Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: Finding Inspiration at the National Gallery in London

When I’m standing in front of the bright yellow painting of Sunflowers at the National Gallery, among a herd of other tourists jockeying for position in front of me with their obnoxious selfie-sticks swinging over my head and their camera flashes shooting off without any consideration, I’m honestly not even concerned about the frenzy. Instead, I can’t help but ponder the thoughts of optimism that went into the thousands of brush strokes that lay behind the protective glass barrier of this painting. Exactly 100 years before I was born, one of the greatest artists of all time was in a happy and hopeful state of mind as he was creating a bright masterpiece, and little did he know it would come just before a chain of events that would take him to his darkest, albeit most creative place, and ultimately bring about his own tragic demise.

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I’d been waiting for months to visit the National Gallery in London but it seemed like every time I tried to put it in my itinerary things happened that just kept me away. However, I finally made it to the Gallery last week and got to admire some of the best work from two of my favorite artists: Vincent Van Gogh and Rembrandt. Van Gogh was really the focus of my visit, however, and in particular the painting Sunflowers.

Sunflowers was the major painting I not only wanted to check out but had to. I’ve always found Van Gogh to be one of the most talented and inspiring artists of all time. To me, he’s that cliche creative mastermind who while artistically brilliant, struggles with dealing with his own depressive thoughts and destructive emotions. Why it’s always the most talented creative minds who seem to have to deal with these things the most, I’m not sure. I guess it just comes with the genius territory some times.

But within this somewhat cliched story is the story that starts with Sunflowers and later reveals the demise of one of the greatest artists of all time. The story is not only fascinating but also relatable and a bit inspiring to me.

Back in 1888 (exactly 100 years before I was born), Van Gogh moved to Arles, France, where he wanted to set up a community of artists with one famous artist, Paul Gauguin, as his mentor. It was a time of optimism and excitement for Van Gogh as he looked forward to breaking away from his loneliness, sharing his beautiful artwork, engaging with other artists, and learning a great deal from his anticipated mentor. I think of Van Gogh’s vision of this community sort of like those utopian-like thoughts we have sometimes about our futures working out in some ideal way that holds true happiness for us and where everything just works out perfectly. Of course those ideas virtually never work out the way we envision, but I think pretty much everyone can relate to having thoughts like that at some point in their lives.

Van Goghs Yellow House 1888
Van Gogh’s Yellow House, 1888

The sunflowers had special significance for Van Gogh and overall he painted seven different versions of them. In Dutch culture, sunflowers symbolized devotion and loyalty. The various stages of decay of the sunflower also represented the cycles of life and death. In addition to these symbolic meanings, the color yellow also stood as an emblem for happiness and optimism to Van Gogh and thus he desired to produce sunflowers as a gift to his new mentor, Gauguin.

Paul Gauguin 1891
Paul Gauguin, 1891

After Van Gogh moved to Arles, France things didn’t quite work out as planned. The community he hoped to put together never came into fruition and he instead found himself isolated and lonely, eventually falling into a depression. In May 1888, Van Gogh had rented his famous “yellow house” and though he was struggling mentally, he seemed to have channeled any negativity into positive energy that allowed him to produce artwork at a freakish pace. In fact during the late summer of 1888, Van Gogh reached a peak. During which time he wrote to his brother, “I’m painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse [Provençal fish stew], which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large Sunflowers.”

He also painted some amazing works depicting the wheatfields at the time but during this furious surge of creativity, it was all about the sunflowers for Van Gogh. In August, in just the span of about a week, Van Gogh completed four different variations of Sunflowers. The different versions utilized different colors like blue-greens and different quantities of sunflowers in the composition.

The third version of Sunflowers found in Munich Germany
The third version of Sunflowers found in Munich, Germany

However, it was the final one that he painted, the one seen at the National Gallery, that is the most renown. It’s known for its bold yellow-on yellow-on yellow, which was highly criticized by many artists of the time for being, well… too yellow.

Van Goghs Sunflowers found at the National Gallery in London
Van Gogh’s Sunflowers found at the National Gallery in London

By the late summer of 1888, Van Gogh had maybe given up on the idea of hosting an entire artist community, but he still desperately wanted the company of Gauguin, and the sunflower paintings were largely motivated by the desire to get Gauguin to follow through with his highly anticipated visit. Finally, after producing these paintings at a ferocious rate his desired soon-to-be mentor, Gauguin finally arrived to this little house in the south of France, where the last two versions of Sunflowers were proudly displayed on his guest bedroom walls. While the genesis for the sunflower paintings was born from Gaugin, they eventually took a life of their own and became a symbol and signature of Van Gogh as he even at one time claimed “the sunflower is mine.”

Unfortunately, the relationship with Gaugin didn’t take off like Sunflowers  ultimately would. Accounts are a bit mixed as to how these two came together artistically and personally. It’s clear that they worked together for a couple of months and Ganguin even painted a portrait of Van Gogh painting Sunflowers. However, their personal relationships with each other (which some speculate may have involved more than mere mentoring) seemed to conflict.

Ganguins The Painter of Sunflowers
Ganguin’s The Painter of Sunflowers

Whether it was a product of Gaugin not finding Van Gogh’s overall artistic vision very inspiring (as the National Gallery states) or other personality clashes and disagreements, the two artists had a vehement fall-out. The conflict drove Van Gogh into an even more unstable mental state and ultimately caused him to leave Arles, only a couple of months after the arrival of Gaugin. This departure made Gaugin think even less of Van Gogh and caused an irreparable rift between the two.

The rift culminated on 23 December of 1888 when Van Gogh confronted Gaugin with a razor-blade (some state it was the other way around) but eventually backed off. Instead of hurting Gaugin, Van Gogh famously mutilated himself by cutting his own ear off (though some think otherwise). Even more astonishing, he may have attempted to give his ear to a prostitute that night. The prostitute allegedly declined to accept the ear and reported Van Gogh to the police who later found Van Gogh and luckily were able to keep him from bleeding to death and tend to his emotional breakdown. Unfortunately, the demise of Van Gogh had already begun and it would only be a matter of time until he simply couldn’t hold on any longer.

Two months later in February of 1889 the people of Arles, France had Van Gogh locked up in an insane asylum for being a public menace. For months he was locked up without any books or any way of painting during which time he suffered great hallucinations. One could only imagine what an artist, which many argue is possibly the greatest of all time, felt without being allowed such a creative outlet for so long. Not only that, but who could imagine the type of hallucinations that would materialize in the mind of such a creative genius? Luckily, in May of 1889 he would eventually enter another mental asylum (voluntarily) where he would be allowed access to paints and a canvas and he finally was able to deal better with the hallucinations and manic depressive behavior.

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Not only did Van Gogh deal with these episodes but he also painted his most famous works ever during this period, including Starry Night and one of his most famous self-portraits (seen below). In fact, if you didn’t know, Starry Night was actually the view from his window in his room while staying in the asylum. According to the National Gallery in London, Van Gogh actually only sold one painting during this time and in fact during his entire life time [Fact also disputed.] The lack of success may have played a role in the depressive bouts that Van Gogh suffered but the more likely root of his symptoms was that he suffered from bipolar disorder (which obviously was not clinically recognized during his era). The down periods became too much for Van Gogh to overcome and despite being at the peak of his creative mind, he was often at his lowest point mentally. After only about a year after painting Starry Night, at age 37, Van Gogh shot himself and committed suicide.

Van Goghs likely last self portrait
Van Gogh’s likely last self portrait.

I’ve always thought it fascinating and of course tragic that some of the most creative minds of all time struggle with such deep mental issues at times. Even the ones we would least expect, like Robin Williams and plenty of other successful individuals, fall victim to mental illness and aren’t able to escape the darkness that comes along with battling depression and all of the manic episodes. One can only imagine what Van Gogh would’ve created if he had lived to old age.

