Friday, December 30, 2011

Visit Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica

There aren’t a lot of erupting volcanoes in the world, at least, ones that you can easily travel to without having to hike through a jungle or sail through an ocean for. That’s not to say I wouldn’t do those things: indeed, I’d jump at the chance to propel a boat around the South Pacific Ocean, or swing Tarzan-style on a vine. However, this November I found a much easier way to cross this item off my bucket list. I traveled to Costa Rica and saw the Arenal Volcano, which wasn’t erupting plumes of ash or spewing steaming snakes of liquid lava, but was resplendent all the same. The volcano was smoking slightly, but for the time being, geologists are predicting Arenal will not be erupting anytime soon.

The view of Arenal Volcano from our hotel balcony.

My husband and I drove up to the town of La Fortuna, nestled at the base of Arenal, from our family home in Carillo, located on the Pacific Ocean. We rented a car from Alamo for $50 a day, which was a pretty average price for car rentals in Costa Rica during the low season. Packed with an overnight bag and my trusty camera, we headed off at 8:30 a.m. for Lake Arenal.

 About one hour into our excursion, we had a flat tire in the city of Nicoya. Our agent at the Alamo office had neglected to tell us that they stored the car jack under the front seat, so after tearing apart the trunk in desperation, we began frantically flipping through the pages of my Spanish-English phrasebook in the hopes it would contain a translated conversation on how to ask for a car jack (it didn’t, by the way).

 Luckily, we were rescued by a friendly garbage-truck driver who used excellent hand motions to converse with us. Within two minutes, he’d located a car jack from a helpful youth down the street, who also joined in to rescue the helpless gringos with the flat tire. After a ten-minute delay in Nicoya, Joey and I were once again on track, waving happily and shouting “Gracias” with enthusiasm as we drove away.

Flat tire in Nicoya - uh oh! But easily fixed.

It took us about five hours in total to arrive in La Fortuna, but really, the drive is about 3 and a half to 4 hours. We stopped for our flat tire, ate lunch in Tilarin, got lost in Tilarin, and paused for many beautiful photo opportunities along the road side. Lake Arenal is picturesque at every turn. When we finally arrived in La Fortuna, we were tired of driving but still happy at having the chance to explore the Costa Rican countryside.

Walking through the Costa Rican jungle near the Arenal volcano

I’d made no reservations for a hotel in La Fortuna - there are about 50 hotels there, and we wanted to hear from the locals their opinion on where to stay. Pulling in at an information center, we found two helpful young ladies who recommended the Baldi Resort and Spa. Tabacon is the more famous resort, but these women assured us Baldi was more accessible, more beautiful, and key for us, more affordable than Tabacon. For $190 US a night, we could rent the deluxe suite with volcano view, soak in the 20 different hot springs, ride the water slides, and eat dinner and breakfast for free. We couldn’t resist.

The gorgeous and relaxing hot springs at Baldi Resort and Spa in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

After driving up and down the La Fortuna highway several times (we originally thought the girls said “Valdez” and, failing to find a “Valdez” hotel anywhere, found a second set of directions from another information center) we finally checked into the Baldi Resort and Spa. The deal seemed too good to be true, but it was everything the ladies had said, and more! Their description of “beautiful” was putting it mildly: Baldi Resort and Spa was nothing short of paradise on earth. Our room had an amazing view of the Arenal Volcano, shrouded in mist, as well as the jungle growth surrounding it.

The hot spring spa at Baldi Resort and Spa

Enjoying a swim up bar at the Baldi Resort and Spa

The pools went on and on, each with a different temperature, design, and theme. Spanish pop and serenade music filtered through the trees. Because it was low season, Joey and I seemed to be two of ten people in the entire resort, although I’m sure there were more. Because of the expansive size of the resort, it seemed empty. We spent that entire afternoon and evening splashing and floating, feeling like royalty. We even hiked through the butterfly/hummingbird garden on the property. If you want to see gorgeous landscaping and pretty much every type of vegetation available in Costa Rica, take a stroll through the labyrinthine garden - just don’t get lost!

Paradise!  I would go back to La Fortuna in a heartbeat!

