Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Acropolis

A tour of ancient Athens begins at the Acropolis and my advice is to start early because it will soon be totally over-run with tourists. Arriving right after the 8 am opening, we had the place nearly to ourselves.

Acropolis means high city, also called the sacred rock, and this iconic citadel is where people in ancient times sought refuge when the city below was threatened.  A rocky hill overlooking the city is easier to defend, so it makes sense that the most important and sacred monuments were also erected here.  The Acropolis went through many iterations but the ruins that are present today were built in the 5th century BCE after the previous structures were destroyed by the Persians.  This new construction occurred under the oversight of the statesman, Pericles, during the golden age of Athens and during the lifetime of the philosopher, Socrates.  (He’s the dude who proclaimed, “The unexamined life is not worth living” before he drank hemlock when sentenced to death for impiety which basically means he advocated questioning the religious beliefs of the day, aka Greek mythology.)

You’ll enter through the Propylaea, a monumental gateway built around 437 BCE that was definitely designed to impress the visitor.

Propylon, Entrance to Acropolis

Brian, Jim, and Abi at the Propylaea, Entrance to Acropolis

Entrance to Acropolis

Entrance to Acropolis

This fellow, however, doesn’t seem too impressed.  It’s just another day in the neighborhood for him.  Don’t be surprised by the number of dogs or the scaffolding you see when you visit.  Only some of the dogs are actually strays and 2500 year old ruins require shoring up on a regular basis.  The current restoration project has been in progress for over 30 years.

Once inside the gates, the main attraction is the Parthenon, a temple built in 432 BCE to honor Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and (sometimes) war, after whom the city of Athens is named.

Michael, Jim, and me at the Parthenon

Michael, Jim, and me at the Parthenon

A chryselephantine (ivory and gold) statue of Athena originally stood 40 feet tall in the center of the temple until the Byzantines took it to Constantinople in the 5th Century AD, where it disappeared sometime thereafter.  Athena held a six foot statue of Nike, the goddess of victory, in her right hand and in her left she held her shield with a snake behind it.

Today, a smaller replica is on display in the National Archeological Museum in Athens.

Statue of Athena in the National Archeological Museum Athens

Statue of Athena in the National Archeological Museum Athens

Much of the damage to the Parthenon that is still visible today occurred in 1687 when mainland Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire.  At that time the Parthenon was used as a storehouse for ammunition.  (Previously, it was a mosque among other things.)  When the Venetians attacked, cannonballs striking the Parthenon caused the gunpowder stored inside to explode, killing at least 300 people and destroying 28 of the columns along with other damage to the edifice (Nova, 2008).

As an interesting side note, there is a full-scale replica of the Parthenon and the statue of Athena in, of all places, Nashville, Tennessee, in the USA. The Parthenon replica was built in 1897 as part of the state’s centennial celebration and the statue of Athena was completed in 1990 although the gold gilt wasn’t added until 2002.

The Erechtheion is a smaller temple on the Acropolis which was home to the famous Caryatids, six massive female statues.  Their meaning has been lost but their existence has not.  Five of the originals are housed nearby in the New Acropolis Museum and what you see today on the Acropolis are exact replicas.  The sixth is in the British Museum in London.  More on that later.

Erechtheion on the Acropolis

Erechtheion on the Acropolis

Caryatids

Caryatids on Display at the New Acropolis Museum

There is also another small temple on the Acropolis, Athena Nike, which is often overlooked because it’s to the right of the Propylaea upon entry.  Unfortunately, I overlooked it and didn’t get a photo. I did, however, photograph the elevator that makes the Acropolis accessible to the disabled.  That’s probably often overlooked as well.

Elevator up the Acropolis

Elevator up the Acropolis

And here are a couple more scenes from around the Acropolis.

View from Acropolis

View of Athens from the Acropolis

Acropolis from Below

Looking up at the Acropolis from below

Next time  we’ll visit the New Acropolis Museum as we continue our tour of Athens.