Starry Night
Starry Night

It’s a bit morbid thinking about the tragic end to Van Gogh’s life but it’s also very real. Just about every time I see a Van Gogh’s work, especially any of the Sunflowers, I think about the human life cycle and the different stages that we go through. The ups and the inevitable downs. The victories and the losses. And how this painting, while likely not representative of Van Gogh’s last moment of optimism, represents someone looking ahead and working to a bright future, despite the dark circumstances surrounding.

I also think about those I know affected by mental illness and how important it is to go out of my way to do whatever little or big actions possible to show them that there’s always hope in any situation. To me, Sunflowers does what art is supposed to do to you: move you. And even as I’m writing this today it’s reminding me that I’m not doing enough to move others and play my part to contribute just a little more to other members of society who may need a little bit of help. The person next to you may not be wielding a blade and cutting off their ear right in front of you, but you never know what they might be thinking, and what kinds of extraordinary things they may be capable of accomplishing so long as they don’t lose hope.

The Best Sea Cave Tour in the Algarve: Benagil Sea Cave

Benagil Sea Cave in the Algarve is a true natural wonder. It’s a sea cave with a natural occurring oculus that towers over its own secluded beach. At the right time of day the Sun casts light through this dome, illuminating a stunning scene that anyone visiting Portugal should try to see. You may not come across a lot of articles on the tours offered to this site so here’s a look at what you can expect if you end up visiting the Benagil Sea Cave in the Algarve.

(If you want to get more details on visiting the Algarve then check out Lonely Planet’s pocket book for the Algarve.) 

Finding the beach

The first step is just getting to the beach. After loading “Benagil Beach” into your GPS try to select the route that appears to follow along the main roads as much as possible. We ended up venturing through some really tight back roadways and actually had to reverse out a few times because there wasn’t enough room for two cars to get through. So just be prepared for some very narrow roads as you approach the beach.

Once you arrive in the beach area there’s not really much room to park. It seems that everyone just parks along the street on an incline and we did just that.

Parking near Benagil Sea Cave
Parking near Benagil Sea Cave.

There are a couple of restaurants at the beach (we didn’t try) and there’s a snack bar right on the beach. We had a couple of sweets from there and the sangria that comes on tap just to hold us over for our tour (what’s a grotto tour without a little sangria?). There are also public restrooms at the beach so if you’re in need of a light snack and a bathroom break, you’ll be covered when you arrive.

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Booking a tour

To book your tour you have two options.

First, you can simply walk up to the little stand right in the middle of the beach area (you won’t be able to miss it). We showed up about 15 minutes before 1pm, which was perfect. The next tour was heading out at 1pm and there were still a couple of open slots for us to jump on board. However, that was in the off-season.

If you are visiting in the summer then I recommend booking online. Thankfully, you can now book online! Click here to make a booking on!

The boat is a little small and only carries about 8 passengers at a time but you won’t be squished which is great. The tours usually last 30 minutes to one hour and cost about €17.50 per person. (This might be different in peak season when they may offer more tours and have more boats on hand so keep that in mind.)

As soon as you strap your life jacket on  and step into the boat you’re off! We went on a perfect day. The tide was pretty low, the sea was calm, and the sky was about as clear as could be. It was probably about 70°F/20°C and after living in the cold UK for the past few months, it was such a relief to be back in the sun and this warm nostalgia took me back to my days living in California.

Algarve Sea Cave Tour

The boat ride

We sped in and out of countless caves and alcoves all along the coast. Many of these caves were much larger than I thought they’d be. Watching the ocean’s green waters glimmer along the ceilings of these caves was stunning and not really easily captured with photographs. Other things not captured are the sounds and smells of the sea caves. As you enter into these dim chambers, the scent of salt water intensifies and the sounds of waves crashing into the rocks echo. The boat’s motor goes silent as do all of its passengers as they admire the scenery. It’s really an enchanting experience, especially the first few times you enter into the caves.

Algarve Sea Cave Tour

With the ocean as calm as it was on the day we visited it was hard to imagine how these placid waters had carved out these alcoves so deeply, but our guide assured us that during winter storms the waves often hit the ceilings in these caves! In one of the grottos a massive chunk of rock had obviously fell from the ceiling and was sitting right in the middle of the cave like its own little island. I certainly wouldn’t want to be around these caves in those kind of conditions.

We sat in each cave for only about 20 seconds before zipping out of the grotto at full speed and riding out into the sunny ocean in search of the next cave (often located right next door).  The most thrilling part of the tour was when our boat headed directly for a little opening at the base of the cliff that looked no bigger than a few feet high from the water’s surface. Not only did we go straight for it but our guide gunned it so we shot through this tight opening and into the darkness without a clue of what was in front of us. Luckily, a large cave opened up and we were all safe but not before experiencing a good thrill. Check out the video of that here.

Algarve Sea Cave Tour

Beautiful sea stacks and golden cliffs

Apart from going in and out of the caves, it’s a really cool experience to get up close to these massive sea stacks and to get such great views of the beautiful golden cliffs of the Algarve. Sea birds swoop down from the high cliffs and fisherman stand perched on the edge of these sheer cliffs overlooking the clear green waters as you make turn after turn of beautiful coastline. I didn’t see any fish but the water was very clear and you could often see the bottom a few feet down if you looked.

Algarve Sea Cave Tour
Algarve Sea Cave Tour
Algarve Sea Cave Tour

Once you enter through these dark portals the dim interior of the cave feels almost like a cathedral and they’re beautiful as well. The walls and ceilings are washed with different tones of green, gold, grey, and purple and some of them even have holes poking through their ceilings where the sun shoots through like laser beams. A lot of them had their own little sandy beaches inside that resembled little hidden coves that made me just want to get out, lie down on the beach, and forget that we were going to be heading back to the cloudy UK in 24 hours.

Algarve Sea Cave Tour

Color changing water

Another amazing sight inside was watching the water change color. As you approach the mouth of the caves from the inside the sun hits the water just right and illuminates it in a deep emerald green like a light glowing under a bubbling a hot-tub. It only lasts for a few seconds and once you pull out of the cave it’s back to its bright bluish-green color. This was one of the coolest effects to me and I kept trying to photograph that look as much as possible.

Algarve Sea Cave Tour

The famous Benagil Sea Cave

After exploring numerous sea caves on the western side of the beach we then made our way back over to towards Benagil Beach to check out the most famous of all the sea caves of the Algarve. I’m not sure if the cave has its own name and I’ve only seen it referred to as “Benagil Sea Cave” so if you’re looking for it that’s probably the best name to use to search for it.

Benagil sea cave

The most intriguing shot of this cave is actually taken from inside the sea cave on the sand. However, we we didn’t dock or anything inside the cave and I had to settle for the outside perspective, which was still quite stunning. I’d tried to contact a few people known for dropping off photographers in this cave for about an hour at a time and letting them photograph away but I didn’t have any luck. If I wasn’t lugging around my expensive DSLR and would’ve been content with just getting GoPro footage I definitely would’ve considered just swimming to this cave because it’s just next door to the beach. If you’re a strong swimmer and conditions are calm, you can definitely think about making the swim (though it’d probably be best to have some kind of floating device with you just in case).

Anyway, we stopped here for about a minute and the guide let us shoot away. I was on the outside of the boat and towards the back when we arrived at the cave, which gave me a pretty obstructed view of the cave. This made me worried because this was the cave I was most excited about photographing and it seemed like I wasn’t going to be able to get any decent shots. So I just starting shooting like crazy and hoping that one of my shots would come out. Thankfully, a few of them did!

