Elena Sonnino surfing in panama

A Chat with Life Coach Elena Sonnino

“The only person who can open the door to inner truths and lead to the light is yourself.” – Baron Baptiste

I met Elena a few years ago while I was working on a United Nations Foundation campaign with Shot@Life. Like me, Elena was a travel blogger at the time and we were both involved in social good campaigns. We had stayed in touch over the years through a community of blogging friends and our paths crossed again two years back when Elena launched a new career as a life coach. She reached out to let me know what she was doing and invited a handful of friends to participate in her first group-based life coaching seminar. It was a six week program all done online and once a week our fantastic group of ten women came together for a live online talk with Elena leading us along the way through life coaching, meditation and yoga. It was a life-changing seminar for me which stirred many emotions I honestly didn’t know I’d had. I continued on after doing a summer session of 1:1 coaching sessions with Elena and have followed her work ever since. She is an incredibly inspiring woman who has reinvented her career three times, beat cancer at a very young age and is now working to help others like me chase their dreams. Naturally, I invited Elena to participle in my Inspiring Women series. Here is what she has to say.

Where did you grow up? What were some of your favorite activities during your childhood?

I grew up in Michigan after moving to the United States from Italy when I was 2 ½. My favorite activities were reading, playing teacher with my dolls, and playing tennis. Most of my summers (until I was in junior high) were spent in Italy with my grandparents, in Venice, at a beach, and in the mountains. I loved being at the beach and getting gelato with my paternal grandparents and being in the mountains and searching for “fragoline” (mini-strawberries) with my maternal grandparents.

What/Where did you study in college and what was your first career outside of school?

I studied International Affairs and Russian studies at George Washington University. My first job was as a study abroad liaison in Florence Italy until I returned to the U.S. and went to graduate school to pursue a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction and eventually began a 12-year career as an elementary school teacher.

What shaped you into the woman you are today? Was there one defining moment?

Oh my goodness. I feel like there were several defining moments. Moving to Italy on my own after completing my undergraduate. Being diagnosed and then treated for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in my early 20’s. One failed engagement, the birth of my miracle baby daughter, my divorce, and then day I tried paragliding in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (Read about Elena’s experience here). If I had to choose one, it would probably be the process of watching my daughter become a young woman – she has always been one of my greatest teachers.

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Lake Möserer See, Seefeld Austria

Our First Family Hike in Austria: The Circular Walk from Seefeld to Lake Möserer See

One of the most important reasons why we chose to visit Austria over all the other amazing European countries was for the Alps. I am absolutely obsessed with mountains and I believe that Scottish-American environmental philosopher and advocate John Muir’s famous saying “The mountains are calling and I must go” is one of my life’s mantras. Hiking is one of my most beloved activities and any opportunity I get to be in the mountains, I will wholeheartedly take.

My last real hike in the Alps was back in the summer of 2012, when my dad and I spent six days trekking in Vanoise National Park in the heart of the French Alps of Savoie. During that hike, we left town and spent the next week hiking hut to hut in the Alps and by the end of the week I felt incredibly refreshed and rejuvenated. It was so amazing to escape modern day life for awhile and spend every minute of the day outside in nature. There were no phones, no internet and nothing to do at the end of a day’s hike but take off your boots and relax with a glass of local wine in hand.  I don’t think I ever feel so alive and at peace as I do after a week in the mountains.

For our trip to Austria, we couldn’t escape the entire time to the mountains since we had my two children along, but we could spend as much time as possible doing day hikes. My son could have handled some longer overnight hut to hut hikes but my eleven year old daughter was new to the experience and the last thing I wanted to do was scare her away from my passion. Instead, I had to make sure to select the right amount of hiking to do and be mindful of the distance and difficulty. I would learn that there are three different levels of hiking in Austria: Beginner (mostly flat, wide open paths for all ages and abilities), Intermediate (uphill, high altitude paths that have some steep ascents and decents and narrow paths at points) and Advanced (no way would I bring my daughter on these ones as there are points where you need to grab on to a railing and one slip and you could stumble down very very far). Obviously we stuck to the beginning and intermediate trails but learned on our second hike that proper footwear and hiking poles are an absolute must for intermediate trails and these trails can be a bit scary for a kid who has never hiked way up high).