Based on events from 2009 and 2013

 

References:

Nova, (2008). Secrets of the Parthenon.  Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/secrets-parthenon.html

 

Categories: Greece, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Athens, Greece

I’m stuck on Greece.  I have a huge crush on Greece.  I ❤ Greece.  You get the picture.  Greece has everything in great abundance that I seek when travelling–scenic beauty including both mountains and seaside, ancient to modern history, glorious weather, friendly people, and delicious food.  It’s the standard I use to compare all other places.  The picture above from Santorini inspires me every time I look at it.

So why is Athens, the capital city of Greece, so disparaged?  When I researched Athens before our first visit in 2009, I was prepared to dislike it.  Friends who had been there and articles I read called Athens dirty, crowded, choked with traffic, hard to get around, and a place to leave as quickly as possible.  I read only grudging praise about the improvements made for the 2004 Olympics followed by blame for the 2004 Olympics as a cause of the economic decline of Greece.

None of this bode particularly well so I was definitely pleasantly surprised when we arrived.  The Metro train system into the historic center from the airport is clean and attractive with excavated artifacts encased for viewing at stations, like mini museums.  Then when you get your first view of the Acropolis, with the Parthenon perched on top, the sight can’t help but impress you with the glorious history alive in this city.

Parthenon Atop the Acropolis

Parthenon Atop the Acropolis

I selected a typically European hotel, small and basic but it has a terrific view, Wi-Fi, and a great breakfast included in the price.  The helpful and accommodating staff didn’t cost any extra either.  The Acropolis View Hotel is located in the historic center and has a view of the Acropolis from the rooftop garden as well as from the balconies of a number of rooms.  I, of course, requested a room with a view at a rate of around $50 per night.  I see the best rate now listed by Trivago is $66.  I’d still pay it.

European hotels aren’t for everyone.  If you’re a Hilton kind of traveller who can’t live without all the amenities of a four or five-star hotel, you won’t be impressed by a two star European hotel.  For me, it’s fine.  This hotel is small but clean and charming, with an elevator (I’ve been to many hotels without one), and European bathrooms are always great, in my experience.  (My husband who is broad-shouldered doesn’t necessarily share my view on bathrooms, however.  Some showers have been a bit snug for him and this is one of them.)  The breakfast is amazing–various meats, cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, breads, cereal, pastries, vegetables, fruit, yogurt, coffee, tea, and juice.  There’s even a panini machine which was a hit with my husband.  A big breakfast is a must for us.  We typically book hotels that include breakfast, eat enough to provide fuel for the day, and pay to go out for one meal a day in the evening.

For our $50 per day, here’s what we got.

And here’s the view from the Acropolis looking down at our hotel.  The hotel sign is circled in red.

Our hotel seen from the Acropolis

Our hotel seen from the Acropolis

The location is very convenient for seeing the historic area on foot which I will tell you about in my next post and a short 10 minute walk from the Acropoli Metro station where we arrived from the airport.  There are also plenty of restaurants and shops nearby.  More on that to come, too.

We like this hotel so much we stayed there when we returned in 2013.  And, when we return to Athens again in the future, I will certainly try to book this hotel.  If this post sounds like I’m advertising for Acropolis View Hotel, I am, sort of, but they don’t know it and they aren’t paying me.

Next time:  Seeing the sights in Athens

 

 

 

Categories: Greece, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Worthwhile in Wyoming

I’m frequently asked whether a place I visited was worthwhile.  If it’s worth the time, effort, or money expended, it’s worthwhile.  For me, this is true in all things travel.  For example, I’ve been a member of AAA for many years.  Some of you are likely thinking, what’s that?  AAA stands for American Automobile Association and they offer emergency roadside assistance.  Having used roadside assistance very little in all those years, you may think it’s not worthwhile.  But, they also provide travel services including TourBooks and maps, and that’s where I believe I’ve gotten my money’s worth.   You can purchase AAA TourBooks on Amazon for $7-$11 so getting them free with my membership is definitely worthwhile to me.  In addition, TourBooks are updated every couple of years so each time I visit an area, I get the new edition.  As part of my travel planning within the United States, I order the TourBooks and maps for each state before I visit and use them to begin planning.  Of course, with the internet, that’s really no longer necessary.  You can search any location and find exhaustive information for your planning purposes.  BUT, when I was in Yellowstone with no connectivity on my smart phone and no wi-fi in the hotel, the old stone tablet, aka paper books and maps, came in VERY handy.  And even outside the park, reception was spotty in Wyoming.  Apparently, ATT has some room for improvement in the western U.S.