Algarve Sea Cave Tour

Photographing the sea caves

Photographing the sea caves on these tours is not easy. If you’re like me and shoot manual with a DSLR you’re going to have to be on your “A” game. The first concern is the lighting that changes abruptly and dramatically, forcing you to change your settings within seconds before your boat departs. In addition to the lighting challenges, you have the boat rocking away to the rhythm of the waves. This makes any kind of slow shutter attempt basically impossible to handle without significant motion blur to your images. My strategy was to take every photo with multiple exposures and to just keep firing away! It worked some of the time and failed most of the time, but I took so many photos that at least a few of them came out okay.

Oh yeah — be sure to protect your camera. Our guide liked to spice things up by making some sharp turns and sending sea spray showering over us. Luckily, I’d remembered to bring my hat and was able to shield my camera from the salt water by placing it like a baby in my lap.

A sea cave tour in the Algarve is a must-see attraction! While I’d probably prefer a kayak tour over something like this, it was still a fantastic way to spend an hour exploring the Algarve coast!

If you’re still looking for a great place to stay in the Algarve, check out my review of the Grande Real Santa Eulalia Resort!

Skydiving over the Great Barrier Reef at Mission Beach, Australia

I remember the first day I arrived at my hostel in Bondi Beach, Australia. I was eager to set out and explore the amazing country known for its exotic wildlife and landscapes but had no idea what kind of adventures I’d ultimately experience. With my bags still not even unpacked and not knowing where to begin, I asked the girl working the front desk about things to do and she handed me what seemed like 20 brochures of all kinds of crazy adrenaline-packed things to do and places to see.

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I hadn’t met any of the other people in my program that I’d eventually become good friends with so I was still in that weird phase of “semi-shock” that can hit you when it first dawns on you that you’re in a foreign country, thousands of miles away from anyone who could recognize your face. At that point, an adventure to me was just getting to know new people and getting situated with my surroundings.

Anyway, I opened up one of the brochures, a little red one,  turned a few pages and saw this photo of someone jumping from an airplane. Their face was lit up almost as bright as the sparkling turquoise ocean they were free falling over. I couldn’t help but admire this person. “Good for them,” I thought. I’ve always been inspired by seeing people live their lives to the fullest, regardless of how reckless their acts may sometime appear to be.

As I looked at more photos of others gliding through the clouds on their way down to a safe landing on the beach, I wondered what it would be like to experience such a rush — not to mention to do it while free falling over such spectacular scenery like the Great Barrier Reef. I imagined how accomplished they probably felt and how proud. But at the same time I almost felt a kind of guilt. Like I knew that deep down inside I wanted to do stuff like that but I was reasoning myself out of attempting such a crazy, radical adventure because of fear. I closed the brochure, stuffed it into one of my bags and never really thought about it again. At least not for a while.

Fast forward two months.

My knees are a little weak as I’m entering into a small, crowded plane getting ready to be taken 14,000 feet up into the air to be dropped over the same stretch of ocean I’d seen once upon a time in that little red pamphlet.

During those two months I’d gotten close to a handful of great people I’d met through the program. While most of us lacked any kind of extensive adventurist past, we’d developed a pattern of, for better or for worse, talking each other into risky activities like shark diving, surfing in a strong swell at Bondi Beach, and somehow all talked each other into skydiving a couple of weeks before. Since the day we’d booked the skydiving trip, I hadn’t really thought about it much. In fact, the only time I really thought much about it was as we took off from Sydney to Cairns and the fact crossed my mind that the next time I was going to be in  a plane, I would be jumping out of it….

But now, once again, as I was being taken up in this shaky little plane, the free fall that was ahead of me was all that was on my mind.

Skydivers in plane waiting to jump

The original plan for this skydiving day was for all five of us to be in solidarity with each other and board the plane together. It’s such a weird thing how the mind works but knowing other people personally and seeing them getting ready to go through the same logic-defying leap seemed like it would help ease my nerves versus preparing to jump with a bunch of strangers. Unfortunately, the people behind the logistic ends of things got my name swapped with another Daniel and I was plucked out of the group.

Of course I was.

Thus, not only would I have to go by myself but I’d be going before everyone else and  to top it all off they put me at the top of the line up so I’d be the guinea pig jumping first!

Men getting off bus

As the plane gained more elevation, the instructors kept telling us “4,000!”…… “5,000!”……”6,000!” With each thousand feet gained I looked out of the see-thorough door that was the only thing  between me and the blue ocean below and just admired the little rocky islands rising out of the sea. Everything from the wide open blue atmosphere to the ocean looked so calm and peaceful, yet I knew what awaited.

Arial view ocean Australia

At 6,000 feet I couldn’t believe that  we weren’t even half way there yet! Still, even though the flight felt like it was going on forever, I honestly wasn’t even really nervous anymore.

Skydivers in plane waiting to jump

The whole scenario felt too unreal to be a situation where I could feel real emotions. As my instructor buckled me into his harness and tightened up the constraints, it dawned on me that these little clasps were what my life depended on for the next five minutes. Thoughts of them snapping under the pressure or coming undone shot through my mind. But it was way too late to back out. At this point, if anything were to go wrong that’s just what was meant to be and I knew I just had to put the fear aside and just go with everything if I were ever going to exit this plane as I’d hoped.

It seemed like it took us 3 hours to get to 10,000 feet but only 3 seconds to get from 10,000 to 14,000 feet. Once the green light came on  in the plane, all of the camera guys and instructors started to shuffle around as a sense of urgency seemed to fill the plane. And that’s when my nerves came back… in a flurry.

Now it was go time! I turned my body from facing the back of the plane to facing out this plastic see-through door. It was the first time I could really see the other skydivers packed like sardines towards the front of the plane. As soon as I scanned their faces and could sense their weariness, the  butterflies shot through my stomach and I could feel the intense pounding of my chest within the tight constraints of the harness.

After I finally turned in position they opened up the gate. Suddenly, I couldn’t hear anything but wind, its freezing cold currents blasting me in the face as I looked out to the sky. I scooted to the edge of the doorway at which time he told me to extend my legs outside the plane and bend them underneath the plane.

This was it.

With my legs dangling 14,000 feet up in the air, exposed in the blistering cold winds, the instructor tilted my head back and began the countdown.

Skydivers jumping out of plane




The next thing I knew we were cartwheeling out of this plane. Ocean, sky, and ocean came and left out of my field of vision as we flipped and tumbled in the sky.

Skydivers jumping out of plane

Wind battered my face as if I were sticking my head out of a car window going 90 mph on the freeway. We were flying.

Tandem skydiving over ocean

As the camera man whirled around us I didn’t even want to look anywhere else but down. This was the most amazing view I’d ever seen. I was looking down at one of the natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef,  while free falling from 14,000 feet out of the sky…. This was a view — an experience — that for thousands of years was not humanly possible, never mind the fact that I’d never thought in a million years I’d be jumping out of a plane. This was the stuff I saw in pamphlets that haunted my conscience with temptation to let go of my fears — not stuff that I experienced.  Yet, here I was.

Tandem skydiving Australia

The parachute cord was pulled and after a sharp jolt it felt like I was being sucked back up into the air.

Tandem skydiving deployed parachute over ocean

But soon, the tumultuous winds were gone and it was just a quiet soar from this point. I looked out at the turquoise waters  stretching out over the horizon under clear blue skies and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was actually floating in the sky above some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet.

Skydivers arial view of Mission Beach

After gliding over the ocean for a couple of minutes we descended toward the shore and the little dots of people and palm trees became larger and larger. Soon, we swooped down onto the sand for a perfect slide landing on our feet.

Skydiver landing on Mission Beach Australia
Skydiver landing on Mission Beach Australia

I’d just touched down back to earth. I’d fallen out of the sky, over the ocean, and now I was standing on a beach. I couldn’t wrap my head around those thoughts — it was simply unbelievable.

