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`Twas The Weekend Before Thanksgiving…

The weekend before Thanksgiving was a most eventful one for me.  I spent most of the day on Saturday at the car dealership with my brother, going through the motions of the dance that is car salesmanship.   After nearly four hours, a deal was struck for a car which had to be retrieved from another dealership.  We confirmed the theoretical arrival date was sometime Monday or Tuesday, and I went on my way.

That night, Amelie and I went to the Mardi Gras Casino to see Air Supply play a live show.  They basically played their greatest hits album, but they sounded fantastic.

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After the concert, there were delicious pancakes and eggs at the local IHOP restaurant.  I really missed IHOP in Germany. Check out Amelie’s pancakes- they look pretty happy they’re about to get eaten, don’t they?

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Cut to Sunday, and I got a call from the sales manager that my car was already here, minus the tint (which will be installed in a week or so) and the backup sensor, which will probably be installed after thanksgiving. The car has a backup camera, but I wanted the doo-dad that beeps when you’re approaching an object too.

For the first time since 2011, I own a car.  It feels damn good to get that purchase ticked off of my repatriation to-do list.  This is what I looked like right after I drove the car off the lot.  The car is a Mazda 3 hatchback in a nice light blue color, and I’m very very pleased.

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To cap off the weekend, we quite literally rode off into the sunset.  Ok, so we actually drove away from this, but it’s a really pretty sky, don’t you think?

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All I need is a pith helmet.

The more time I spend in South Florida, the more I feel like Uncle Travelling Matt.  So much of life here is just a little bit alien to me now.  Take this, for example-  the weird flavors that are appearing on things are just strange to me.  I’m pretty sure this is a Thanksgiving holiday flavor:

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Speaking of flavors, I’m trying something I’ve wanted to try for months: Naturebox.  Naturebox is a subscription service that delivers healthy snacks right to your door. I first heard about this on a podcast while I was still in Germany, and I wanted to try it then, but I held off until I got back to the US because it’s not really an international service as far as I know.  (Administrative note:  I am not being reimbursed or compensated in any way for talking about Naturebox.  However, if any of you want to try it, let me know because I can give you a code that will give you ten bucks off your first shipment.)

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So far, I’ve only opened a few of my snacks.  The guacamole bites are delicious, but wickedly salty.  I won’t be getting these again because I can only eat a few before I need to rehydrate.

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The salted caramel pretzel pops are sweetly delicious, however.

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And now for some random stuff… I’ve been having trouble this week coming up with a coherent blog post topic, so I’m just going with random stuff from my last seven days.  For example, Amelie and I went to the South Florida Ikea.  It’s a little different than Regensburg’s Ikea, but it’s similar enough in most ways to actually make me breathe a tiny sigh of relief at the sameness.

Neither of us can pass a display of stuffed animals without playing with them, by the way.  This is her with some bears.

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Every time I passed a bin of stuffed animals in the store, I tried to give them all better vantage points.  This one was a joint effort.  We are roughly twelve years old.

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I commented on one of my last posts about all the super nice cars in South Florida-  not a day goes by that I don’t see a Maserati or a Lamborghini or a Ferrari.    But not everyone in South Florida is rich, and sometimes you see the opposite end of the spectrum also.  For example, this clever usage of custom duck tape was spotted in the parking lot at Target.

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Most of the time, it’s relaxing being back in the land of everyone speaking English.  However, speaking English doesn’t mean you can type it.  I promise, my name has never actually been spelled “STEVN” before, and I’ve no idea where the H came from.

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In my search for a new tagline, I came up with the idea a few nights ago to use “Whimsy is my resting state.”  That wasn’t quite it, though, and so I decided today to rename the tagline at the top of the blog with “Sunshine.  Whimsy.  Tacos.”  I really couldn’t leave the tacos out.

As for the sunshine, it’s this-  it’s all to easy to forget during my day to day grind that in this part of Florida, I’m never more than a few minute’s drive away from this view:

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Krakow, Poland

I knew early on that I needed to get to Poland at some point during my stay here.   For one thing, I wanted to visit every country that borders Germany, and Poland was the last shared border country on that list.  For another thing, my father’s father was born in Warsaw, so I’m partly Polish.