After a hearty lunch in town at a local Austrian restaurant, it was time for us to get out and do our very first hike in Austria. The sun had finally come out from underneath its hiding place in the clouds and we could finally see the mountains. At first glance of the breathtaking snow-capped peaks of the Austrian Alps, I smiled. I was going to love this place, I could feel it in my bones.

Seefeld, Austria

The Olympiaregion Seefeld is surrounded by the Kerwendel National Park, the Wildmoos Nature Proetcion Area, the stunning Wetterstein Massif and the Hohe Munde mountain. It is a stunning area for skiing, hiking and enjoying the glory of the Austrian Alps.

Adventure Travel Austria Europe TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking
Hiking in Seefeld in Tirol, Austria

Our First Family Trip to Europe: Eight Days in Austria

This past June, my children and I had the wonderful opportunity to take a big trip to Europe. As an avid traveler and a Europe lover, it was something I had dreamed of doing for years and my husband Paul agreed that it was the perfect time to bring our middle school-aged children to Europe. The idea for the trip hatched after my mother decided to do a transgenerational girls trip with me, my daughter, my sister and my niece to London and Paris in early June. Since we were going all that way, why not add on our own family trip as well? Paul and I thought long and hard about where else in Europe we would like to go and after much consideration we chose Austria as it offered the perfect mix of hiking, mountains, history and castles for our family to enjoy. We bought a Lonely Planet guidebook  and began the arduous task of trying to decide where to go and what to try to squeeze in within 8 days.  I realized shortly after researching the trip that we could have used an entire month to truly get to know Austria. It is an amazing place especially for an outdoor lover like me. With careful planning we were able to figure out how to best schedule our time and see the best of Austria for our family of four.

As often happens in life, there were a few unexpected bumps along the road. Unfortunately a few months before the trip, Paul threw out his back and traveling anywhere was out of the question. By that time, we had everything planned and booked. We could have canceled the Austria portion of the trip but then my son Max would not have been able to go either as he was supposed to fly over with Paul and meet us in Munich. Thankfully my father was able to take his place and despite the disappointment that Paul couldn’t come, there was a silver lining. My dad got to spend twelve unexpected yet priceless days with his daughter and his grandchildren in Germany and Austria.

We met in Munich and head off to our first destination, the town of Schwangau near the border of Austria, where we spent two nights. The main reason for visiting Schwangau was to show my children King Ludwig II’s magical castle, Neushwanstein, where Paul asked me to be his wife 19 years ago. It ended up being a rather emotional visit since Paul was not able to be there with us but we still enjoyed exploring the castle, visiting neighboring Füssen, and staying in the beautiful Bavarian countryside. My thirteen year old son Max, who is already a whooping 6’1″ tall and has a voracious appetite, also truly loved the food! Thankfully we would find just as hearty and delightful food in neighboring Austria where we would be spending the next eight days before heading back to Germany to fly home.

The heart of our Austrian adventure began two days later when we left Germany for our short hour and a half drive to Seefeld in Tirol, our first stop, where we would stay for the next three days. We left Schwangau after yet another hearty German breakfast in an assault of rain. Ironically, it reminded me of the day of my engagement roughly 19 years ago when my husband and I rode the horse and carriage up the hill to see Neuschwanstein in the rain. The thick gray clouds blanketed the surrounding Alps and I was dismayed that what was supposed to be a beautiful drive was shrouded in rain, clouds and fog. It didn’t take long until we reached the Austrian-German border and had to do a quick stop at the nearest petrol station to get a Vignitte (a motorway tax that is imposed on all cars who travel on Austria’s autobahns). I had no idea that this was necessary until my dad told me how he once got a ticket in Austria because he didn’t have a Vignitte. Thankfully this time we were prepared and were only set back about 9 euros.