Skydivers standing on Mission Beach Australia

After I landed, my friends were all up in the air going through the same roller coaster of emotions, awaiting their momentous leaps while I was by myself on the beach, walking up and down the shore just trying to pass the time waiting for them to land.

Mission Beach Australia

Excitement was still running through me — my adrenaline was still kicking, my heart was still racing a bit but something felt oddly ordinary about the entire experience. It was almost like I realized that this was all “supposed to happen.” Sure, it was all extraordinary  but it was as if I’d just had an epiphany that these amazing experiences — which require taking risks, putting fear to the side, and just gunning for something — weren’t so far out of my reach as I’d thought. And even more than that, they were made for me.

Suddenly, almost everything seemed obtainable and I couldn’t help but wander what else might be out there for me to experience.

I thought to myself, “I guess it’s time to check out another pamphlet.”

Visiting the Magical City of Toledo, Spain

From Mirador del Valle, you watch as the sunset casts its orange glow on the Alcázar towering above a maze of cobblestone roads that wind through a hillside covered in tiers of colorful Spanish buildings. The still waters of the Tagus River wrap around this picturesque hill and slowly flow under the medieval bridges that welcome the modern day visitor. As the sky darkens, yellow lights twinkle among the hundreds of buildings creating a brilliant, yet silent setting where you can’t help but to reflect on the beauty and history of this surreal landscape.

Toledo Spain at night
Alley in Toledo Spain

Centuries of human history are felt from the moment you step through the decorative arches of the Puente de San Martín, a stone-brick bridge dating back to the late 14th century. As you make your way uphill towards the city center, cars zip around narrow alleys where sidewalks unexpectedly dwindle into thin curbs until completely disappearing into the cobblestoned roads. Churches and cathedral spires emerge into view as you zig-zag further towards the clamoring of other tourists strolling through the many shops with walls covered in intricately designed ceramic plates and windows lined with endless rows of shiny swords made from some of the finest sword-makers in the world.

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The rich history of the city goes back to the 5th century BC, when Jewish inhabitants first settled there and named the city, Ṭulayṭulah. It later served as an important colony for the Romans, Visigoths, and Moors as each civilization rose and fell with power. Eventually, it was the Christians who took lasting control over the city in the 11th century, led by Alfonso VI. For centuries to follow, Toledo remained a major cultural hub and even served as the capital of Spain until it peaked in both its population growth and political importance and the capital eventually relocated to Spain. Toledo’s political decline is likely what saved the city, however — for it allowed for the preservation of the city as it was largely forgotten about by the outside world.

Vegetation Toledo Spain

The cultural history is reflected throughout the city’s architecture. Medieval works are found in the roads, walls, and castles, such as the Castillo de San Servando. Morrish roots are revealed in several mosques and the Toledo Cathedral, dating back to the 13th century, displays the city’s Roman Catholic history and is one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in all of Spain.  Museums are found throughout the city, with the Museo de Santa Cruz and El Greco Museum showcasing some of the finest works of the famous artist, El Greco, a brilliant mind years ahead of his Spanish Renaissance counterparts who is regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism. El Greco discarded the traditional artistic norms of form and replaced them with dramatic and colorful scenes that largely went unappreciated for centuries until the late 18th century.

Toledo Spain

Between the churches, museums, restaurants, and shops offered in Toledo you might expect to feel overwhelmed with options that couldn’t possibly be fit into a day-trip’s itinerary.  But you don’t have to see every museum and cathedral here to get the most of this place.  Just popping in and out of shops, walking through the tight pebbly alleyways, and marveling at the gold and brown bricked buildings — their potted plants hanging from elegantly designed Juliet balconies below their ceramic tiled roofs — will keep you captivated for hours.

Balcony in Toledo Spain
Toledo Spain
Toledo Spain
Toledo Spain

As soon as your feet begin to tire from trekking up and down these hilly paths, it’s time to slip into one of the many cafes or restaurants found amid the labyrinth of roads.  Toledo’s long been heralded for the variety of game meat and it’s easy to find the likes of quail, deer, or lamb in a number of different forms from fried, roasted, to baked.  And of course pork and plenty of seafood paella dish options abound at just about every corner. Just try to save some room for dessert.

Mazapan de Toledo

Bakeries are found throughout the city with boxes and rows of different sweets and treats presented in bright displays behind their windows, but without a doubt the most coveted of the sweets here — that every visitor to Toledo must try — is the marzipan. It’s a rich treat, made mostly of sugar, honey, and almond meal. It’s not uncommon to see marzipan in a number of different designs taking the shape of pigs or combined with fruit flavors and coming in the shape of small watermelons or bananas. It tastes extremely rich and filling, even in small doses, so taking it to go right after a big lunch may be your best bet.

Buildings in Toledo Spain

After a few meals and exploring the many shops and cathedrals, at some point you’ll surely make your way to the highest point in the city where the Alcázar rises above the city. The Romans used it as a palace back in the third century, though it underwent several changes through the centuries including a restoration in the 16th century.  In the 1930s, this is where the Siege of the Alcázar took place, which was an important victory for the Nationalist forces in the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. The Nationalists saw the Alcázar as a structure that symbolized the strength of Spain and thus their victory helped propel morale and further confidence in their forces as they ultimately went on to defeat the Spanish Republicans in the war.

Toledo Spain

Today, Toledo is the capital of the autonomous region of Castilla-La Mancha. Since being designated a world heritage site and being home to several national monuments, Toledo has become relevant once again and thrives on the many tourists it welcomes each year. You likely you won’t be able to escape the tourist herds when you visit Toledo but this city is one of those unique places where the rich history that’s felt as you wander about the magnificent buildings displaces any annoyances that typically come with tourist territory. It’s a special place, no doubt, and one that will leave a lasting impression on you after even only one long afternoon visit.

Click here to book a day trip to Toledo from Madrid.

Cowboys, Poppies, and the NFL at Wembley Stadium

American football is by far my favorite sport to watch, especially live. I’ve been to over 30 college football games over the past few years but never once had I made it to an NFL game. I’m still not quite sure how that happened but this past weekend I finally got the chance to see my first NFL game and got see the Dallas Cowboys on Remembrance Sunday. Here’s a look at my experience and what you can expect if you make to Wembley for an NFL game.

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The game day experience begins

The game day experience started as soon as we boarded the train toward the stadium as we were confronted by a Redskins fan. As we continued to hit different stops towards the stadium, I spotted more and more NFL fans boarding the train and the game day “feel” started to hit me a little bit. There was a little bit of banter exchanged between everyone on the way there but it was all in good fun and before we knew it we had arrived at Wembley. The stadium, by the way, is located right next to the Wembley Stadium Tube and Railway station so it is extremely convenient and easy to access the stadium.

Wembley Stadium London
Wembley Stadium

Finally, we arrived at the stadium. I’d seen it numerous times as I travelled past it on the train but this was my first time to get a good look at the entire structure. I had done some research on the stadium beforehand, and I was surprised to find out that Wembley Stadium (rebuilt in 2007) was one of the most expensive stadiums ever built in the world at $1.5 billion USD. That’s more expensive than Cowboys Stadium ($1.3 billion) and just as expensive as the new Yankee Stadium. It’s also a large stadium with a capacity of 90,000. For comparison, the biggest NFL stadiums in the US usually barely hit 80,000 (which I find unusual considering that several college stadiums pack as much if not more fans).

It’s easy to tell that the stadium is new as you approach it. Everything from the concrete steps outside the stadium to the exterior glass walls have a fresh look to them. One of the architectural marvels of the stadium is the gigantic arch that rises 440 feet high and is the largest free-standing arch in the world. It’s an impressive structure that gives the second largest stadium in Europe a unique look and feel as it sometimes changes color throughout the night.