Upon leaving Jackson, Wyoming, just like in the old days, my husband drove while I read out loud from the TourBook about every town and attraction along the route and some off the route in case we found something worth a side trip.  We decided to head to Thermopolis, Wyoming, by way of the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway.  Our first stop, however, occurred when we spotted some hunters on the side of the road.  Thinking maybe we’d see some wildlife, we pulled over.

Hunter with his dismembered moose

Hunter with his dismembered moose

Since this was the only moose I’d seen on this trip, I snapped a picture, even though he was no longer in one piece.  I told the hunter I’d really like to see a grizzly bear and he said to come back in the morning to the “gut pile” and I’d likely see one.

By this time, it was late in the afternoon so locating accommodations for the night was our first priority.  The TourBook also contains accommodations so I quickly found a good rate at the new Wind River Hotel and Casino in Riverton, WY.  We’re not gamblers but we like a bargain and this hotel owned by the Northern Arapaho Tribe fit the bill.  By the time we got our AAA discount and all the other perks including gambling dollars and meal vouchers plus some extras because it was my birth month, we figured our room cost around $40.  I found it ironic that no alcohol was allowed anywhere on this property although smoking and gambling were plentiful.

The next morning, we headed straight to the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway.  The varied terrain and vast rugged beauty is breathtaking.   The photos below are actually in the order taken showing the rapid changes in scenery.

Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway

Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway

Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway

Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway

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Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway

Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway

Arriving in Thermopolis, the northern endpoint of the byway, at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center & Dig Sites  when it opened at 10 a.m. allowed us to see all the exhibits before the school children arrived on a field trip.  We were reminded of our own children when they were school age years before.  They would have loved Jimbo, the Supersaurus, and Stan, the T-Rex as well as the Triceratops on display at this delightful museum.

Today, the real draw to this small private museum is the famous Thermopolis Specimen, a fossil of an Archaeopteryx.  It is one of only 10-12 specimens in the world and the only one on display in North America.  It is also considered the second best specimen in existence.  The specimen was discovered in Bavaria and sold from a private collection to an anonymous donor who put it on display at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in 2007.  What a treasure!

"Thermopolis Archaeopteryx" by incidencematrix - DSC_0034. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thermopolis_Archaeopteryx.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Thermopolis_Archaeopteryx.jpg

“Thermopolis Archaeopteryx” by incidencematrix – DSC_0034. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thermopolis_Archaeopteryx.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Thermopolis_Archaeopteryx.jpg

This town of 3000 inhabitants has more to offer than just the dinosaur museum, however.  It is home to the world’s largest mineral hot springs with over 8000 gallons of water heated to 135 degrees flowing each day.  Hot Springs State Park, the first state park in Wyoming, is adjacent to Thermopolis with a free public bath house for mineral springs bathing and swimming year round.  In addition, boating, fishing, and hiking are available, and a herd of bison roams through the park.

Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

Tepee Fountain, Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

Tepee Fountain, Hot Springs State Park, Wyoming

A visit to Thermopolis was definitely worthwhile and I highly recommend spending some time there.  As we headed for home, one last beautiful photo of Wyoming begged to be taken.

Leaving Thermopolis, Wyoming

Leaving Thermopolis, Wyoming

Our AAA TourBooks and maps aided us in another worthwhile adventure.  And, we were happy to get out of Wyoming and South Dakota just a day ahead of more than 12 inches of snow in late September.

