King Ludwig: Crazy or just extravagant?

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We begin our third blog series with a special check-off from Frank’s bucket list: Neuschwanstein, otherwise known as “Crazy King Ludwig’s Castle,” in the Bavarian Alps. A history buff, Frank had heard about this castle and was determined to see it. On Friday, we did.

Our trip to this magical palace was made even more spectacular by the day’s sunshine and fresh snow, which added a twinkly sparkle to the trees. We left Munich by train for the two-hour journey to Fussen. From there, we boarded a bus to the base of the mountain, where we planned to take a shuttle up to the Castle. Small glitch – the shuttle buses weren’t running due to the icy roads! Sooo, rather than wait in the long line for the horse-drawn carriages (which were in operation), we hiked to the Castle entrance and made it in time for our tour.

We learned about the short and tragic life of King Ludwig II. At 18, his father died and he inherited the throne without any formal training or political experience. Although he did fulfill his required duties, the realization that he was just a figurehead led the young king to pursue his interests in reading, the arts and architecture. He hated war and when he saw that he was not in a position to save his country from its dangers, he considered abdication. His friend, the composer Richard Wagner, supposedly talked him out of it, explaining he could not turn the crown over to his younger brother Otto, who was suffering from a war-related mental illness. Another war broke out in 1870, leading the King to become more withdrawn and embittered by the personal political attacks.

King Ludwig completely shifted into his own world, a world in which everything was noble and beautiful. His vision was manifested in his castles. He began three with a fourth planned. The costs resulted in much debt and eventually the wrath of government, who decided to remove him as King. King Ludwig now refused to step down (What? Give up the money and my projects?!). At the time, the only way a sitting King could be removed was if he was declared mentally incompetent. Officials forced their way into Neuschwanstein and took the King to the Castle of Berg on Lake Stamberg. The next day, the 40-year-old King and his psychiatrist were found dead following a walk along the lake. The official story is that the King killed the doctor and committed suicide — a conclusion that seems implausible given his aversion to violence. Several other theories have been proposed but the deaths remain a mystery – adding to the allure of the story and the subsequent interest (and tourist dollars) in the castle when it was opened to the public shortly after his death.

Was “Crazy” King Ludwig crazy or was he just disillusioned and extravagant? Frank and I lean toward the latter. We see him as a tragic figure, who was totally unprepared for a role he did not want. He eventually, however, grew accustomed to the royal lifestyle and used it (albeit selfishly) to create something beautiful. This spectacular yet unfinished palace is a testament to King Ludwig’s unique artistic vision, his deep religious devotion and his passion for literature and opera.

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Christkindlmarkt

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I am not a cold weather person but I can’t imagine a more fun and festive time to visit Munich than at Christmastime. More than 20 Christmas markets are scattered throughout the city inviting locals and tourists to eat, drink, (shop) and be merry! Our airbnb was ten minutes from Munich’s oldest and most traditional market, Christkindlmarkt. Located in Marienplatz, the city’s main square, it attracts over three million visitors every year. Frank and I walked there every night. We marveled at young and old coming together in such a joyful, colorful setting. The food was delicious, the drinks were warm and plentiful — you couldn’t help but get caught up in the holiday spirit!

 

 

Munich

Although the main focus of our five-day trip to Munich was visiting Crazy King Ludwig’s castle and experiencing the Christmas markets, we found time to get a “taste” of Munich and see some other interesting sights around the town centre.

 

Sicilian Christmas

Frank has many fond memories of growing up in his old Sicilian neighborhood in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. Everyone was family and they looked out for each other. The older folks spoke Sicilian. Church was the center of that community — serving as altar boys, having nuns as teachers, and particularly the traditional processions and lively festivals that accompanied Holy Day and Saint Feast Day celebrations.

Frank experiences a special connection to that past when we’re in Sicily. He has been anxious to return to the island since our 2015 trip. The revolving door of family –- sons, girlfriends, mom, aunts, cousins — made that trip one of our most memorable and definitely our most laugh-filled! He really wanted to spend a Christmas here. We inquired about the same villa and it was available. The owner had just installed a new fireplace and even agreed to provide a Christmas tree for us!

There was one thing missing. What’s Christmas without some family around, right? No worries. Andy, Nick and Maddie jumped right in. They were excited to just relax, eat some delicious Sicilian food and drink some of that tasty, no-hangover Sicilian wine. The kids arrived a couple days before Christmas and, for the next ten days, we pretty much did just that.

Following in the steps of Frank’s forefathers, we celebrated Midnight Mass at the local church. After Communion, the priest paraded through the aisles with a very old, life-size baby Jesus. The gathered faithful reverently touched it, some kissed it. Afterwards, we processed with the congregation to the town piazza, where the priest gently laid the baby in the manger of the life-size Nativity creche. It’s tradition. It’s what most Sicilians do every Christmas Eve.