Wembley Stadium
The world’s largest free-standing arch

The facilities in the stadium are quite nice as well. Bathrooms are pretty big and very clean and there are several food options, such as chicken tenders, beef pies, and even fish and chips. Of course, the food was a little on the expensive side but for £5-6 for a chicken basket the prices were not nearly as bad as I’ve seen in certain stadiums.

Camera Worries

One of the big things I didn’t know was whether my camera would be allowed in the stadium. I brought my Canon 6D with 24-105mm L series lens. It’s a pretty bulky camera so I was little worried. I had heard that as long as my camera lens was shorter than 20cm they would allow me to bring it in but when I emailed Wembley they basically told me that it would be up to the discretion of the workers at the front. Anytime “discretion” is involved with something like that I get nervous, but I was pretty confident that I’d be able to talk my way into bringing it in.

When we went through security I was asked if my camera was a “wide-angle lens.” I wasn’t sure if I should answer yes or no to that partly because I don’t really consider my lens to be wide-angle and partially because I wasn’t sure what would be held against me. After equivocating a bit, they let me through but told me that someone might stop me for my camera later on. I wasn’t sure who would stop me but nobody ever said anything to me and I was able to go about the stadium using my camera freely.

Arriving at the Stadium

We didn’t show up super early for some of the NFL festivities but we did get there about 2 1/2 hours before kickoff (the stadium opens its gates 3 hours before game time). Once we showed up we headed right to the Holiday Inn to pick up the tickets we had ordered via Stubhub. It was quick and easy to get our tickets and Stubhub gave us complimentary lanyards, sunglasses and a few other things.

About two hours before kickoff there was a steady stream of fans both inside and outside the stadium. That’s when I first realized just how diverse the fan base was going to be at the game. I saw fans sporting jerseys and beanies from just about every NFL team. And some of these fans weren’t just dressed casually. You would have thought the Packers were playing with the number of Green Bay fans dressed in full cheesehead attire. It almost had an NFL convention feel to it. Very different from any football I’d been to before but very cool.

Wembley Stadium London

Opening Ceremonies

Because the game was being played on Remembrance Sunday the NFL put on special poppie-themed display of remembrances. The ceremonies started with a giant poppie being unveiled at mid-field along with a moment of silence for all those who have fallen. Next, they brought out a giant American flag and British flag for the playing of the national anthems. Everyone had a plastic sheet to hold up at that time and it was meant to transform the stands into a huge display of red poppies all round the stadium. I’m not sure that the poppie display looked as good as they had hoped, but it was a nice touch to the Remembrance Day theme.

Wembley Stadium field London

It was cool to hear the Star Spangled Banner being played in a stadium overseas; that was something I’d never experienced before. When they played God Save the Queen the crowd really got into it and it even gave me goosebumps. After that, a brilliant display of fireworks lit up the stands in different reds and purples and it was finally time to start the game.

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Fireworks at Wembley Stadium field London
Wembley Stadium London
Wembley Stadium London NFL

The game day experience 

The game day experience at Wembley was great. It did seem that the majority of fans there were anti-Dallas Cowboys, though. The Jacksonville Jaguars had a decent showing but it seemed like there were more Cowboy haters there than Jaguar fans. Speaking of fans, I was glad to see that the entire stadium was packed; there didn’t appear to be many empty seats at all. The crowd was lively but not quite as rowdy or loud as I was used to seeing in college. Then again, I regularly attended one of the loudest stadiums around, Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, so that’s setting the bar pretty high to begin with.

Still, the crowd was into the game about as much as you’d expect from a diverse mix of passionate NFL fans. They even brought “the wave” to Wembley which was something I hadn’t seen in a long while. Also, one thing I’ve never seen at a stadium that they did was pull a giant poppy sheet over the crowd on the lower levels and have it pass over the crowd like a giant stingray hovering over the sea floor.

Wembley Stadium London NFL

The game ended in a blow-out win by Dallas. One of the interesting things about the games in London is that they do have a designated “home” team. In this case, Jacksonville was the home team. That amounted to seeing the Jaguar’s logos at midfield and the sidelines, seeing their cheer leaders and drum line, and having their own PA guy. It was still a far cry from any kind of real home field advantage for Jacksonville but it was still interesting how they set try to preserve the home field feel in England.

Wembley Stadium London NFL

My only complaint with Wembley was their false promise that “80,000 poppies would be released from the top of the stadium at the end of the game.” This definitely didn’t happen and was the only reason why we stuck around till the every end of the game. I was disappointed that they didn’t at least tell us that they wouldn’t be doing it because we could have gotten a jump start on the train and gotten home about 2 hours earlier.

Leaving the Stadium

Leaving the stadium is one thing that get’s a little tough. The herd moving towards the Tube entrances was massive and I could only imagine how congested it got on the tube. The Rails going back to London were pretty packed as well. We actually got lucky and had the shortest line heading north from Wembley but even in that queue it still took us about 1 hour for a train to arrive and for us to board.

Outside Wembley Stadium London NFL

Overall, it was one of my best experiences I’ve had since I’ve been in London. It was great to get a taste of America while here and it will be very interesting to see whether or not the NFL ends up setting up a team for London to call their own.

My Time in the Manly Shark Tank

The thought of being submerged in a confining water tank with sharks seemed like the ultimate adrenaline rush. So when I found at that I could enter a shark tank at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary near Sydney, Australia and do such a thing I knew I had to do it. Despite having what I’d call a “reasonable fear” of sharks, I felt like this would be something that I would remember for forever. So a few friends and I booked our day with the sharks and this is how it went.

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Day of the shark dive… annnnd I’m sick

The morning of the shark dive I woke up in sweats and with severe coughing and sneezing. This was the last thing I needed because the instructors actually stated that they would kick you out of the tank if you’re coughing and sneezing. (Those two things don’t mix well with SCUBA breathing devices). So to keep me from coughing during this half-hour “dive” I drugged myself with cough syrup (non-prescription I think) right before I entered the tank. And just in case you’re wondering, there’s no rain-check for the shark dive. I paid in advance and the only option other than me losing my money was to find someone else who would pay to dive in a tank with the sharks and that’s not generally something that happens everyday.

Man taking Cough Syrup

They instructed us to show up at the aquarium about an hour beforehand for training and instructional videos. The videos provided us with basic safety advice and also showed us how the instructors would be communicating to us via hand signs. These hand signs were usually just gestures asking you things like if you are okay but some literally meant “hey, there’s a shark behind you.” They are all pretty simple and self-explanatory so we didn’t have to learn anything extensive. Once the video was all done we were ready to head to the changing rooms and put on all of the gear.

Outside Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

That water temperature, though…

Because we did this during the Australian winter the water was freezing (at least 60ºF/15ºC) and they gave us additional wet suit gear like hoodies, gloves, and thick booties to keep us warm. In order to allow our bodies to warm up faster and reduce the shock of the cold water the wet suits they gave us were already wet (and cold). Each layer of SCUBA equipment just seemed to add to the coldness and I couldn’t wait to just get into the cold water to warm myself up. After strapping on extra layers of vests, weights, and the tank, we were finally ready to enter the “training pool.”

Scuba divers in water tank at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary
Going through safety procedures before entering the tank.

The training pool is basically a small swimming pool that happens to be connected to a tank with sharks in it. As we entered the water it was cold but not nearly as bad as it would have been without the wetsuits. The instructors had us go through a series of tests to ensure that we knew what we were doing and knew how to work the breathing apparatus. If you’ve ever done an introductory SCUBA course, you know what drills I’m talking about (blowing water out of your goggles, locating your respirator, etc.). Finally, once you’ve proven yourself to the instructors they go over all the hand signs one last time, take a lovely group photo of everyone, and then you are ready to enter the tank!