If I was going to visit Poland, I had to choose a city.  My top two choices were Krakow and Warsaw, and everything I had read indicated that Warsaw wasn’t all that different from any other major city.  Off to Krakow I went!

My hotel was only two short blocks from the Main Market Square.  This is the largest medieval European square, covering roughly 40,000 square meters.  Plus, it has a giant head.

Not pictured:  Me, re-enacting that scene from Clash of the Titans.

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In the middle of the Market Square is a building called the Cloth Hall.  The original structure dates back to the 13th century, but it was rebuilt in the 16th century after the previous iteration was destroyed by fire.

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Inside the cloth hall are rows of merchants, mostly selling to tourists.

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The Market Square has a ton of pigeons.  They were creepy as hell.

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One more view of the Cloth Hall, this time from the back and with a nifty fountain in view.

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This is a slightly different view of the same building.  This view shows the Town Hall tower, which you can climb.

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If you should choose to climb it, be aware that the steps in this tower are very tall steps, and the passageway is very narrow.  Good view from the top, though.

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The old town hall’s tower is still standing, even though the rest of the town hall is gone.  There’s a brass sculpture next to the tower showing what the original structure looked like.

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All the extra crap in that last picture is because there was an enormous stage set up in the Square for some big event while I was there.  Lots of live music, some of which was even good.

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…but I digress.  In the main square, there are often a bunch of these walking around in various languages:

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Pick one and follow them.  They cover a lot of interesting topics.  Most of the free tours will lead you down this street, past the McDonald’s and toward St. Florian’s Gate.

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St. Florian’s Gate is part of the city’s defensive walls from the 13th century.  There used to be a moat, but that’s gone now. There were originally 47 observation towers and seven gates, because Krakow was a medieval fortress at the time.

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Near the gate is this excellent statue of Jay Garrick the Roman god Mercury.

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Through the gate is the Barbican, a circular fortification which was originally connected to the main gate.  Barbican is not the name of the building, it’s the name of the type of structure- but I don’t think the locals call it by another name.

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Let’s go back to the Market Square, because I’m not done there.  In one corner is this pretty nifty church, the Church of St. Mary, sometimes referred to as St. Mary’s Basilica.  The church is not parallel to the square, and the towers are not uniform.  The reason for the different towers is that the smaller tower is a bell tower, and the higher tower has always belonged to the city and was used as a watchtower.

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Every hour, on the hour, a small window is opened in the watchtower, and a short trumpet signal called the Hejnał mariacki is played.  The trumpeter then opens a different window and repeats the call.  This is done four times in all, in four directions which roughly correspond to the direction of the four main Krakow city gates.

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The tune breaks off very abruptly.  It is not known with certainty why this is so, but one of the most persistent legends is that it is cut off to commemorate a 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before a Mongol attack on the city.  Here’s a short video of the trumpet signal.

In another corner of the Market Square is another amazing (but much, much smaller) church called St. Adalbert’s Church. Legend says this is the location where St. Adalbert used to preach.

Every night, the Royal Chamber Orchestra does an amazing one hour concert in this church.  The baroque dome gives it excellent acoustics, and the show is well worth seeing.   The program alternates, and when I saw it, the song  included such venerable classics as Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and Horner’s “Love Theme from Titanic.”

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Walking south out of the main Market Square, along Grodzka, you eventually come to an intersection with two more interesting churches visible.    I can’t remember the name of this one.

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This one is the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, the Franciscan church.

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Across the street from the Franciscan church is the Bishop’s Palace, where Pope John Paul II stayed whenever he was in the city.  They even decked out the window he used to hang out of to permanently commemorate this.

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Between the two churches is another interesting sculpture showing where the Church of All Saints stood in the past.

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At this point in the post, the “walking around the city” narrative sort of breaks down, because the last few pictures aren’t in a straight line.  For example, this is the former Collegium Physicum, the location for the faculties of pharmacology, physiology, physics, chemistry, and geology.  Lots of science was done here.