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Pfarrkiroche St. Maria und St. Florian (The Parish Church of St. Maria & Florian) Schwangau Germany

Uncovering the Spectacular Beauty of the Parish Church of St. Maria and Florian

Has there ever been one of those magical travel moments when you decide on a whim to explore the area around you and uncover a hidden treasure? That is how I felt late one afternoon when I decided to take an evening walk to the neighboring village of Waltenhofen near where we were staying in the outskirts of Schwangau, Germany. I had just returned from an emotional afternoon revisiting the fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein, the very place my husband proposed to me 19 years ago, and needed some alone time to reflect on the experience. My husband had unfortunately not been able to come along on the trip as planned due to an injury and I ended up bringing our two children and my father to this special place despite it all. It had been a difficult few months since my husband’s back injury and this trip was in a sense a sort of revival of my broken spirit.

I left my daughter Sophia back at the hotel for some downtime while I set off into the Bavarian countryside with my mind full of thought. I wondered what the summer would hold for us as a family once we returned from our three-week trip in Europe. Would my husband’s back injury be resolved or would we continue to live in a gray cloud of uncertainty.

I walked slowly along the beautiful country path looking out at the pastures of horses and cows and taking in the nostalgic beauty of such a place. It felt like this area hadn’t changed much at all since the day King Ludwig II built his sensational castle Neuschwanstein as a testament to his love of the middle ages. Farmers rode by on their tractors. Cows grazed. Horses neighed and galloped gently across the unfettered fields of joy. Bees buzzed and drank the rich nectar from the flowers. It was lovely.

The dark sky had slightly lifted and let in a few rays of light, bathing the dark green fields with warmth. Unintentionally I knew where I was headed. To the place I saw the day before during lunch. The mysterious church standing proudly at the foot of the village of Walfenhofen. It beckoned my curiosity as I always am fascinated by the interior of a good European church. I normally find that once I open the large wooden doors, that what is hidden inside is incredible. Ironically enough, this visit I would never step foot within the church doors and I’d find myself instead mesmerized by what laid in its exterior.

Schwangau, Germany

Pfarrkiroche St. Maria und St. Florian (The Parish Church of St. Maria & Florian) off in the distance in the village of Waltenhofen.

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Humanity Unified

Meet Maria Russo of Humanity Unified

A few years ago, I met Maria Russo, founder of the award-wining online media platform for travel and social good, The Culture-ist  and Executive Director of Humanity Unified, a nonprofit organization that invests in education, food security projects and economic development programs to empower people to rise above poverty. I was instantly inspired by her incredible work to improve the lives of women and communities in Rwanda and have followed her work ever since. I had the opportunity to catch up with Maria and learn more about her life and what it is like to lead Humanity Unified. Here is what she has to say.

Tell me about your childhood. Where did you grow up? What were your hobbies and passions? Do you have any siblings?

I grew up with my parents, younger sister and maternal grandmother in a quaint little town in NJ called Berkeley Heights. Our house was always full and family time was everything – most weekends were spent visiting cousins, aunts and uncles and home cooked meals were always at the center of the celebration. As a child I was drawn to history, dance and nature. I could spend hours exploring rocks, worms, flowers and trees. I think my passion for humanitarian work was sparked by my involvement with the Girl Scouts of America. The service projects helped me to see beyond my own needs and focus on the needs of others at a very young age.

Did you travel as a child? Where was the first place you went that inspired you? When was the first time you left the country?

Most of my travels as a child were within the U.S, with a few trips to the Caribbean peppered in between. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I traveled across continents to Italy and shortly after to South Africa. These trips, particularly my time in South Africa, sparked an unquenchable desire to see the world that lead me to over 35 countries over the following 10 years.

Where did you go to college and what did you study? Why did you choose this area?

I went to American University in Washington DC. where I studied journalism and international studies. Throughout high school I became increasingly interested in politics and international affairs. I think it was the realization that a vast, complex, dynamic world existed far beyond the world I had known growing up. I became avidly involved in the Junior Statesman of America and traveled to D.C. three times a year for student conferences. It was through my involvement with the organization that I became infatuated with the history and culture of D.C., so the decision to attend college there seemed intuitive. My time at AU deepened my interest in journalism and helped me realize how I could marry it with my love of global affairs.

What inspired you to launch The Culture-ist and when did you start it? Tell me more about the mission behind it and how it is run. What did you learn from this line of work?