The next day, we took advantage of the beautiful weather (rumor has it that the area around the volcano is usually cloudy and rainy, but we experienced sun and the occasional puffy cloud while we were there). We hiked down to the La Fortuna Catarata (waterfall). After a majorly bumpy dirt road, comprised of mainly stones and not dirt, we made it to the Catarata parking lot. Tickets were $10 US, and then we were off across a skywalk into the jungle. The waterfall is 480 steps virtually straight down, but worth every stair.

Beginning our hike down to La Fortuna Catarata - great view!

The steep path down to the base of the falls.

The 70-meter waterfall thunders down, sending a fine mist over everything, which was lovely for us considering the heat of the day. Joey dove right in, swimming out to the waterfall, treading water against its current. I was too chicken to swim; the brochure warned against swimming because you could “be sucked in and asphyxiated”. Not my style. I bobbed around on the edges with my camera, trying to capture the beauty of the falls. We had good timing. By the time we got out of the water and dried off, a bus load of about 30 tourists was clamoring down the stairs to ruin our privacy.

The beautiful and powerful La Fortuna Catarata.

Swimming in the waterfall's pool - I was too chicken!

I nearly died of a heart attack on the climb back up the stairs, but was mighty proud of myself when I made it to the top. We shopped a bit at the souvenir shop, which had tons of items at rock-bottom prices (the best I’d seen in either Samara, Carillo, or anywhere in La Fortuna), and then made our way into La Fortuna to deal with the Alamo office and try to get a new spare tire, just in case.

Goodbye, Arenal volcano!

By the time we were done with Alamo, it was time to leave. We would have loved to stay longer and do a hike up the side of the volcano, hit the observatory, and perhaps do the skywalk or rent an ATV, but we only had a week in Costa Rica this time around, and we wanted to see and do much more than just Arenal. We posed for a few farewell photos with the majestic volcano, which cleared up nicely to bid us goodbye. I hope to come back again and spend a little more time at La Fortuna, but this was a nice introduction to Arenal and I can’t complain!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Top 10 Things to See in Seattle in the Summer

Seattle has fun things to see and do for everyone in the family!

This summer I had the joy of staying in the eclectic city of Seattle for a week. This is one city that I can really see myself living in. The music scene and art scenes are top-notch: cutting edge and historical all at the same time. The city is safe, clean, friendly, and trendy. How safe you ask? Well, I walked about twenty blocks from the downtown Underground Seattle tour in Pioneer Square at ten at night to my hotel, with shopping bags, and no one bothered to approach me or even give me a second look. I strolled rather than power-walked.

There is so much to see and do in Seattle. To make your visit a little easier to navigate, I've compiled a list the top 10 things to see and do in Seattle.  Pretty much all of them are family friendly.  Did I miss any of your favorite Seattle attractions? Let me know in the comments sections!

1. The Seattle Space Needle

After checking in to our hotel, my friend Jana, her two kids, and I walked the five or six blocks from our hotel to the Space Needle. It was the main attraction for us for sure. We marvelled at it from five blocks away, four blocks away, three blocks away... And up close it was still very cool. I mean, I've seen towers before - Calgary has its own too. But the Seattle Space Needle is not surrounded by much taller skyscrapers: it is in a league of its own, allowing it to maintain its grandeur.

Checking out the Seattle Space Needle!

We wanted to go inside and up right away, but it was Saturday, there was a music festival in the plaza right beside it, and the line-up was a million miles long. So we settled for lying on the grass outside it and experimenting with the panoramic features on our cameras. Afterward, we strolled around the outer plaza and discovered a lot of neat stuff that we hadn't even known was there! Several small fountains, statues, and art pieces give visitors plenty to gawk at. (I loved the whale fountain with the stretchy octopus statue. So cute!).

Love that stretchy octopus!

In order to avoid the long line-ups and wait times, our trip up to the top of the Seattle Space Needle happened on a Monday morning, when the weekenders were gone. We didn’t have to wait in line for more than five minutes. Up we went, quick as you please! The view from the top demonstrated how clean and pretty the city of Seattle is, and we were able to easily point out some of the places we had visited. Other than the view, however, there is not much to do at the top of Needle. We stayed for about 25 minutes, and then went back down.