The five of us appeared as outsiders in this tiny church where everyone knew each other. Little did they know, we are connected; we are connected in time. We are connected in the present by our joint participation in this age-old tradition. We are connected in the future through our memory of this event. But most importantly, we are connected through our past. We are connected through relatives that were neighbors, friends or even relatives of their relatives. That makes us connected and that makes us family. Buon Natale from Sicilia!

Is Sicily an easy trip?

Sicily as a travel destination requires — how should I say it? — some adjustment.

MANGIA
How do you like to start your morning? Are you a person who enjoys a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs? Or maybe you favor a fancy brunch with quiche and champagne? How about a simple bowl of porridge with fruit? Sorry. Breakfast restaurants aren’t really a “thing” in Sicily.  Unless you have your own airbnb kitchen to cook something up yourself, it’s pastries and donuts (albeit, really good pastries and donuts) with your espresso at the local cafe-patisserie. (Many hotels, however, do provide a selection of meats, hard-boiled eggs and cheeses — with their pastries.) Lunch starts around 12:30 and dinner is served later, like many other European countries, with restaurants opening around 7:30. Many do not get busy until 8:30 or so. It’s always funny for me to see kids out for dinner at 9:00!

The food, as expected, is fabulous and needs little “adjustment.” Seafood is fresh and cooked to perfection. Fresh fruits and vegetables are plentiful. And the pasta — oh the pasta! Nick and Maddie choose to eat gluten-free whenever possible. They always found plenty of choices when we ate out and we were all pleased to find that Sicily is ahead of the game with gluten-free pasta that actually tastes good. Needless to say, their gluten-free diet was often set aside on this island where sweet treats are everywhere and are as delicious as they are beautiful.

SHOPPING
Most stores, including grocery stores and pharmacies, close from 1 to 4, so you just need to plan your shopping accordingly.

DRIVING
Driving is an experience in itself. Although the highways in the south seem to be in better shape than those in the north (which are inundated with “reduced speeds” and crossovers due to construction), the speed limit is pretty much unenforced. We were amazed at the excessive speed of the small cars which appear out of nowhere and then fly by — even around hairpin curves and through countless long, dark tunnels. The towns have extremely narrow roads and drivers zip through, cutting in front of cars and barely dodging pedestrians. Cars are parked every which way — backwards, ends sticking out, double, even triple parked. In bigger cities, driving is, in a word, INSANE. There are very few cars without scrapes and large dents.

And don’t place all your confidence in your GPS. More than once, Siri told us to turn the wrong way down a one-way or up a street that was a stairway! Like I say, adjustment. And flexibility.

NO GUARANTEES
Sicily in the off-season requires some patience as well. Searching for opening hours on a website or Google does not guarantee that a restaurant or tourist sight is open. Call ahead and make a reservation whenever possible.

IS IT WORTH IT?
Unequivocally! Sicily is a beautiful and historically fascinating country. Every town and region is unique and there is so much to discover, to taste and to relish. Yes, it might take a little effort but that’s what makes the treasure all the more appreciated.

Enjoy a peek at our second road trip around the island. It was a such an amazing opportunity to discover new places, revisit others and see the country through the eyes of Maddie and our boys . . .

 

Malta!

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Where and why — two questions we’ve constantly been asked about Malta.

Malta is a small European republic south of Sicily. The archipelago sits smack in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, which made it a strategic hot spot in history (I’ll go into that in a later post).

Why are we here? Malta is a popular destination for expats and is often referred to as one of the best places in the world to retire. The lures: English speaking, low cost-of-living (comparatively), national healthcare, low crime rate, 299 average days of sunshine.

We wondered what it would be like to LIVE here. And that is just what we’ve been doing. Every day is a lesson in Maltese culture. We learn about the Maltese people through our everyday interactions – with the bus drivers, with the shop clerks and waiters, with the barber, with the people sitting next to us in the cafes. We learn about the food by seeing what’s available in the local grocery stores and at specialty stands, as well as when we dine at local restaurants. We learn about religion by visiting churches and attending Sunday Mass. We’ve even learned to navigate a small corner of the healthcare system when Frank goes for his monthly blood tests at the hospital.

Our apartment is a classroom. We learn about the European practice of limiting electricity consumption via the on-off switches on the outlets, the outdoor clothes line (no dryer), and the individual room-heating units. We are acutely aware of water conservation as we manipulate the flat’s sensitive rooftop water pump. Frank is all over the garbage and recycling routines. We purposely rented an apartment close to the national swimming complex so he could swim. That hasn’t worked out so well because the pool is outdoors. January and February temperatures average around 60, with even cooler mornings. Can you say pneumonia? So we do a lot of walking and a lot of exploring various sights and neighborhoods.