My husband and I launched The Culture-ist in 2011 as a passion project that allowed us to engage in and develop our passions – for me that was writing about things I cared most about such as travel, global affairs, sustainable development, women’s issues, entrepreneurship and humanitarian work. The Culture-ist was also a really powerful channel of connection for us. I was constantly interviewing people, working with other writers and collaborating with media organizations and brands…it was truly a gift to meet so many interesting individuals who were contributing to the world in unique and inspiring ways. So far I’ve learned that no matter the line of work you’re in, kindness and openness is key to building a business that is grounded in integrity. I’ve also learned that while it’s important to be flexible, sacrificing your vision to ‘keep up’ with fads and trends will have you chasing something that will steer you far off track only to force you to back pedal to your original intention.

Humanity Unified

Maria and Anthony Russo. Photo credit: Humanity Unified

What inspired you to launch Humanity Unified? 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be involved in humanitarian work. To me, a life spent trying to make the world more equitable for all just seemed to make sense. It also creates a deep sense of purpose and gratitude for the life I have now. For years I waited for the right time to launch a nonprofit and an opening finally came in 2014. Right around that time Anthony and I traveled to Rwanda where we explored program possibilities. We knew that we were interested in investing in education, food security and economic development and serendipitously found a local Rwandan NGO that aligned with our vision and mission for Humanity Unified. After almost two years of developing our programming and completing the 501(c)(3) application process we launched our first project.

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Superior Hiking Trail: Hike to Leveaux Mountain

After decades of visiting and hiking in the North Shore, it is hard to believe that I had never done the classic 3.2 mile roundtrip hike to the top of Leveaux Mountain. Located adjacent to the more popular trail up Oberg Mountain in Tofte, Minnesota, the Leveaux hike affords a more challenging jaunt up one of Minnesota’s sawtooth mountains, a small range of low mountains that extend 30 miles from Carlton Peak in Tofte, Minnesota, just short of the Canadian border, to Grand Marais.

The Sawtooth Mountains rise gradually from Lake Superior and have a steep, sharp drop-off on the north face giving their profile the look of a saw hence their name. They are part of the Superior National Forest and Superior Hiking Trail and are home to many gorgeous hikes with incredible views of Lake Superior and the surrounding boreal forest of spruce, birth and fir. For those unfamiliar with Minnesota, the Superior Hiking Trail has been rated among one of the best long distance hiking trails in the country by Outside Magazine. Thankfully there are plenty of day hikes and spur hikes on the Superior Hiking Trail affording a multitude of options for day hikers and those with young kids.

The Leveaux trailhead starts at the end of the parking lot about 2 miles off of Highway 61 (mile marker 87.4) on Onion River Road near Tofte, Minnesota. The parking lot is used for both the Oberg and Leveaux Mountain trails. I had been to this parking lot many times as the Oberg Mountain hike is one of our all time family favorites but surprisingly had never bothered to check out the Leveaux trail. Shorter than the hike up Leveaux at roughly 2.6 miles, the Oberg trail is an awesome hike for all ages and abilities. In less than an hour roundtrip, you can get up on top of Oberg and see a technicolor of fall colors if you time it right. I have probably done the Oberg hike at least a half a dozen times. This time my dad and I wanted something different so we chose the less popular Leveaux.

As we set off through the thick forest, we did not see a soul and had the entire hike to ourselves except for one lonely hiker. It was a far cry from the crowds of hikers we saw just the day before at the Temperance River Park and judging by the parking lot at the trailhead, over 90% of the hikers in the other cars were doing the Oberg trail. The first mile of the trail is through thick boreal forest of spruce, pine and fir trees and then you start the climb up to the first and second scenic loops into the maple trees. The first loop is a little longer and then you reach the shorter second loop, where you are rewarded with stunning views of Lake Superior as well as the forest below.