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…and this is the Collegium Maius, the oldest existing building of the Jagiellonian University.  I didn’t get to see that wonderful clock in motion, but my city map said it runs at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm every day.

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This the real gold roof of the cathedral on Wawel Hill, near the castle.  It’s plated though, and not solid gold, because that would be too heavy.

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I took a brief stop in Wawal Castle to view Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine.  It was smaller than I expected.  The classics almost always are.  Alas, photographs were forbidden.  After I was done looking at the painting, I noticed this fascinating giant balloon from the courtyard.

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This is the Hiflyer.  It’s based a reasonable walk from the city center, and as long as the weather is good, they’re flying.  They recommend calling ahead just to be sure, but a reservation isn’t necessary.  The balloon is more or less stationary, because it’s tethered to a single place on the ground.

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The “basket” for this is actually a very large metal ring, with an open center for the cable that pulls you back down at the end of your flight.

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Going up at dusk affords you some pretty spectacular views of the area.  This direction shows Wawel Hill, including the castle.

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On my last evening in town, I stopped at one of the restaurants in the main market square and I had these fresh pierogies.    I love pierogies, and having a chance to have freshly made ones in Poland is not to be missed.  These were so, so delicious.

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Have you ever been to Krakow?  Have you ever had a pierogi?

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Nordic Adventure, Part 7: Reykjavik

From Copenhagen, it’s a reasonably short flight to the last stop in my trip through the Nordics:  Reykjavik, Iceland!

The geography in Iceland is really likenothing I’ve ever seen.  This is an island that has both volcanoes and earthquakes.  There are fields of volcanic rock, waterfalls, and crystal clear lakes.   Geothermal pools provide hot water for the island, and much of their power comes from the geothermal energy as well.

This is a field of volcanic rock, covered in a type of moss that the four legged folk of the island really like to munch on.

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I was in Iceland in the spring, so things were fairly green.

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One of the major tourist attractions in Iceland is a tour of the Golden Circle.  The first thing that most folks see on a Golden Circle tour is the rift valley in Þingvellir National Park.   Iceland sits on the border between two of the major tectonic plates-  the North American plate and the Eurasian plate.  The space where they meet has formed a valley with a lake in it.  This is the rift valley.

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The edge of the North American plate has some interesting rock formations- you can see these trenches that go in almost straight lines for miles and miles near the lake.

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The second stop on a Golden Circle tour is Gullfoss, or “Golden Falls.”  This enormous waterfall is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland.  For a sense of scale, look at the rocky outcropping on the left side and the path leading to it along the left edge of the photograph.  You can see people getting close to the falls.

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There were three different vantage points to see the Falls.  This was the easiest one to get to.  There’s also the outcropping in the previous photo, and a path that goes down the face of the cliff I’m standing on here.  Lots and lots of stairs to get to that one.

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This is the view from the rocky outcropping I mentioned before.

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Across the street from the visitor center near Gullfoss, there was a small group of Icelandic horses hanging out near the fence.  There are places throughout the island where you can rent a horse.  They’re really quite sweet.  You can’t tell from the photo, but this one was using the barbed wire to scratch an itch.

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The third stop in a Golden Circle tour is the Haukadalur geothermal area, a hill containing the Great Geysir, the one for which all other geysers are named, another geyser named Strokkur, and twenty or thirty smaller geysers and thermal pools.

Here’s Little Strokkur, not to be confused with the big one.

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And Little Geysir.

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I didn’t catch a name for this thermal pool but the color was striking.  Also, the mist coming off of this pool had a strong sulphur smell, a little like rotting eggs.  Anyone who grew up with well water in South Florida will probably know the smell.  The hotel room sink in Reykjavik also had this smell-  the locals get used to it, I think.  It wasn’t unpleasant, just strong.

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This is Great Geysir.   Geysir doesn’t erupt much these days, although earthquakes can stimulate eruptions for a little while.

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Strokkur, on the other hand, goes off every five minutes or so.  It’s rather spectacular to see.