The Seattle skyline from the top of the Needle.

2. The EMP Museum

I had a blast exploring the EMP (Experience Music Project museum), where I checked out the Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana displays.  Being a big rock fan, I loved seeing the original instruments, hand-written musical scores, stage props and costumes that all belonged to these prolific musicians.  There was a lot more Nirvana paraphenalia than there was for Jimi Hendrix, but that makes sense seeing as there are still surviving members of Nirvana still donating items to this day.  There's not a lot left in the Jimi Hendrix collection that isn't already in a museum or collector's hands somewhere.

The exterior of the EMP is quite stunning.

One of my favorite things inside the EMP museum is the massive guitar display near the entrance.  There are hundreds of guitars all arranged in a beautiful art installation, but that's not all.  They are rigged to play actual songs - and more than one.  Headphones surround the art piece, and you can listen to the songs they are playing one by one.  It is quite impressive.

Crazy cool art installation at the EMP museum in Seattle.

A painted maze on the cement lot outside the Experience Music Project Museum provided Jana's kids and I with some much needed exercise - I chased them for about forty minutes before we had to drag them away from the painted marvel. My town needs one of those things!

Running the maze outside the EMP building in Seattle, Washington.

3. International Fountain 

A big hit with everyone was the International Fountain. It reminded me a lot of the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas: when the music got more powerful, so did the fountain. At times, the music would stop, and the fountain would stop as well. During these times, all the kids (and adults) who were playing in the fountain would run to place a hand on the giant silver sphere, waiting with bated breath. Suddenly, the music would strike up again, and all the people would be blasted with streams of cold, rushing water! Check out the link above for more on this fun feature of downtown Seattle.

Playing in the International Fountain in Seattle.

4. The Duck Tour

I highly recommend the Duck Tour. They are ridiculous. They are loud. They are super crazy, but they are also super fun. You sing and blow whistles, shout at pedestrians on the street, and explore the city of Seattle. And the best part - you don’t just tour around on land. The Duck Tours are performed on ex-military vehicles that were used during the Vietnam war and designed to be a bus and a boat.  During our ride around town we passed the Seattle Space Needle, several museums, the recording studio where Jimi Hendrix worked, lots of street art, and so much more.  The whole time we were shouting, blowing horns, and cheering at pedestrians and other drivers.  So fun!

The all-purpose terrain vehicle used for the Ride the Ducks tour of Seattle.

We finished our driving tour of Seattle, and then did a water tour of Lake Union while riding the same Duck Tour vehicle. We saw the house from the film “Sleepless in Seattle”, learned about floating houses and the rental and taxation issues that come with them, and got to listen to our tour guide tear a strip off some kids who were throwing water balloons at our vehicle. Great times!

Happy with my Ride the Ducks tour of Seattle, while floating on Lake Union.

5. Eat Seafood (At the Crab Pot)

If you head to Seattle, I sure hope you are not allergic to seafood, because this city has some of the best seafood restaurants! One in particular that I truly enjoyed was the Crab Pot, where they set your table with a piece of white paper, a board and a mallet, and hand you a giant bib. When your food comes out, it is arranged artfully (or not) in a shiny silver bread bowl, and the mass of food is dumped onto the white paper before you. You select your treats, mash them out of their shells on the wooden board using your mallet, and eat until you feel like exploding. I loved it!

Enjoying lunch at Seattle's Crab Pot.

6. Pike Place Market

Other than the Space Needle, one cannot visit Seattle without hitting Pike Place Market. This giant outdoor/indoor farmer’s market features a few of Seattle’s favorite tourist attractions.  It is a good ol' farmer's market, but unlike any that I'd ever been to before.  For instance, there was so much seafood there, I felt like I was shopping in Red Lobster's freezer.  And MASSIVE seafood - lobster tails the size of my arm, no joke. Piles and piles of fresh, colossal-sized crab legs, shrimp, and scallops filled bins, displayed crisply on beds of crushed ice.  I wished so much that we weren't staying in a hotel with no kitchenette, because I wanted to buy it all and make a seafood feast.