 

Based on events from September, 2013

 

Categories: Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

Blank Park Zoo

I don’t know about you but I am conflicted about zoos.  I understand the ethical concerns about restricting animals to false environments but I also realize that zoos engage in important conservation efforts.  Like most ethical dilemmas, there is right and wrong on both sides and people have strong opinions on the subject.  So when my son, Michael, an animal lover since childhood, wanted to visit Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines before his return flight to Europe, I admit I was surprised and ambivalent.  But with fond memories of our trip to this particular zoo when my kids were little, I agreed.

Blank Park Zoo

Blank Park Zoo

Blank Park Zoo is the only accredited zoo in the state of Iowa and it’s small with 1000 animals overall.  It takes only a couple of hours to see it at a leisurely pace.  The morning was beautiful and we arrived early because we’re Iowans; we get up early and get going.  I commented that maybe it wouldn’t open until 10:00, checked my smart phone, and found that it opens at 9:00.  Of course.  Don’t you just love it?

Here’s a map from the website to get an overall idea of the grounds.  I’ll cover just a few of the highlights although we did see it all.

ZooMap12

Immediately inside the entrance, we stopped for a photo-op of Michael and the bald eagle.  Accustomed to seeing bald eagles soar high above the river in my own neighborhood, I was somewhat disturbed to observe this magnificent bird caged in such a confined space.

Michael and Bald Eagle

Michael and Bald Eagle

Somehow Michael and I skipped right past the red pandas by the entrance but my husband, Jim, made a quick stop.  We later regretted our haste when we circled back to see them and they were inside and we could only see their adorable little faces peering out at us.  With fewer than 2500 remaining in the wild in China, they’re endangered.  Consequently, they are part of a species survival plan which is a program to manage the breeding and conservation of endangered species to ensure the survival of a healthy population (Blank Park Zoo, 2014).

After a quick stop at the river otter exhibit, we headed to Australia Adventure where we enjoyed 15-20 wallabies on the loose.  The wallaby mob (group) consists of boomers (males), flyers (females), and joeys (young).  Australia is on my “must see” list of countries to visit so I particularly enjoyed this exhibit.

Wallabies on the loose

Wallabies on the loose

Kookaburras

kookaburras

I didn’t know the kookaburra is called the bushmen’s watch because they typically emit their laughing call around dusk, according to the educational signage nearby. I also learned this bird, a carnivore that feeds on lizards, snakes, and small mammals, is as common in Australia as crows and starlings in Iowa.  There were lots of other birds in this area including a parakeet aviary and black swans in a pond and at the back of the area you will find the depot to catch a ride on the little train that circles the zoo.

We, however, headed to the Aldabra tortoises.   These large tortoises come from the Seychelle and Aldabra Islands in the Indian Ocean.  They are currently threatened with extinction in the wild due to loss of habitat.

Tortoises

Aldabra Tortoises

The oldest tortoise, Barnaby, age 75-85, has the distinction of being the longest tenured animal in the zoo.  I remember this fellow from our visit many years ago and I can tell you either he or the female emits a VERY loud grunting noise while mating because we witnessed it and thought our young children would be traumatized but they don’t remember the experience at all.  Thankfully.

When we were in South Africa earlier this year, they told us the big cats are called lions because they’re always lyin’ around.  That’s how we observed this male and female until the female languidly rose and sauntered off while we watched.  They are also threatened in their natural habitat in Africa.

Our most disturbing observation at the zoo was while watching the behavior of the snow leopard.  This cat paced back and forth repetitively along the fence row while we watched.  Observe the worn path along the fence.

Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard

The snow leopard, from Asia, has been hunted nearly to extinction for its beautiful pelt, with only 4400-7500 remaining in the wild today.

The Siberian tiger is the largest of the cats and the most critically endangered.  Interestingly, no two tigers have the same stripe pattern, kind of like human fingerprints.

Siberian Tiger

Siberian Tiger

There are currently only 400 Siberian tigers remaining in the wild and 560 in captivity.  In the wild, their hunting territory ranges up to 1600 square miles which gives me great cause for concern about their mental health in captivity.