Scuba divers in water tank at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

There’s an opening on the side of the pool where you swim through and then set yourself up on an underwater platform. Once everyone is out you then drop off the platform and you’re officially in the tank and ready to see some sharks, except there’s even more build-up. The area of the tank with the sharks is actually on the opposite side of this big tank so you have to hop like an astronaut over to that area. It’s a little difficult to walk with all the equipment but manageable. At one point,  we actually had to hurdle over the viewing tunnel beneath us to get to the other side. The staff assisted us through the whole process and it was actually pretty fun and will make you feel as if you’re undergoing NASA training.

Scuba divers in water tank at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

Those couple of minutes heading to where the sharks reside are like the calm before the storm. All you can hear are the respirators and there’s tons of little fish darting around and even a few sea turtles passing by. One thing you won’t miss is the giant stingray lying on the floor. This thing looked as big as a Volkswagon and had multiple barbs sticking out with the largest looking to be at least a foot long. Still, it’s a rather peaceful experience as you make your way through the tank, waving at your friends along the way through the viewing tunnel.

Scuba divers in water tank at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

Once you’ve hopped around the aquarium for a few minutes, you’re finally in the sharks’ lair. The instructors then line you up along the side of the viewing  tunnel. You’re basically standing on a small ledge with your hands on the glass in front of you. With all of the weighted equipment you must be careful and not lose your balance. The staff told us some pretty hilarious stories of people falling onto their backs only to be helplessly stuck. I wasn’t about to let that happen to me so I made sure to keep solid footing.

Scuba divers in water tank at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

The first sights of the sharks

I had the privilege of being the one on the outside of the line, furthest into the shark area. For some reason the instructor assumed I was the mastermind behind our visit to the shark tank and decided that I’d enjoy the position closest to the sharks. After only about five seconds of standing up on the ledge I saw the first shadowy figure begin to drift towards us. It was one of the biggest, (perhaps the alpha?), Grey Nurse Shark in the tank and I could almost hear the Jaws theme song playing in my head. I’m not gong to lie to you, as soon as I saw it drawing near, s*** got real and I got a little anxious. My adrenaline was rushing and the whole thing just felt surreal. I couldn’t believe that an actual shark was slowly approaching me and there wasn’t a cage, wire, or anything between us — just water.

Scuba diver with nurse shark at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

For some reason I felt the need to hold my breath as the shark coasted nearer and nearer. As many of you know, holding your breath during a SCUBA dive is a big no-no. I’m pretty sure it was just my natural reaction to the thought of the shark going rogue and biting my face off. After the shark was right in front of me I finally got the courage to look the shark in the eye. When I made eye contact with the shark, almost instantaneously the shark’s jaw popped open a few inches. “Nope,” I thought and looked away. But as I looked away the situation became more dynamic. As soon as that shark started to pass by me, I spotted another shark coasting in. And then another. And then another. Within minutes, sharks were roaming above, below, and everywhere in between me.

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Scuba diver with nurse sharks at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

Some of the sharks were much smaller, with pointier snouts and a bit less menacing, but all of them had the infamous Nurse Shark jagged teeth that just scream “I can eat you if I wanted” (they really can’t but still). After seeing the third or fourth shark, it was clear that the swarm was officially on and these curious beasts were out to investigate us foreigners.

I kept reminding myself that these weren’t “man-eaters” to keep myself calm but there were a couple of problems with that: 1. it’s easier said than done when you’re surrounded by circling sharks of any type and 2. the googles cut off your peripheral vision so that the sharks constantly sneak up on you from the side. This is especially true if you are the one furtherest into the shark territory as I was. In the photos below you can see me looking right at the camera one second and then startled by a shark suddenly appearing in my line of vision. (This is one reason you definitely want to pay attention to the signals coming from the instructors.)

Scuba diver with nurse shark at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary
Scuba diver with nurse shark at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

Brushing shoulders with a shark

One of the weirdest things about the entire experience was the few times that I think the shark fins scathed my head/shoulder. I’m still not 100% sure if it was a shark, fish, instructor playing some kind of sick joke, or perhaps me just being a bit paranoid but once or twice I felt a gentle brush on my shoulder/head area. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was a shark each time because of how close they got to me each time they cruised on by.

Scuba diver with nurse shark at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

Needless to say, the first few minutes took quite the adjustment in order to settle my nerves and get comfortable. But after a few minutes, I began to relax and finally began to breathe a little easier. I realized that these sharks weren’t beasts out to collect their dinner, they were just curious creatures like just about every other aware and living thing on earth. And not only that, but the sharks were beautiful. Sure their teeth are pretty atrocious and their eyes are nothing short of terrifying but their fins and bodies are a brilliant silver color underwater it’s quite the sight to see.

Scuba divers with nurse shark at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

Also, you don’t realize how graceful sharks are until you’re underwater right next to them. They just coast on by effortlessly with their giant bodies. By about the 15-minute marker, the sharks and I might as well have been best buds going for a dip. I didn’t seem to be bothering them at all and they weren’t bothering me at all. Now sure you could argue that these sharks have been conditioned to be peaceful when presented with humans and that’s perhaps a valid point but there’s still something to be said about having such a harmonizing experience with sharks, albeit in captivity.

Anyway, once we got acclimated to the sharks, my friends and I were waving happily at the spectators (and our friends) in the underwater viewing tunnel. The staff (which are awesome by the way) were also doing a great job of panning around with their underwater camera getting some awesome shots and video of us with the sharks. At that point, it was getting better by the second but before I broke out into my victory dance I started to shiver due to the cold.

Scuba divers with nurse shark at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

And the cold returns…

Remember, I was battling a severe cold that day and about 20 minutes into the dive the temperature was starting to get to me. The shivering started with just my hands and then worked its up to all of my arms and legs. It was even a little difficult to breathe (though the gallon of cough syrup I had may have had something to do with that). I knew that getting into the cold water of the shark tank when I was so sick wasn’t exactly smart, but I wasn’t about to cut my time short with the sharks.

Finally the time was up. As we were ushered back to the other side of the aquarium and back into the changing area I was on what some would call a “natural high.” While high on life, I was pretty low on temperature. Luckily, they offer you a nice hot shower upon exiting. And let me tell you that hot water feels like heaven. That was probably the most enjoyable shower I’ve ever taken and trust me if you do this during the winter time you will love every second. After the shower we gave back our wetsuit gear, collected our CDs with video and tons of photos from our dive, received our shark dive certificates, and then were off on our way back to Sydney.

On the way back, I had some sort of hypothermic reaction and my temperature shot up extremely high. Incessant shaking was followed by a bad dose of the sweats and a temperature rising well over 100ºF. I didn’t get any sleep that night and certainly felt like crap the next day. However, there isn’t any part of me that feels that this experience wasn’t worth every penny and bit of healthiness it took from me. Being able to come into contact with the sharks and coming away with a new sense of appreciation for these animals was priceless. Sure, I’d prefer to have been out in the ocean with these creatures in their natural habitat, but at that time, it felt good enough just to say that I survived the “shark tank.”

The British Museum: Experiencing the “Museum Effect”

The British Museum is often considered one of the top things to do in London. That should come to no surprise as the museum is free to enter and holds a vast collection of at least 8 million objects. One of the most fascinating facts about the museum is that only 1% of those objects can be on display at once, mostly due to light sensitivity. Even with only a small fraction of the objects on display, however, there is plenty to keep you occupied for hours.

Entrance of the British Museum
Outside the entrance of the British Museum

This article is by no means a comprehensive look at the exhibits of the British Museum but rather a highlight of some of the key exhibits and attractions that we looked at, such as the Greek Parthenon Exhibit and a few other key sites like the Rosetta Stone and the Easter Island Statue.

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Cameras and Backpacks welcomed!

