Before we say bye to 2015…

A tram in Lisbon, Portugal

A tram in Lisbon, Portugal.

Happy 2016!

Before 2015 completely fades into the horizon, I wanted to take a moment to appreciate various amazing things I discovered over the year. (Quick note: Some of them were made much earlier, but they took a while to find me.)

1. Books

Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice

How to Get Lucky: 13 techniques for discovering and taking advantage of life’s good breaks, by Max Gunther – I’m an amateur self-help fan, and like how you can pick and choose each author’s advice depending on how it applies to your own life. This book appealed to me especially because Gunther (a one-time journalist) dissects how to make or break your luck in a very rational, straightforward style. So, it’s old but many of the principles hold true. I learned about this on the Farnam Street blog.

I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend (audiobook), by Martin Short – This book has a remarkable amount of depth and humility for a celebrity memoir. My advice: For sure listen to it. Short is a brilliant voice actor and vocally recounting scenes from his life makes the stories still more intimate. It’s cheesy, but by the end you really do feel like one of his best friends.

The Paradox Choice, by Barry Schwartz – Are you a Maximizer or a Satisficer? This book was written in 2004 yet, even today, still spills over with interesting ideas about how the number of options we encounter can overwhelm us. (And perhaps still offer some value.) Regardless of whether you agree with Schwartz’ conclusions, it’s a fascinating way to look at how we make decisions.

2. TV

Friday Night Lights – Honestly, apart from Portugal, this might be my favorite of this whole list. I was late to watch the series, but was in its grips from episode 3 or 4 up until the very end. (That said, feel free to skip Season 2.)

3. Film


Clouds of Sils Maria – When Olivier Assayas does well, he does wonderfully–this movie is a great example. Instead of playing some mysterious European, Juliette Binoche’s character is grappling with very real issues of aging and friendship. Kristen Stewart gives her role complete and utter authenticity.


A Most Violent Year – I’m terrible about watching violence; fortunately this movie doesn’t have much of it. It’s retro and dramatic and thrilling in all the most watchable ways.


Digging for Fire – Having seen a few of Joe Swanberg’s earlier movies, I thought this ran a risk of being too indie and precious. It turned out to be friendly and universal.

4. Travel

Pena Palace, Portugal

Pena Palace, Portugal

Portugal – Somehow everything there managed to be vibrant, historic, and kind. I can’t wait to go back.

 

5. Wellness & Beauty

 

Smith’s Rosebud Salve  – Really, truly moisturizes lips. Finally!

Nutribullet – Makes green smoothies so much easier.

Running an ice cube over your face – Love how it smoothes and tightens skin.

San Juan – Palacio de Santa Catalina

La Fortaleza - Palacio de Santa Catalina grounds and fountainsTwo years have already passed, but it recently occurred to me I never posted about one of my favorite Old San Juan walks: a $3 tour of La Fortaleza – Palacio de Santa Catalina (aka the Governor’s house). It was built between 1533 and 1540, and, according to Viator, is the the “oldest functioning executive mansion in the Western Hemisphere.”

The house doesn’t have the normal gloss of an official residence–instead the structure and grounds offer sumptuous blooms, palm trees, and ceramics (not to mention a view of the bay).

La Fortaleza - Palacio de Santa Catalina view of the water

La Fortaleza - Palacio de Santa Catalina grounds and fountains

La Fortaleza - Palacio de Santa Catalina - mansion

La Fortaleza - Palacio de Santa Catalina - palm trees

Lovely Las Vegas

Las Vegas - dusk

I went to Las Vegas for the first time a few weeks ago, and, as the plane descended, became immediately enamored of its sweep, sun, and palm trees. There’s so much to do outside The Strip (and on it too): The Venetian, Hoover Dam, Colorado River, Cirque du Soleil, Fremont Street Experience… I’m already looking forward to my next trip there, hopefully in 2015.

Sunset magazine had the most interesting info when planning my itinerary; here’s their article from a year ago that really sold me on going.

Vienna to Bratislava – by hydrofoil

Twin City Liner - Leaving Vienna

Leaving Vienna on the Twin City Liner, en route to Bratislava.