Those lobster tails are bigger than a child's head!

The first Starbucks store is in Pike Place Market, and while I was standing in the giant line-up to get in, I learned that it was named after the character of “Starbucks” in the novel “Moby Dick”. Who knew? It was so busy that I didn’t have time to buy a coffee: there was a line-up and counter just for beverages, and a line-up and counter just for purchasing items. I bought a mug as proof that I had been there, and then moved on before I got too claustrophobic.

Standing outside the first ever Starbucks!

Meandering down Pike Place a little further, we hit the fish markets. Of course, we had to visit the Pike Place Fish stand, which is famous for their employees’ high-energy and fun-loving sales pitches. They toss fish (and credit cards) back and forth, cat-call their customers good-naturedly, and keep the crowd entertained.

7. The Wall of Gum

We also visited the infamous Wall of Gum, which is just off of Pike Place Market. It is what it says it is: a wall of gum. It was disgusting and fascinating at the same time. We all had to add to it.  I have no idea how long it has been around Seattle, but I'm assuming quite some time, as determined by the sheer mass of gum stuck to said wall.  Go visit, but don't lean against it!

YUCK - but fun!  I add to Seattle's infamous Wall of Gum.

8. Seattle Underground Tour

There are two versions of the Seattle Underground Tour - the day time versions, which are considered family friendly, and the evening adult version, full of juicy and scandalous information about Seattle's more seedy times (information that I won't share here, as I like to consider my blog to be family-friendly as well).  The tour begins in Seattle's historic Pioneer Square, and takes guests underneath the city streets on a walking tour to learn about Seattle's past.

Left over seating from a long-ago speak easy in underground Seattle.

During this walking tour, you visit an old speak-easy, walk down tunnels that connect buildings via underground sidewalks, see entrances to old bank vaults, and a lot more.  The adult version teaches you the origins of such terms as "crapper" and "smut".  These tours are insanely interesting and the guides have great personalities.  Whether you are vacationing with adult friends or little ones, there's a little something for everyone.

9. Klondike Gold Rush Museum & Pioneer Square

Something fun to do for a couple of hours on a rainy afternoon in Seattle is to visit the Klondike Gold Rush National Park (which is really just a museum).  The museum is free to visit, which is nice.  Kids have a passport type document they can complete as they explore the museum: visiting the general store, solving riddles, and participating in all of the interactive exhibits.  There are films and displays that show how Seattle was involved in the Gold Rush, and shares some of the crazier stories.

A beautiful waterfall park near the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.

When are you done exploring the museum, Pioneer Square has a lot of things to see as well.  We really enjoyed the waterfall park, which was peaceful and relaxing (except when one of the kids nearly fell into the water).  Lots of locals were gathered there to drink coffee and meet for lunch.

10. Fremont Street Troll

On our way out of town, we stopped in Fremont to visit the Fremont Street Troll. He is a huge mixed-media sculpture shoved under the bridge, has a hubcap for an eye, and is holding in his massive hand a life-sized sculpted Volkswagen Bug. You are allowed to climb on it and pose with it, so we did. It was a fun way to say good-bye to Seattle! I would definitely come back!

Just chillin' like a villain with the Fremont Street Troll in Seattle.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Spot the Difference: 'Spotted Lake' in British Columbia

Eight kilometres out of Osoyoos, British Columbia, there rests a lake on native reserve land. It is a small lake, surrounded by desert scrub and grasses, unsuitable for swimming, boating, or even wading. You aren’t even allowed to walk down to it, currently, because of its location on native land. So what’s the big deal, you say? Well, this lake is Spotted Lake, and it is the only one of its kind in the world.

Spotted Lake is truly a sight to behold.

The natives call this lake Khiluk, and it is believed to be sacred because of its healing powers. The lake indeed may be therapeutic, because it is a mineral lake. The waters contain high levels of magnesium sulfate, calcium, sodium sulphates, and many other minerals, including silver and titanium. The lake’s minerals were actually harvested for use in World War I to create ammunition!