I always have my DSLR camera on me and really enjoy bringing it to museums so I was happy to find out that the British Museum allows cameras (just no tripods without a permit). Another good thing about the museum is that they allow backpacks in as well. In fact, I was a little astonished as to the ease of access into the museum. No ticket line. No security line. You just walk through the entryway and then you’re looking up at the beautiful, bright interior of the British Museum and on your way to explore.

British Museum Lobby
The entrance to the British Museum

The Rosetta Stone

The first thing to see for us was the Rosetta Stone. I’ve been wanting to see that for a long time and was really excited to finally be able to see it in person. Predictably, on a Friday afternoon, the museum was pretty packed and the Rosetta Stone exhibit was no exception. It was difficult to get any decent photographs due to some tourists who allowed their LED screens from their audio guides to reflect off the glass right in the middle of the stone. I was tempted to ask some to simply flip it around but there appeared to be language barriers and I figured I’d just wait it out. After a couple of minutes I was able to get close enough to try and get some shots. Luckily, the stone is huge so it’s not hard to get a view of it, just be ready for crowds.

Rosetta Stone British Museum
The Rosetta Stone

What is the Rosetta Stone?

For those who don’t know the Rosetta Stone is a stone with engravings in two scripts of Greek and one script of Egyptian (that is, two languages, three scripts). It was carved around 196 BCE and went undiscovered until 1799 when it was discovered by French soldiers. After a couple of decades of intense study, scholars were able to decipher the meaning of the hieroglyphics contained on the stone and thus the Rosetta Stone paved the way for our modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Considering how vital this giant stone was to our understanding of the Egyptian culture, I had to see it in person.

Rosetta Stone British Museum

After viewing the Rosetta Stone, we wandered throughout the Egyptian collection on the first floor. There were plenty of other beautiful sculptures and relics to see. Some of the pieces that stood out to me were the remains of different tombs and temples. And of course, there were several pharaoh sculptures to admire as well.

Colossal bust of Ramesses II the Younger Memnon
Colossal bust of Ramesses II, the ‘Younger Memnon’ about 1250 BC
Red granite sarcophagus British Museum
Red granite sarcophagus

The rest of the Egyptian collection is on the third floor. The emphasis on that gallery is on life and death and it’s where you will find all of the coffins, mummies, and masks associated with Egyptian burials as well as a lot of the ancient scrolls and other items like jewelry. That’s also where you will find a lot of the crowds. The Egyptian exhibits upstairs were by far the most crowded of all that we visited so perhaps you’d like to put that first on your agenda.

Easter Island Statue

The next big thing we wanted to see was the Easter Island statue. Easter Island, known as “Rapa Nui” to local inhabitants, is an island far off the west coast of South America. It’s famous for its stones like this one that are known as “moai.” The British Museum claims that these figures were probably carved from 1000 AD until the second half of the seventeenth century.

Easter Island Statue British Museum
Easter Island Statue

The statue pictured here is known as “Hoa Hakananai’a,” which means “stolen or hidden friend” and dates back to around 1000 AD. The statue is made up of basalt, a hard volcanic rock that is very difficult to carve into. Though eyeballs are missing now they were once present and likely made of stone. It’s a very imposing statue and I enjoyed seeing it as it’s very possible that I may not ever be fortunate enough to make my way to Easter Island. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much a stand-alone piece so there’s no Easter Island exhibit to and you’ll be on to other galleries pretty quickly.

The Greek Parthenon Sculptures

After the Egyptian and a few other galleries, we made our way over to the Greek exhibits, which as a whole, were my favorite. Specifically, I think that the Parthenon marbles had the biggest “museum effect” on me.

Greek Sculptures British Museum

If you didn’t’ know, the Parthenon is considered one of the world’s most marvelous monuments and considered to be one of, if not the one, best example of Greek architecture. Dedicated to the goddess Athena, it was finished at about 433 BCE and served as one of the grandest Greek temples ever known. Although damaged by war, it remained at least partially intact through centuries up until today.  Not only does the Parthenon serve as the perhaps the most enduring symbol of Greek culture and democracy, but the sculptures of the Parthenon are considered to be some of the pinnacles of Classical Greek art. Many of these sculptures depict battles while others reflect mythological scenes.

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Parthenon British Museum

For me personally, this was an opportunity to see up close and in person, the timeless art of one of the most influential civilizations that ever walked the planet (I know there are heated disputes over whether these sculptures should be returned to Greece but I’ll just put that debate on the side for now). After spending time admiring these sculptures, I realized that these must have been created by some of the most well-respected artists alive at the time. Artists whom I knew nothing about.

British Museum

As I looked closely at the details of these fine sculptures, it was apparent to me that there were stories behind them all. Stories, again, that I really only possessed a superficial understanding about. It was just that realization — that I lacked a real understanding of these cultural expressions — that provided me with a sense of inspiration to gain understanding. I’m not sure what it was about the Greek sculptures that did it but after only a few minutes in the Greek exhibit, I found myself feeling what I call the “museum effect,” where I find myself inspired to further my understanding of a subject after experiencing it at a museum.

Greek Parthenon British Museum
Figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon

This is one of the major reasons why I visit museums even when I don’t necessarily always enjoy them. The problem with museums for me is that I mostly enjoy being active (e.g., climbing things) and museums don’t exactly offer me much in terms of that. However, every once in a while I enjoy the slow pace of a museum experience and walk away from it a bit inspired to take on an understanding of something else. It’s usually nothing obsessive like I’m going to dedicate my life to learning about that particular thing. It’s just that I usually feel some sort of obligation to further my understanding of the subject. In this case, it’s Greek culture and it starts with the art.

It’s funny how quickly you begin uncovering facts about things that otherwise would seem insignificant if it wasn’t for the “museum effect.” For example, just yesterday, I found out that the sculptures at the Parthenon were actually painted with color originally and were not the pure white we see today. Apparently, when these sculptures were discovered during the Renaissance excavations they were without their color and from that point artists thought they were “continuing” the tradition of sculpting marble in its natural white state.

Central scene of the east frieze of the Parthenon British Museum
Central scene of the east frieze of the Parthenon

And sure, the fact that these sculptures likely used to beam with color doesn’t necessarily fundamentally change my understanding of Greek civilization (though for some art historians it probably could). At best, this might be a random fact I mention to someone else IRL once or twice when the opportunity arises. The point is that I’m on my way to adding another layer of understanding to yet another culture. And that’s really one of my biggest goals for travel in general: to just keep laying those bricks down and building upon my knowledge while discovering (and of course experiencing) more and more about different civilizations and the places where they exist.

I should also mention that we made our way through some of the other exhibitions, such as the Americas and Asian exhibitions and thoroughly enjoyed those. By that time we were running a little short on time and I’d made the decision to do less photo-taking and to just try to enjoy the museum. We happily left some galleries untouched as we planned on leaving some exhibitions unseen and wait for the next time that we could venture to the museum.

Sculpture South Asian gallery British Museum
Sculpture from the South Asian gallery

Overall, I think the exhibitions in the museum are extremely well presented. My only real complaint with the museum was the “shopping-mall” feel that it had to it at some places. That’s mostly the product of it being free and inundated with so many tourists but there seems to be somewhat of an issue of enforcements as well.

I understand there’s probably nothing the museum can do about the noise factor in such a busy museum but certainly personnel could be in place to keep others from putting their hands all over the exhibits and blasting objects with their flash photography. We were only there for about an hour and a half to two hours and yet I couldn’t believe how many people I saw touching some of the objects and paying no mind to their camera flashes. Because of those reasons and mostly the crowd factor, it can be difficult to have a true intimate museum experience here.

