, performing three more songs with the audience to sing along. It's impossible to feel sad when shout-singing and jazz-hand-dancing to "Sing Sing Sing" with thousands of strangers and the one and only Tommy Steele.

This theatre experience ranks even above my first shows of Phantom of the Opera and Jersey Boys. It was such an unbelievable and overwhelming combination of the music, the Tommy Steele, the story, the dancing, the singing, the old movies, being in London again, summer nights, and all the depth and memories that naturally accompany each of those things. I felt my mind and emotions being stretched in all sorts of wonderful directions, and, ultimately, it was phenomenal because I loved and learned in every minute of it.

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September 3, 2018

VLOG: Vitoria-Gasteiz & Festival of the Virgen Blanca

I had an absolutely perfect half week in the Basque country of Spain. One day to stroll San Sebastián, a few days to absorb the art that is Bilbao, and my day trip to Vitoria-Gasteiz - where I happened upon their Festival of the Virgen Blanca!

It was a bit haphazard, as I didn't know the schedule or where events were happening, but I stumbled upon enough great moments of games, food stands, and plaza dancing to keep my wandering entertained for the whole day.

Vitoria-Gasteiz is actually the government capital of the Basque Autonomous Community of Spain. The city is situated on several different levels that keep the visitor climbing beautiful steps to new terraced views, cathedrals, and squares. I am so glad I chose this city for my day trip! It was easy to take the bus from Bilbao to Vitoria-Gasteiz (around €6), then I chose to return to Bilbao via BlaBlaCar carpool (about €4) so I could practice my Spanish with the driver. Even without the festival going (always August 4th-9th), Vitoria-Gasteiz has so much to offer in history, architecture, and culture, and I hope you have the chance to experience it like I did.

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August 15, 2018

Bilbao Outdoor Art Walk

Bilbao, Spain, is home to one of three fantastic Guggenheim museums (the other two are in New York City, USA, and Venice, Italy). I haven't been to the other two, but my trip to Bilbao was sure to include this one. However, the city of Bilbao itself is an outdoor art and architecture walk just waiting to be enjoyed. The green spaces, old buildings and churches, and various outdoor displays make this walk around the newer part of Bilbao a great introduction to the current culture of the city and finishes at the Guggenheim to top it all off.

Let's get started at the Jardines de Albia Lorategiak. Notice, most location names in Bilbao also come with a Basque translation. Bilbao is Bilbo, and this park is also called Albiako Loretegiak. Knowing both names can come in handy, as not all signs show both Spanish and Basque!

This is one of my favorite fountains ever. So simple, so serene, and I think a "raining umbrella" would be an excellent invention for hot days.

The Iglesia de San Vicente stands to the north of the park and welcomes visitors with its beautiful sculptures and gardens.

Making our way northwest on Colón de Larreátegui Kalea, we will soon end up in Jado Plaza with the Fuente de los Leones, the Fountain of the Lions.

Next steps are toward Moyua Plaza via Ercilla Kalea, where you will find this gem of a building called the Txabarri Jauregia, a former palace. The square is a hub for the west side of Bilbao with several bus stops, shops, and services available. It's also the easiest place to go to and from the Bilbao airport by bus.

After spending time walking around some busy city streets, we are going to head into the largest green space in Bilbao, the Casilda Iturrizar Parkea, just behind the Museum of Fine Arts.

Take your time wandering through this park to admire the interesting fountains, landscapes, birdlife, duck pond, and people.

As we reach an upward slope in the center of the park, we will be facing the Pergola del Parque de Doña Casilda. It's a quick minute to the shady portico area, overgrown beautifully with vines and mossy plants.

I especially liked the tiling on the floors and columns, and it is probably the best place to read a book and take an outdoor nap in Bilbao.

Leaving the Pergola area on the other side, pretty fountains await you as well as this detailed Estatua de Doña Casilda Iturrizar, the namesake of these gardens and the donor of the land.

As we exit the northwest side of the park, we head back into the city area, where we find the huge Palacio Euskalduna. This event venue has various artistic areas in the front, including this root-like mass. On the way toward the river, there is also an array of geometric street lights that seem to be fashioned after trees.

At this point, we cross the river Ría del Nervión O de Bilbao, peeking down to the left at the Maritime Museum and dockyards. But we are on our way to a more curious attraction: the Tigrearen Eraikina, more easily understood as the Tiger Building. The building was home to Correas el Tigre and built in 1941. The tiger was added in 1942, and stands out from all the rest of the buildings along the waterfront park area.

It's best to continue walking along this side of the river in our approach to the Guggenheim. We can cross the river on the pedestrian bridge of Pasarela Pedro Arrupe and have excellent views of the museum's twists, turns, and curves the whole way.

Going along the side to the front of the museum will bring us to the giant flower "Puppy" that is regularly tended to and updated with new colors.

Basque: Ongi etorri! English: Welcome! We have arrived at the Bilbao Guggenheim, and I do hope you have the time to enjoy the interior and art exhibits. When I went in early August, 2018, an absolutely majestic exhibit by Joana Vasconcelos called "I'm Your Mirror" was on display. I'm not one to really sink my teeth into modern art, but her pieces were awesome (Cinderella's coach reimagined as a helicopter, giant high heels made out of pots and lids, large gun made out of old dial-up telephones, an ironic chandelier that cracked me up, and the key piece of a larger-than-life masquerade mask made out of gorgeous antique-like mirrors). I'm positive whatever the Guggenheim puts on display has similar intensity and creativity and is not to be missed!

*Also, make sure you reserve your tickets in advance online if you do not want to wait around. Typically, the museum is most busy in the mornings and the crowds thin out a bit more in the afternoon.

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Bilbao Outdoor Art Walk on iOS & Android

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