I’ve talked about what happened once I arrived in Bratislava, but now it’s time to share how I actually got there.

As it happens, this is another coworker recommendation–what can I say, I work with knowledgeable people! Back in January, when I was telling the world about my upcoming trip to Vienna, a well-traveled colleague mentioned he’d taken a hydrofoil along the Danube from there to Bratislava, and the experience was “really nice.”

This would end up being the activity I planned the entire trip’s schedule around, since the Twin City Liner hydrofoil opens each year in mid-April. (And let it be noted the planning took several emails back and forth with Twin City Liner, since their website’s booking setup didn’t totally work. But when you do email they are extremely friendly and accommodating!)

It turns out my coworker was indeed right–the 1 hour, 15-minute boat ride along the Danube did have a special feel to it. After running around Vienna for several days, what a relief it was to just sit back and contemplate the river.

First, the beginning: the Vienna Twin City Liner station (it took me forever to find this place!).

Twin City Liner - Vienna station

The Twin City Liner Vienna station. (Abgang Marienbrücke, Schwedenplatz, 1010 Wien, Austria.)

Before long, we were immersed in lovely Danube scenery. (You might notice most of my pictures are from the front of the boat; the first-row upgrade was without a doubt worth it.)

Scenery on the Danube River

The Danube River in its natural grandeur.

Here’s the boat’s interior:

Twin City Liner interior

What the Twin City Looks like from the last row. (There’s also a small deck on the back.)

Passing the Devin Castle ruins was one of the trip’s highlights:

Devin Castle ruins

The Devin Castle ruins, with my first of many dilapidated Slovakian buildings.

Not long after that, Bratislava came into sight, with its recognizable Bratislava Castle:

Bratislava from the Danube

Bratislava in the distance, from the Danube River.

As we approached Bratislava, it did dawn on me that I was finally about to go behind the once-“Iron Curtain” for the first time. So, here we go…

Bratislava Twin City Liner station

Bratislava’s waterfront, including its Soviet-style Twin City Liner station. (Fajnorovo Nabrezie 2, Bratislava 811 02, Slovakia [Staré Mesto].)

And one last look, before I ventured into unknown, historically rich territory:

Twin City Liner hydrofoil

One last farewell (or, in Slovak, “Dovidenia”).

Hallstatt, Austria

Hallstatt, Austria

Hallstatt is best known for being home to the world’s first (known) salt mine.

In addition to its castles and cake, Austria endeared itself to me still more when I discovered the tiny lakeside village of Hallstatt. Set in Austria’s lake district (Salzkammergut), Hallstatt is one of the tamer UNESCO World Heritage sites I’ve visited, offering stunning views of the Alps and a general sense of serenity.

When planning out the trip’s itinerary, it took me a while to decide what order to visit all these places (Fly into Vienna, or leave it as a grand finale?). But by the end, I was relieved to have visited the grandeur of Vienna first, and left the last few days of my trip for soaking up these more natural wonders.

Owing to its millennia of salt mining, Hallstatt is an archaeologist’s dream–people have lived here for 7,000+ years, and it serves as namesake for the Celtic Hallstatt culture (approx. 800-400 BC). Hefty cultural significance aside, it’s still just a fun place to walk around. (Taking a Bob’s Tour, which I’d highly recommend, my fellow tourists and I had a couple hours to take in the town and its lake.)

Believe it or not, there’s a full recreation of Hallstatt in China, built by the Chinese company Minmetals for $960 million. Something makes me doubt the Sachertorte and Apfelstrudel can quite be replicated, though.

 

Evangelical Church of Hallstatt and ferry

Hallstatt’s Evangelical church (built in 1785) and the ferry we took across the lake.

Hallstatt mountains

For those with a few hours, take the salt-mine funicular up to the Hallstatt upper valley, offering panoramic views of the area.

Hallstatt Cemetery

Hallstatt’s well-known cemetery, where a grave can be re-occupied every 10 years.

 Hallstätter See

Hallstätter See, taken from the ferry that crosses the lake.

Mondsee Abbey

Mondsee Abbey, where the Sound of Music’s wedding scene was filmed. (We stopped here later in the tour.)