Like many people, I love to watch primates.  I spent considerable time attempting to get photos of these monkeys but frankly, they refused to cooperate and studiously refrained from looking my way.  I persevered and here’s the best that I got.

Called Japanese macaques, also known as the Snow monkey, from Japan, they are protected by the Japanese government but threatened, nevertheless, due to loss of habitat.

I was surprised and excited to find two black rhinos at Blank Park Zoo, knowing how endangered they are.  We never saw a black rhino while we were in South Africa last February although we did see the white rhino.  The black rhino is somewhat smaller and a browser, whereas its relative, the white rhino, is a grazer.  What’s the difference?  Browsers eat trees and bushes while grazers eat grass.  The lip of the black rhino is pointed or hooked in order to pluck leaves from trees and bushes and the lip of the white rhino is squared or blunt to easily reach the ground for grass.

Black Rhino

Black Rhino

They have been hunted close to extinction in the past for the prized horn which is thought to possess magical medicinal properties particularly in Asian cultures.  Currently, the black rhino population is around 5000 but poaching, if unchecked, could rapidly reduce those numbers again.  I’ve posted this on my blog before, and if this is an animal you want to help save, go to Save the Rhino  or Rocking for Rhinos to learn more.

One of my favorite exhibits was the Magellan penguins, named for the explorer Ferdinand Magellan who first recorded sighting  them in South America in 1519.  I’m fascinated watching their awkward, lurching gait approaching the water, then they dive and glide through the water with the grace of synchronized swimmers.

Magellan Penguins

Magellan Penguins

Magellan Penguins

Magellan Penguins

This breed is only 18 inches tall unlike the Emperor penguins in Antarctica that stand 4 feet tall that I fell in love with watching the documentary, March of the Penguins.  In both species, however, the males help with incubating the eggs.  I love a good dad.

We missed several animals on our visit.  The sea otters weren’t out because the tank was being cleaned and we didn’t see the giraffes either although I didn’t see any explanation of their absence.  To compensate for missing the giraffes, Michael took a picture of Jim and me with the giraffe sculpture.

Giraffe Sculpture

Giraffe Sculpture

After our visit, I learned 7 animals at Blank Park Zoo are part of Species Survival Plans—the Amur (aka Siberian) tiger, snow leopard, red panda, Japanese macaque, ring-tailed lemur, golden headed tamarin, and Panamanian golden frog (Blank Park Zoo, 2014).  This valuable work ensures the survival of animals that are threatened with extinction in their natural habitats. Despite my discomfort with constricted environments of zoo animals, I support these conservation efforts.  Please join me and do all you can to support efforts to save our animals before it’s too late.

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References:

Blank Park Zoo (2014). Retrieved from http://www.blankparkzoo.com

Categories: Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Escape to Siesta Key

If you’re looking for a great escape from cold and snowy winter weather, Siesta Key, just off Sarasota on the gulf side of Florida, has to be a strong contender.  You may think it’s a little early to plan now for winter but I just made my reservation for March, 2015, and it was already a challenge to find a place.  Everything is booked!  Well, not literally everything but it seemed that way to me.  This will be my fourth spring break at Siesta Key and by now, I believe I’m somewhat of an expert.

With sand as soft and white as powdered sugar, this wide beach proclaims itself the #1 Beach in the USA and I wholeheartedly agree.  Just look at that sand.  It’s 99% pure quartz which explains why it’s soft, white, and cool underfoot even when temperatures soar.  They know what they’ve got here, too, so don’t expect any deals during March.  It’s pricey but some places are worth it.

Siesta Beach, March, 2014

Siesta Beach, March, 2014

Every year I meet my childhood bestie, Gail, at the Tampa airport and we drive south in a rental car to spend a week on this idyllic island.  Last year we discovered La Siesta Condominiums, stayed there, and now we’re hooked.  We wanted to book again for 2015 but due to some miscommunication, it looked like that wish might be thwarted.  In the end we got it resolved happily and while we don’t have the condo we had last year, we are still in the complex.