In the summer, when waters from the lake evaporate in the semi-arid desert ecosystem around Spotted Lake, the minerals harden to form natural walkways between the leftover pools of water. Depending on the mineral content within each pool, the waters take on different tints.

The different mineral pools give this lake its distinct pattern.

To view this marvel, you have to pull over to the side of the highway. There is a gate and fence preventing you from wandering down to the shore (although, I’m sure you could climb the gate or fence if you truly wanted to, but I don’t recommend it because you will anger the natives and could possibly get arrested for trespassing.)

The view from the road is good enough to see what the big deal is about Spotted Lake. Watch for traffic, as the pull-out area is not very big. There is a sign by the gate that explains the history and the science behind Spotted Lake as well.

You are not allowed to walk down to see it up close - just yet, at least.

According to the sign, eventually Parks Canada and the Osoyoos Band will work together to create a scenic path around the lake, as well as a information center on the land around Spotted Lake. I feel this would be nice - to have a path and an information center would be beneficial in a) sharing this amazing place with the rest of the world, and b) preventing destructive trespassers by allowing access in a controlled way. Hopefully, in two years, you will be able to see this marvel of nature up close and personal!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Road Tripping It: How to Last 11 Hours on the Road with Kids

Today I began my 10-11 day journey from my hometown in Alberta to Vancouver to Seattle to home again. I am travelling with my neighbour friend, Jana, and her two adorable and active kids, P and H. (I'll withhold their names for privacy's sake.) Driving from my hometown to Kelowna, according to "George" our British GPS dude, was going to take 9 hours. We managed to stretch it out a lot more by hitting nearly (but not all) cheesy tourist attractions along the way, which was a lot of fun when you are traveling with easily excitable little ones.

Riding in a car with two kids under 10 for 11 hours can still be fun - I swear!

We stopped at a few rest stops along the way to get some great photos of the unrivalled Rocky Mountains, and then parked at Field, British Columbia for a picnic lunch and a chance for the kids to complete their “Junior Rangers” parks program for Yoho National Park. Every national park in Canada creates booklets for children to complete with word searches, matching games, eye spy games, and other activities. These things are perfect for kids to do while driving to keep them entertained - just a helpful FYI for traveling parents out there!

While at the Information Center in Field, B.C., the Yoho National Park kids’ booklet required the kids to do some fossil rubbings. Once those were done, the kids presented their completed booklets to the parks personnel, who then made them do a pledge and presented them with badges. It was pretty cute. And apparently this can happen at all national parks, as long as you can get your hands on those booklets, which are available at any national park information centre.

Taking a break to explore the rest stop at Field, British Columbia.

After a gorgeous picnic lunch by the blue waters of Field’s wading pond (where P had her first “pee pee panties” episode of the trip - potty-training is certainly an adventure, especially while on the road!), we were back on the highway. We traveled along the Trans Canada, which is riddled with cool tunnels, where I challenged P and H to hold their breaths for the duration of the tunnel. It never worked: someone yawned, giggled, or burped. I will not disclose whether it was the kids or me.

Zipping through the tunnels along the Trans Canada Highway in British Columbia.

Our next stop to stretch our legs and experience a little of Canada’s interesting history was at Craigellachie, British Columbia, where the last spike for the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven in November of 1885. This site is very famous, particularly for my grade 7 students, who have to study about it in their Social 7 textbook. For anyone who isn’t Canadian (or for those Canadians who maybe fell asleep during their social studies class), Craigellachie and the last spike represent the completion of nearly 3000 miles of steel rails and wooden ties, many years of construction, and a whole lot of tragic deaths. I had to take some pictures for my students while there!

Attempting to 'drive the last spike' at Craigellachie, B.C.

Back in the car we climbed, and drove onto Sicamous, where Jana promised me an interesting ice cream experience. We pulled up at a store called “D” Dutchman Ice Cream, which is not just an ice cream store but a full-fledged dairy farm! The farm produces all of its own milk , cheese, and of course, ice cream. I bought some fresh chocolate milk in a unique litre glass bottle, and a small “Chocolate Raspberry Delight” cone.