Still, not every exhibit was full of the type people described above and the enjoyment I experienced far outweighed the annoyances during my visit. Like I said, I walked away from the British Museum inspired by the beautiful Greek art on display and eager to investigate further; I saw one of he most renowned pieces of history, the Rosetta Stone; and I had a look at hundreds of other pieces of history that span centuries of different civilizations and still left plenty more to see for next time. In short, it was a fantastic museum experience.

So well done, British Museum. Well done.

Love Lock Bridges in Paris: The Tradition that Never Was?

There are actually many “love lock” bridges in Paris, though two of them stand out amongst the rest. The “Pont de l’Archeveche,” is located just next door to the Notre Dame Cathedral while the “Pont des Arts” is located just outside the Louvre. Tourists often engrave or write their names on locks and then attach these locks to the bridges in an effort to symbolize their love for eachother. Some even go so far as to throwing their key into the Seine River to put a stamp on their eternal desire to be together. Lately, there’s been talk about banning this practice, as the weight from the locks has actually collapsed portions of the bridge and the cumulative effect of the discarded keys has been detrimental to the river’s environment.

For now, placing locks along these bridges is still an on-going tourist attraction. Here’s a look at some things to consider if you are planning on taking part in this “tradition” upon your visit to Paris.

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There’s nothing historical or “Parisian” about this practice

There’s nothing enduring about this “tradition.” Local reports state this practice began around the mid-2000s. That’s right, not 2,000 years ago, but something closer to about eight years ago. Also, the majority of Parisians seem to attribute this new practice to tourists and not anything distinctly rooted in any tradition or ritual of Paris. Thus, placing these locks on these bridges is pretty much a modern tourist invention (with roots dating back to a WWI Serbian tale). So while the idea is cool in theory, just know that you’re not engaging in some sort of renowned Parisian act of romance as many visitors think they are.

Love Lock Bridge Paris

The locks are getting out of control and damaging the bridges

These locks are now starting to exceed the holding capacity of the bridge due to their weight. When you see the bridge, you’ll see locks locked onto locks locked onto locks. Some of these locks are completely obnoxious and about as big as laptops. One look at the insane amount of locks on the bridges now and it’s easy to see how these locks are starting to get out of control. In fact, in June of 2014 a portion of the bridge’s fencing (where the locks are attached) actually collapsed. Just before we arrived in October 2014, some officials from the city actually placed boards over some areas to protect the bridge. To be honest, the boards look like crap and all of the writing on the boards don’t help the eyesore that they have become.

Love Lock Bridge Paris
Love Lock Bridge Paris

It’s too bad that this kind of thing doesn’t work out because unlike some who oppose this practice, I actually think that the locks on the bridge look pretty cool and some are pretty creative. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that there’s an option where you can allow tourists to attach padlocks onto a bridge without it getting out of control pretty quickly. It’s just not sustainable. Perhaps this kind of thing could work somewhere where it would be difficult to access the location where the locks are to be attached… like the top of a mountain peak. But with millions of visitors pouring in each year over these bridges, it simply will never workout in the long-term without damaging the local landscape.

Love Lock Bridge Paris

To alleviate this issue, Paris recently initiated an effort, dubbed #lovewithoutlocks, to encourage visitors to take selfies in front of the locks now. I don’t see that doing much considering that websites still encourage tourists to bring their custom-engraved locks to the bridge. Moreover, there are even local vendors on the bridges selling locks to tourists. Obviously, there is still a ways to go if city officials want tourists to receive a consistent message that this is no longer welcomed. And because of the mixed-messages out there, I can’t really blame a lot of visitors for not realizing that so many others seriously object to the practice and find the locks a nuisance.

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Our personal decision not to place a lock on the bridge

After researching more into the issues facing the bridge, Brad and I decided not to place a lock on the bridge. While there was still quite a bit of open room on some of the outer areas of the bridge, I didn’t feel like the bridge needed another lock from us. My reasons were both idealogical and environmental. I just don’t see romantic love properly manifested in a padlock attached to a bridge with the key thrown away. To me, what makes love so great is the risk involved. The risk that you’re partaking in something in which you ultimately have no control over the final outcome. It’s just that risk that brings in such a great reward. I understand that not everyone feels that way about romantic love and that’s fine, of course. But for me, the idea of something akin to a shackle symbolizing romance just didn’t jive with me. Add in the fact that it’s harming the environment and landmarks and you can see why I didn’t partake.

I understand that many are probably more interested in doing this for the nostalgia than for an actual symbolic statement of their never-ending love and I totally get it. You come to Paris, the city of romance, and you and your partner leave a small piece of yourselves there and five or ten years you come back and see that same enduring marker of your visit and feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside. However, my suggestion is to just stick with photographs. Take some selfies of you and your lover at the bridge and be satisfied with that memory. Remember, it’s pretty selfish to add to the destruction of a landmark for your own want of nostalgia.

Love Lock Bridge Paris

However, if you are absolutely determined to put a lock on the bridge then please just don’t throw your key into the river. They estimate that over 700,000 locks are on these bridges and you can just imagine the environmental impact of so many thousands of keys rusting away in the riverbed. And it’s not like this is the River Thames. No offense, London, I really love you, and the Thames is pretty in it’s own way. But rivers like the Thames already look like they’ve dealt with their fare share of rust issues over the decades (though the Thames is said to be one of the cleanest rivers running through a major city). On the other hand, a beautiful green river like the Seine should be preserved as much as possible and it’s not hard to see how after a few years its beauty could be compromised from hundreds of thousands of deteriorating keys.=I hope this post doesn’t rain too much on your parade if you were looking forward to placing your own lock on the bridge. I try to focus on more positive aspects of travel and I know that this post is more on the negative side. I just wanted to help get the word out there that this practice is doing some harm to these areas and that we should think about the cumulative, long-term effects of doing even the most simple things like attaching a small lock to a bridge and tossing a key into a river.

Northern Lights… from a plane!?

My recent trip to Iceland to see the northern lights did not go as planned in many more ways than one. One of those failures was not being able to see the northern lights because of crazy overcast clouds. However, on my way flying into Iceland, I was able to capture the northern lights from our plane and thus at least partially fulfilled my wish of seeing the northern lights! Here’s how I did it.

Iceland Air Map

I first noticed the flight path as we were on the ground getting ready to take off. I knew that we would be in the “zone” for seeing the northern lights and that we would be above the clouds so that if the northern lights were actually showing I would be in good shape to see them. When I checked the kp Index I saw that they were predicting a “3” which is a relatively strong indicator that the lights would be out. With that information, I decided that I would stay up all night on the flight.

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About three hours into the flight, everyone on the plane just about was asleep. That’s when I started to focus intensely outside my plane window. After squinting pretty hard for hours, I noticed that there was something outside the window in the distance. It resembled a cloud but seemed to have a different texture and also extended far beyond where I remembered the clouds being. It was difficult to see because of the light pollution coming from the cabin and the light on the wing. I then grabbed a blanket and a jacket and essentially suction-cupped myself to the window, blocking out all stray light. That’s when I was sure I was looking at the northern lights!

I got pretty excited and knew I had to grab my camera. I positioned it on top of my camera bag in an attempt to make myself a make-shift tripod. I then turned up the ISO and put the shutter speed on about 10 seconds. After a couple of trial and error shots, I got the below shot.

Northern Lights from plane

Amazingly, the picture turned out much better than I had imagined. You can see the sky full of stars and can barely see the clouds near the bottom. The color of the lights were not that green in real-life but the camera sensor certainly did its job in picking up the light. I took about 20 or 30 shots of this until the light began to fade as dusk approached. It really was a somewhat magical experience and what was interesting was that everyone on the plane seemed to be asleep and missing out on this awesome sight. I wondered to myself how many other passengers would have gladly stayed up to see the sights and how many other people may have seen the same thing on this flight or another flight. Overall, I still hope to see the northern lights one day from the ground but for now I will treasure this experience — truly unforgettable.

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