Adventure Travel Minnesota North America TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking United States
Temperance River State Park

Superior Hiking Trail: Temperance River to Carlton Peak

Growing up in Minnesota is a treasure. With over 10,000 lakes, numerous state parks and hundreds of miles of hiking trails, there are plenty of places to refuel, find beauty and get outdoors. One of my favorite places to get outside in Minnesota is the North Shore of Lake Superior.  Home to the 310 mile long Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) and one of the launching off points for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), the North Shore is blessed with hundreds of miles of hiking trails cutting through pristine boreal forests, untouched lakes, rugged shoreline and places so remote you won’t see a soul. I have been fortunate to have visited the North Shore ever since I was a small child and it is among these very trails that I fell in love with hiking and being outdoors.

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the North Shore with my two kids and parents who were visiting from Arizona. Going “up north” as we Minnesotans love to call it, is a rite of passage for my family and the tradition began as soon as I could walk. My dad used to carry me on his back along the many hiking trails up north and one of our all time favorites for years has been the seven mile hike to Eagle Mountain, Minnesota’s highest point. We actually did that last summer for my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary and brought along three generations of hikers – my dad, me and the grandchildren. It was wonderful!

This time I desperately wanted to find something new to do and after an unsuccessful stop at the Ranger Station in Tofte, I realized that I knew more than the young ranger did about the hiking in this part of the state. I had done them all many times. It wasn’t until I purchased a local hiking guide called Hiking the North Shore: 50 fabulous day hikes in Minnesota’s spectacular Lake Superior region by Andrew Slade, that I discovered a few new ones I didn’t know about before. With only two full days, we had to pick and choose which hikes to do, and the first day we decided to revisit the Temperance River State Park and hike 6 miles roundtrip from the Temperance River gorge trail to the top of Carlton Peak. I was elated to have a new hike to do.

The Temperance River State Park is one of many state parks along the North Shore of Minnesota and is located near Tofte off of Highway 61 (near mile market 80.3). The park encompasses over 5,000 acres of rugged beauty with 6 miles of hiking trails as well as a spur trail to the Superior Hiking Trail. The park is most renown for its namesake, the mighty Temperance River which is the longest river on the North Shore stretching over 38 miles to its terminus in Lake Superior. What makes this park and hiking there so magical is its winding systems of dramatic gorges, waterfalls and potholes, all carved out over millions of years ago by the incredible force of the water. If you hike downstream, you can see where the Temperance River dumps into the mouth of Lake Superior and if you head upstream, you will be spellbound by its incredible gorges, some dropping hundreds of feet below.

Map of Superior Hiking Trail. Photo credit: Superior Hiking Trail.org

The most common hike in the park is the 2.6 mile loop that curves around both sides of the river and takes between 1-2 hours. It is relatively easy however be mindful if you are bringing young children as there are no fences near the steep edges along the gorge. While the view is very impressive, it is a long dangerous way down! There are a few fascinating placards along the way telling visitors about the history of how the gorges were created over 12,000 years ago at the end of the Great Ice Age. You can also view the remains of an ancient lava flow and where a roaring waterfall used to exist.

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How Elisabetta Colabianchi of Kurandza is Helping Girls in Mozambique Go to School

While the world often seems like a rather daunting place, there are some truly amazing, inspiring people out there doing tremendous good and making an enormous impact on such critical issues as fighting poverty, climate change, educational opportunity, and improving the lives of women and girls. Over the years of running my blog, I’ve met some of these changemakers and have been impressed to learn that many of them are women (like Elisabetta Colabianchi, Founder of Kurandza) helping other women and girls around the world.

To be a woman or girl in the some parts of the world is a lot more challenging than a man or a boy: Most girls give birth well before 18, are married young, are not able to attend school, live in poverty and have less financial opportunities than men. However, when you invest in a woman or girl, the opportunity to make a difference and impact change is immense and creates a ripple impact throughout the entire community. That is why investing in girls and women is not only the right thing to do but also very smart.

This new series, Inspiring Women, is all about the courageous women who are taking a leap of faith and making a huge impact in the world. These women are not getting enough attention in the mainstream press so my goal is to honor them and shed light on their inspiring work.

Photo of Elisabetta and Percina, our co-founders of Kurandza

Photo of Elisabetta and Percina, our co-founders. Best friends and a strong team. All photos in this post are credited to Elisabetta Colabianchi.

Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls
Stockton Island , The Apostle Islands

A Weekend Sailing in the Apostle Islands

I have always dreamed of exploring the Apostle Islands. Located off the shore of the Bayfield Peninsula in Northern Wisconsin, the Apostle Islands are an archipelago of 22 islands each unique and varied formed by ice, wind and waves over millions of years in the heart of Lake Superior. Known for their wild beauty, historic lighthouses, diverse wildlife, boreal forests, wind-blown beaches and stunning sea caves, the Apostle Islands offer endless choices for exploration either by boat, ferry, kayak and once ashore, on foot.

My first visit to the Apostle Islands was 2 years ago with my husband on a weekend trip to Bayfield, Wisconsin. During our visit, we only caught a tiny glimpse of the mysterious Apostle Islands while we took the ferry to Madeline Island, the largest and only inhabited island of the group and not an official part of the 69,372 acre Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. It was that visit that sparked my fascination with the Apostle Islands and my longing to see them by sailboat.

Last year, our neighbors bought a 42-foot sailboat that they keep in Bayfield and they make the trip to the Apostle Islands every weekend in the summer and early fall. We had been invited a few times before but the timing never seemed to work out for us until last weekend. On a whim, my daughter Sophia and I accepted their generous invitation to spend the weekend sailing with them and their two children. I was overjoyed.

Apostle Islands WI

The shore of Madeline Island. Photo taken during August 2016 trip.

Arrival at the Port Superior Marina

We left on Friday afternoon and arrived at the Port Superior Marina just before the sun began to set. Since it was too late to set sail, we spent the first night at the marina and set off for our first island early the next morning. For all my years growing up in Minnesota and near water, I had never slept on a sailboat before nor truly sailed. Ironically, I even spent two summers working at a yacht club on a large Minnesota lake yet never learned to sail. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect and whether my fast-paced type A personality would be able to handle slowing down and just being still. Would I get restless being on a boat? Would I enjoy it? Would I get motion sickness?  These were the questions that circled my head as we loaded our duffel bags and groceries into the sailboat cabin.  Surprisingly, I was in for an entirely new experience which wound up being much different from what I had imagined and I absolutely loved my time at sail.

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A Revisit to Neuschwanstein Castle

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. I will never forget those words of wisdom which came from a stranger that fateful day in June of 1999 as we rode up the hill to reach Neuschwanstein Castle in a horse and carriage on a dark, rainy day.

It was nearing the end of our week-long trip throughout Germany, following the Romantic Road and visiting as many castles and medieval Bavarian towns as we could possibly cram in to our time off from work. Neuschwanstein was supposed to be the crème de la crème, our last fairytale castle we would see before heading into Switzerland for a few days before flying home. Yet alas we woke up to a thick blanket of fog and rain, shrouding our view of Ludwig II’s masterpiece perched high up above the town of Schwangau surrounded by snow-covered mountains. We had come so far to see Neuschwanstein yet she was nowhere to be found beneath the dark coat of clouds.

I was obviously dismayed about the ugly day and issued a complaint to Paul, my boyfriend at the time. If only I knew what was going on through his head at that moment for this was the day he had planned to ask me to be his wife. It was after my disgruntled complaint about the weather that an older woman next to us said those unforgettable words, almost as if she knew that it was going to be a very special day, a day that would change our lives forever.

We rode up to the castle in silence as I pondered her advice and realized that of course she was right. There was no reason to let the rain ruin our visit and perhaps the rain kept away the hordes of tourists who usually descend upon the castle on a lovely day.

After the tour of the castle, the clouds dissipated and the rain stopped. It still wasn’t perfect but good enough to take a walk around the grounds. We heard that there was a short hike behind the castle to a viewpoint and decided to follow the trail. There was not a soul around but us as we crossed the famous Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge) over the Pöllat Gorge and into the thick of the forest. We heard grumbles of thunder off in the distance and feared we were going to get trapped in a storm but continued on up. Perhaps it was a sign of the emotions going on within Paul’s mind as he knew what he was about to do.