Some friends asked if we thought we’d get bored spending an entire month here. Good question when you consider Malta’s size. The country is just 17 miles long and 9 miles wide with a population of 432,000. But no, we haven’t gotten bored. The country has a rich history with much to see and do. We look forward to sharing more of marvelous Malta!

The most interesting man in . . .

. . . the world? Well, maybe a man with the most interests in the world(!). Frank and I met Charlie on our Maltese Rural Tour. It was such an interesting day!

Who didn’t/doesn’t want to live in Malta?

First, a short history lesson to give you the big picture: Throughout its history, Malta has been occupied by a who’s who of world superpowers. The timeline starts around 5200 BC with the first wave of prehistoric settlers. Successive waves of conquerers — the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Normans, Arabs, Aragons — all took possession of the small islands due to their strategic location.

The Knights of St. John arrived in Malta in 1530 and they played a key role during the Middle Ages, particularly with the Great Siege of 1565 (interesting battle, read about it here: https://www.visitmalta.com/en/great-siege-1565) and through 1798 when the French took control. The British beat back the French a year later and Malta became a British Crown Colony in 1814. Malta strongly supported the UK through both World Wars and remained in the Commonwealth until its independence in 1964. A decade later Malta declared itself a Republic and, in 2004, became a member of the European Union.

Evidence of each occupation is visible in this living museum of a country. From the ancient to the modern, Malta is a beautiful and fascinating place. We’ve spent a month here and have come to understand why it is “under siege” by its current invader — tourists and expats looking for a great place to live.

❤️ Malta

Seeing Red. And Dogs?!!

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Frank and I arrived in Singapore as the residents were preparing for the most important event on the Chinese calendar – Chinese New Year. It’s a big deal here because seventy-five percent of the Singapore population is ethnic Chinese (15% are Malay, considered the indigenous population; and 15% are ethnic Indian). As in China, Chinese New Year is a public holiday and the festivities last for several days. Singapore is all decked out in red (the color of luck) with lanterns and banners everywhere. Something else you’ll find everywhere? Dogs!! Each year of the Chinese calendar is assigned one of twelve animals; 2018 is the Year of the Dog.

Chinese New Year reminds us of Christmas with its decorations, parades, cheery greetings and its focus on family. I love the concept of the traditional Reunion Dinner, held on the eve of the new year. Family members rush back home (sometimes from very far away) to share this one most important meal of the year with loved ones. The following days are spent visiting other relatives and friends — enjoying time with the ones who matter most.

Frank and I felt very fortunate to attend a Chinese New Year celebration. We made a new friend — a relative of Milwaukee friends – who graciously invited us to the home he shares with his beautiful fiancée and charming teenage son.

We went to the store to grab some wine for the party and started talking to a very nice older woman. She had two decorative boxes of mandarin oranges and I asked if this was something one would traditionally bring to a celebration. She said “Yes, but you must bring two; they symbolize good luck.” I was super excited to be “in” on the tradition and proudly presented the two boxes of citrus to our hosts. They seemed puzzled. “They symbolize good luck,” I explained. They chuckled, “It’s supposed to be two oranges, not two boxes of oranges!!” We all laughed. Guess, they’ll have a lot of good fortune in 2018!

Along with their friends, we participated in a uniquely Singaporean tradition – Lo Hei. A salad, made up of specific, symbolic ingredients, is set in the middle of the table. Everyone grabs a pair of chopsticks and begins to toss the salad inward and higher with each toss! At the same time, everyone yells out wishes for themselves and those gathered for the upcoming year, “Wishing you good health!” “Happiness and love!” “A new job!” “Riches!” One of ours, the wish for “New friends and adventures?” – well, that came true that night!

Happy New Year and Good Luck in this Year of the Dog!

Chingay 2018 – “Make Some Noise!”

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I love, love, love a parade – the color, the bands, the people watching – everything about them! Singapore’s annual Chingay Parade is the largest street performance and float parade in all of Asia and I was sooo excited to be going.

The parade started back in 1973, when the People’s Association (an organization charged with nation-building programs to promote social cohesion and multiracialism) teamed up with the Singapore National Pugilistic Federation (an organization to promote and advance martial arts) to hold a street parade depicting aspects of Chinese culture, i.e. dragon and lion dances, martial arts and street opera.

It was so well received, organizers made it an annual festival, held the first weekend of the Lunar New Year. Two years after its inception, the parade was made more inclusive of the country’s other ethnic groups — Malays, Indians and Eurasians. Chingay is now billed as epitomizing “the dynamism of Singapore’s vibrant and multicultural society.”

The event has a very proud, patriotic feel. The enthusiastic and very loud emcees encouraged crowd cheering and participation. “You are all part of this celebration! We are all Singapore! Here, we celebrate together as one!”