We wandered out to the farmyard area, where we could stroll amongst feeding calves, full-grown Holsteins (behind fences of course) and even a few “pet” animals, like the dromedary Caspar (do NOT call him a camel - H will yell at you!), the donkey Poncho, and the white llama Primo. Don’t get too close to Primo - she’ll spit on you! It was indeed an interesting ice cream experience - if you head to Sicamous, do not miss “D” Dutchman Ice Cream!

The DROMEDARY at D Dutchman Ice Cream in Sicamous, B.C.

At Sicamous, we turned onto the 97A highway headed to Kelowna. That road is very pretty, very winding, and has great views of the British Columbia foothills and lake landscape. Along 97A is one of the strangest places you will ever see - The Log Cabin. There aren’t enough words to describe this place, because honestly, there is so much random crap there I wouldn’t know where to start. Giant oversize wooden porch chairs, huge plastic swans, old hand-me-down MacDonalds play place furniture, every tacky lawn ornament ever created, old wagons, old tires turned into petunia planters... it was a haven for junk collectors.

The Log Barn was an extravaganza of cheesy yard ornaments and high-priced couture groceries!

The Log Barn also has a very busy, cute, and slightly expensive grocery store - there are about a thousand and one decorations above the shelves, strange things hanging from the rafters, even fountains and palm trees! The food they sell is really tasty, such as homemade Mennonite sausage and locally cured cheeses, but the prices were too much for me.

The inside of the Log Barn was just as eclectic as the outside.

The Log Cabin also has a bit of everything to entice the young and the old to stop by. The kids’ favourite activity was feeding the greedy goats on “Dave’s Goat Walk” - buy some seeds and popcorn kernels from the bubblegum dispensers, fill up a tin cup which is tied to a rope, and haul the rope to the top of the goat walk - the goats will be waiting on the top floor to receive their goodies! A few goats even knew how to haul the rope up on their own, by either using their hooves or their chins to rotate the pulley wheel. Very entertaining! You could also hand feed the goats, but if you choose to do this, be very careful and never go INTO the goat pen while holding a handful of food - one woman was bitten by a goat while we were there, and the four-footed chomper bit her down to the fingerbone! Yuck!

Crafty, glutenous goats await treats at the top of Dave's Goat Walk at the Log Barn in B.C.

This was our last stop before we made it to Kelowna. We drove past “The Enchanted Forest” - a place I’ve visited during my childhood - because Jana and her kids had been there a couple of weeks ago. The admission fee per person is $18, which includes a walk through the forest to see the different ceramic figurine tableaus of fairytale creatures. Anything additional to that, such as the zipline, costs extra money.

All in all, our drive turned out to be around 11 hours, but we hit up many fun and unusual stops, and it honestly felt like we had only been driving for about 6 hours. For “just a driving day”, it turned out to be quite a full day. If you are planning a long trip, I highly recommend budgeting in just two extra hours on top of your driving time so that you can freely stop at all the strange and random places you find. It breaks up the trip, adds interest for all passengers, and makes for some great memories!

Monday, August 1, 2011

How to Conquer Rome in 3 Days: Things to See and Do

Ah, Rome! How I miss thee! Rome is such a beautiful city, filled with fashion, fun, excitement, and steeped in history. I have written several times about Rome, Italy, in this blog (see posts on the Trevi Fountain, Vatican City, and the Coliseum.) This will be my last post on Rome, unless I have the luck and joy of visiting the city again.

There is so much more to see and do besides the places listed above. Granted, I found that the Coliseum is among one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in my life, but if you happen to be in Rome, be sure to explore beyond the Coliseum! It's not hard to do - actually, it's literally impossible not to see more sights.

Before you can even get close to the Coliseum, you must first pass by the Arch of Constantine, an intricately carved and decorated triumphal arch erected to celebrate Constantine I. It dates back all the way to 315 A.D., but still stands strong and glorious today. You could probably spend all day checking out the carvings, reading the inscriptions (if you know Latin) and photographing the arch itself - except for the fact that right behind the Arch of Constantine you are continually distracted by the enormous and tempting Coliseum!