We rounded a corner and there sitting majestically upon a steep ridge was the castle. The view was magnificent and took my breath away. It was then that I looked and noticed that Paul was down on one knee and asking me to marry him. It felt absolutely surreal. We had been together for five years and I knew that he was the man I wanted to share my life with. Saying yes was one of the happiest moments of my life until a year later I said “I do”, and then a few years after that we had our two children Max and Sophia.

Bringing our children to the very place where “it all began” was a dream of ours for years. Yet unfortunately a few months before our big trip to Europe, Paul injured his back and couldn’t go. My father ended up taking his place which was very special yet bittersweet knowing that Paul would not be along. Since our castle tickets were booked months in advance, we still went ahead with our plans to see Neuschwanstein.  Although it never felt the same without Paul, I’m still glad I was about the bring the kids. Here is the story of our visit.

Neuschwanstein Castle

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Füssen, Germany

An Afternoon Exploring the Bavarian town of Füssen

Have you ever had one of those unexpected travel surprises?  When on a whim you decide to go check out a place and it ends up being delightfully fantastic? That is how I felt about our unplanned afternoon in Füssen, a historic town at the edge of Bavaria and the end of the Romantic Road. Settled way back in the days of the Roman rule, Füssen’s pastel-colored buildings, artful frescos, cobblestone streets, outdoor cafes and eateries, and medieval churches and castles offers enough old world charm to make any visitor fall in love with her nostalgic beauty. Located only 3.5 kilometers from Schwangau and Ludwig II’s epic castle, Neuschwanstein, Füssen is a wonderful place to visit or base your trip in Bavaria. Had we known about Füssen, we definitely would have planned on more time there.

We arrived at our hotel Landhotel Huberhof in the lush countryside outside of Schwangau mid-afternoon on a Saturday. The village was alive with Germans on holiday riding bikes, eating and drinking beer in the outdoor beer garden and taking in the fresh country air. It was a glorious Saturday afternoon in late June and we certainly didn’t want to waste it.  We had already spent the morning flying to Munich from Paris and then driving an hour and a half to reach Schwangau. It was time to get out and explore our surroundings.

After unpacking our belongings, we decided to go check out the neighboring town of Füssen. My father had passed through Füssen years ago on a driving trip through the heart of Bavaria and remembered it was a neat town. We had no expectations or pre-conceived notions about what we would find. We simply knew that the town is much bigger than tiny Schwangau and thought it would be worth a visit. Little did we know, we would discover a real treasure of a city.

Schwangau, Germany

The stunning countryside surrounding Schwangau.

Schwangau, Germany

Heading towards Füssen, we can see the magical Neuschwanstein, off in the distant foothills.

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A Stay at Landhotel Huberhof in the heart of Schwangau’s Countryside

After an amazing ten days in London and Paris with my mom, sister, and niece, it was hard to say goodbye. We had a magical, unforgettable trip together with three generations but it was time to move on to Part II of our European trip. My daughter Sophia and I boarded a short flight to Munich where we would be meeting up with my son Max and my father to continue our journey through Southern Germany and on to Austria for the next 12 days. The trip was bittersweet as it was planned over a year ago with the intention that my husband Paul would fly with Max and meet us in Munich. It would be our first family trip to Europe. A trip I had dreamed about since the day they were born.

As often happens in life, there were a few unpleasant bumps along the road. Unfortunately a few months before the trip, Paul threw out his back and traveling anywhere was out of the question. We had everything planned and booked. Thankfully my father was able to take his place and despite the disappointment that Paul couldn’t come, there was a silver lining. My dad would be able to spend twelve unexpected yet priceless days with his daughter and his grandchildren.

When we originally planned the trip over a year ago, Paul and I thought hard about where we wanted to go for our children’s first European trip. We wanted to make sure it was memorable and fun for the whole family yet most of all for the kids. Too many big cities and museums would tire them out and we all love being outside in nature. After much consideration of all the amazing places we could visit, we chose Austria as it offered the perfect mix of hiking, mountains, history and castles for our family to enjoy. If we were going to Austria, there was no doubt we would have to show our kids the very spot above Neuschwanstein where Paul proposed to me 19 years ago. It was right on the way to Austria from Munich.

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