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I even managed to catch one of Strokkur’s eruptions on video.

So that’s the Golden Circle.   You’ll need at least half a day to see all of that.

Back in Reykjavik, you’ll see a number of very distinct structures.  This is Hallgrímskirkja.  This is the tallest church in Iceland, and so naturally, I had to climb it.

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From the observation deck at Hallgrímskirkja, this is what the main part of Reykjavik looks like.  I can actually see my hotel in this picture.  There’s a main street full of bars and restaurants on the right side of this picture, but you can’t really see where the road is clearly from this vantage point.

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Looking in the opposite direction, you can see the sphere of Perlan, or The Pearl, a structure built atop five hot water storage tanks.  There’s a viewing platform at Perlan also, and I’ll come back to that.

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This is the interior of Hallgrímskirkja.

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Now that I’ve shown you the church, I’d like to point out that Reykjavik has a rather massive ::ahem:: Phallological museum.  Translation: Penises!  Penises for everyone!   Regrettably, I didn’t take the time to go to the penis museum, but I’m sure it was just turgid with the learning.

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The problem with writing blog posts too long after the travel dates is that I don’t remember exactly why I took this photo, other than that it looks pretty cool.

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It’s nice to know that my knack for finding friendly kitties extends to Iceland too.

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This is Sólfar, or Sun Voyager, perhaps the most photographed sculpture in Iceland.  The sculpture, by Jón Gunnar Árnason, is made of stainless steel.   Unveiled in 1990, the artist wanted Sun Voyager to represent a ship of dreams, an “ode to the sun symbolizing light and hope.”

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Every major city needs a great concert hall, and Reykjavik has the Harpa Concert Hall, home to the Icelandic Opera and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.  It also functions as a conference center.

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I mentioned the Perlan earlier-  I took the time to go out there and climb the dome.  It gave me a nice perspective of the city from the opposite side, looking back toward the sea.

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The downtown part of Reykjavik was pretty great.  While I was waiting for a tour that I’ll talk about in an upcoming post, I stopped at Icelandic Fish & Chips Organic Bistro to kill some time and get a snack.  I had been craving chocolate cake, and this really hit the spot-  delicious (and gluten free!) chocolate cake, perfectly moist and soft, paired with a nice cup of chamomile tea.

I would go back to Iceland just to have this cake again.  It was that good.

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There were several theme places in Reykjavik, including a Chuck Norris restaurant that I didn’t see until I was about to leave, and a few doors down from my hotel, the Lebowski Bar.  This place is fun and friendly and has really great burgers and shakes.

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There was also a gay bar called the Kiki Queer Bar that I would have checked out, except they only opened Thursday to Sunday nights, and I was in the city from Monday to Thursday.  The inset of the photo is a note that was left in the black panel next to the front door-  I was not the only one who wanted to check out Kiki.

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One of the things that people are curious about in Iceland is the food-  some people are keen to try Hákarl, or rotten shark meat.  I was not.  Hakarl is often described as one of the foulest tasting foods in existence.  Chef Anthony Bourdain described hákarl as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten.  Some people try whale, horse, or puffin.    I didn’t have any interest in whale meat, and I could go on a rant about the hunting generated by tourism- only about 5% of Icelanders regularly eat whale meat, but tourists do quite often.

While I wasn’t interested in fermented shark or whale, I was interested in trying puffin.  I would have preferred a nice puffin burger, but I could only find a few places that had puffin on the menu.   I chose Laekjarbrekka,  a restaurant on the main street with a really good TripAdvisor rating.   They had an “Icelandic Feast” on the menu that included shark, whale, horse, and puffin, but I didn’t go for that.  I had smoked puffin as an appetizer, and had a nice fresh fish for my main course.  I no longer remember the type of fish, but I can say that it was the best cooked plate of fish I’ve ever had in my life.    The picture below is puffin-  the entire bird has a body roughly the size of a can of Coke, so the amount of meat in a single bird isn’t very much.    The puffin meat tasted fishy, which makes some sense since the birds spend most of their lives on or near the ocean.