The majestic Arch of Constantine, located right outside the Coliseum

Once you have finished with the Coliseum, the Forum is just a hop, skip and a jump away, about a two block stroll. The Forum does charge admission to enter and walk around, but the price is only 12 Euros. Believe me, it is worth the cost. Some of the most amazing pictures I snapped of Rome were of the Forum, which is a long, rectangular plaza filled with ancient Roman ruins. The Forum used to be the city center and the site of various political meetings, rallies, and votes.

The remains of the impressive Roman Forum - you could spend a whole day here!

There are tons of temples located there as well - my favorite being the last few pillars remaining of the Temple of Vesta, where the vestal virgins lived and prophesied the future for Romans. As the story goes, the vestal virgins were only funnels of knowledge from the gods as long as they remained virgins. If any of the vestal virgins were to be touched by a man, the man was killed immediately, usually in interesting ways to teach others a lesson, and the vestal not-so-virgin had to be disposed of as well. However, since it was illegal for anyone to touch them - yes, literally touch them - the woman was forced to crawl into a deep hole, and would then be buried alive. (Because then it was the earth killing her, not a person. Doesn’t that just make so much sense?)

The remaining bits and pieces of the Temple of Vesta.

Another of my favorite locations, which is not that close to the Coliseum so be prepared to grab a bus or cab, was the Pantheon. This was a temple built during the rule of Marcus Agrippa in order to bridge the gap between pagan religion and the newly emerging Christian religion - it literally translates to “to every god”, meaning people could come to the Pantheon to worship any god they chose. Eventually Emperor Hadrian rebuilt it in 126 A.D. to display solely Christian figures.

I loved this building because of the occulus, or giant hole in the center of the ceiling, where you could look straight up into the sky. Because the occulus is open to the elements, the floor of the Pantheon is sloped to the outside to allow for rainwater drainage. Crazy! The outside isn’t too shabby either - the massive Corinthian columns are very impressive. This one is definitely worth the visit.

Posing outside the Pantheon on our first day in Rome

Playing around with the Pantheon's massive occulus

Near the Pantheon is Piazza Navona, a trendy plaza for restaurants and street vendors. It also has three of the most beautiful fountains you will see, particularly the center fountain, called the Fountain of the Four Rivers. Embedded within the fountain design is a true-blue Egyptian obelisk, stolen from Egypt who knows how long ago. Then there is the Fountain of Neptune and the Fontana del Moro.

Every time I go to Piazza Navona, I end up walking away with a really cool purchase, such as a painting of the Coliseum which is now framed and hanging in my bathroom. When I went there in 2010, I bought a painting of a mountain landscape. The painting itself isn’t that impressive, but watching it being made was. The artist didn’t use a single brush, but used bits and pieces of cardboard, torn from the cardboard he was using as a placemat. He dabbed the cardboard bits into paint, and smeared them over the canvas. Within 15 minutes, I was looking at a complete and very pretty painting. I had to buy it.

Sitting by one of the three fountains in Piazza Navona

Finally, in the same relative district as the Pantheon, we visited the Spanish Steps, which lead down from the Trinita dei Monti church into the Piazza di Spagna. They are pretty steep, and there are a lot of steps! In January, the first time we went, the area wasn’t that crowded, and only a few vendors were present to harass you to purchase items. (Don’t ever, ever hold a rose that a vendor offers you - the moment you touch the dang thing, you are expected to buy it for an outrageous price, and they will not take the rose back. Just wave them off right away if they approach you.)

The beautiful Spanish Steps at sunset.

When we visited again in April, the steps were crowded, busy, and filled with flower vendors. It was dizzying, but the flower vendors also made the steps a very pretty sight. I was approached by a rose seller again, but this time knew what to do. When the man continued to follow me after I had told him no and refused to touch the rose in his outstretched hand, a policeman noticed him bothering me. The cop took the man’s bouquet of roses and shooed him from the piazza - I guess they are only tolerated if they behave themselves. Otherwise, they’re not really supposed to be there selling without a vendor’s license.

"Pay the man!" a friend yelled to my husband, so he paid 5 Euros for this one dumb rose.

There are still some things I’d like to see in Rome that I haven’t been able to; the baths in particular. I hope one day I will be able to scratch that one off the bucket list!