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I saw this while walking through the city.  I’m not sure what it’s all about, but I suspect it’s just art.

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Lastly, this is a picture taken out of the window of my hotel room at 1:15 AM.  Reykjavik is one of the furthest north places I’ve ever been, and it was amazing to see that even after sundown, it was still kind of light.  It looked like this when I went to sleep, and the sun came back up just a few hours later.

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Have you ever been to Reykjavik?  Have you ever tried Hakarl?

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Scheveningen, The Hague

When we went to Keukenhof for the tulip festival and flower parade, we stayed in Scheveningen, a district of the Hague which borders the North Sea.  It contains a nice seaside resort area.

Before we went, I was convinced that the name of the place sounded a little bit like a lawnmower starting up.  I was wrong, though.  Click play on the sound bar below to hear what it really sounds like.

 

The three of us stayed at a nice hotel called the Boulevard Hotel.  We wanted to stay near the ocean, and it was one of the few places in our price range that had a room with three beds.    My bed actually folded up into a console when not occupied.    Jenny said I looked a little bit like Harry Potter under the stairs when I was on this.

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As soon as we dropped our stuff off in the hotel room, we walked back out to check out the beach and boardwalk, and to find some dinner.  It was windy, but amazing.

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We stopped at ‘t Pannekoekenhuisje, a pancake house, for dinner.   When we were walking in, this adorable little moppet was playing in an alligator and I couldn’t resist taking pictures.  Cute, eh?

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Anyway, back to the pancake house.   In the Netherlands, pancake houses aren’t much like iHop or anything that most Americans are used to.  For one thing, the pancakes are served as one ENORMOUS pancake that tends to be larger than the plate it’s served on.  For another thing, not all pancakes are sweet; some are savory.  Mine had mushrooms, garlic, and bacon.

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After dinner, there was more walking around the boardwalk-  this far north, the sun doesn’t set until pretty late, so we had plenty of daylight.  I was tickled by some of the touristy stuff going on here.

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I also think it’s kind of brilliant that spaced along the beach at intervals were poles with cartoon animals, the better to help children remember where their family is set up.   The beach wasn’t very crowded when we were there, but I can imagine that on a warmer day it would be utterly slammed with people.

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There’s a seaside trampoline park here!  I was tempted to go for a bounce.

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Not far from our hotel is a pretty amazing sculpture garden.  We missed it on our first trip down the beach because it’s up on the sidewalk and we were down on the beach.   On the way back to the hotel, however, it was impossible to miss.  The first two visible statues are enormously tall.

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This was one of my favorites:  the traditional boy with his finger in a dike.

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Most of these were based in fairy tales.  In fact, the entire sculpture garden is called SprookjesBeelden aan Zee (Fairytale Sculptures by the Sea) and it contains 23 sculptures by American sculptor Tom Otterness.

The sculpture garden is part of the Museum Beelden aan Zee, which is dedicated to sculpture and contains roughly one thousand different sculptures.  This one is called Crying Giant.

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Some of them are tiny by comparison.  This one was just a few inches tall.

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The fable of the Lion and the Mouse.  The lion had previously allowed the mouse to go free, and the mouse returned the favor later, after the lion had been captured by hunters.

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The Herring Eater, a twelve meter tall statue.

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I think we all know what this one is.

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I’m not sure which fairy tale this represents.

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These two are looking up at the Herring Eater.  I love the tiny ones hanging out with the midsized ones.

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Hansel and Gretel, trapped in a cage.  The one in the background that I did not capture fully is also Hansel and Gretel, after they’ve been fattened up.

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I really enjoyed these whimsical statues.

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This one was my favorite.

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Gulliver. I didn’t even notice the Lilliputian by his feet until Jenny pointed it out to me later.

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I kept walking for a while after I finished looking at the sculpture garden.  I thought this was quite colorful.

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Further down the beach is a traditional lighthouse and a memorial statue.  I haven’t been able to learn exactly what this is for, but the text on it says November 1813.

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I’ll leave you with one last look out at the North Sea before I close up this post.

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Have you ever been to Scheveningen?