The location of La Siesta Condominiums on Beach Road across from public Siesta Beach is perfect for us.

La Siesta Condominiums

La Siesta Condominiums

The public beach is well-kept; it’s cleaned and raked every morning with big motorized vehicles nicknamed sandbonis.   Lifeguards on duty year round ensure a measure of safety for swimmers, not that I spend much time in the water.  The beach is popular and the parking lot is full by 10 a.m.,  so it’s great to just walk across the street and not have to fight for a parking place.  We noticed construction underway of an additional parking lot last spring, however, so that problem may be alleviated for next year.  I’ll keep you posted.

Siesta Beach

Siesta Beach

Siesta Beach

Siesta Beach

Many amenities other than swimming and sunbathing are available at Siesta Beach.  There are restrooms, showers, a concession area, picnic areas, and shady places to escape the sun.  We attend pilates, nia, and yoga classes in the morning right on the beach and they have a drum circle on Sunday evenings an hour before sunset.  The sand volleyball courts get a lot of use especially by the young people.  This location is close enough to walk into the village for coffee or groceries or you can just walk the beach for exercise or pleasure.

If we don’t want to go to the beach, we can always enjoy the pool at our condo complex.  The pool is never overly crowded and the other guests seem to be mostly retired couples from Ohio and Michigan.

La Siesta Condo Pool

La Siesta Condo Pool

The screened in lanai off each condo is a perfect place to have breakfast and lunch and keep an eye on the action below at the pool or get a sliver of a view of the gulf across the street beyond the beach.

View to lanai from living room at La Siesta

View to lanai from living room at La Siesta Condos

Aside from just hanging at the beach or pool, there are rentals around Siesta Key for boats, kayaks, and paddle boards.  Last year we tried paddle boarding and found Dan from Siesta Key Paddle Boards to be very helpful and accommodating.  He met us at Turtle Beach with the boards, gave us a lesson, and provided a map and directions to navigate the canals lined with mangroves to another beach and back.  Dan was there waiting to take the boards upon our return.  I’ll warn you, however, mastery was much easier than recovery.  I had no idea how hard I was working until my lats killed the next day… and the next.

After all that exercise, a girl’s gotta eat and there are plenty of good restaurants on Siesta Key.  Gail is a bona fide foodie so I usually trust her with restaurant decisions.  One of my favorites for local grouper, however, is Turtle Beach Pub.  I can get my fish grilled or blackened and avoid the gluten in the fried grouper.   Also gluten-free, in 2014 we discovered Vertoris Pizza House in Bradenton.  They make the best gluten-free pizza EVER.

Gluten free pizza

Gluten free pizza from Vertoris Pizza

But my new favorite restaurant has to be Owen’s Fish Camp in Sarasota.  “Owen’s Fish Camp is southern country-style restaurant set in a cool, comfortable, urban setting,” according to their website.  (I think they forgot the word “a” before southern but maybe that’s a southern thing.)  My roots are southern so I was immediately intrigued but Gail was doubtful, not being a fan of southern cooking.  In the end, we decided to give it a try, and the non-foodie (me) scored one.  We both loved it along with all the other people who crowded into the place. Fortunately, they had live music to entertain us while we waited to be seated and The Cadillac Grainer String Band played foot stomping hillbilly blue grass string band music that was a whole lot of fun.

But let’s face it, restaurants are ultimately about the food and the food at Owen’s Fish Camp is excellent.  I had the market fish of the day (it was local but I don’t remember what it was), blackened, with two sides.  I chose cheesey grits and collard greens.  Mmmm, good.

IMG_6919

Entree at Owen’s Fish Camp

So, I told you I think I’m somewhat of an expert on Siesta Key.  Here’s what I know.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

  1.  Book early.

  2.  Most vacation rentals give first preference to last year’s return renters.

  3.  Rental websites are not always reliable so give them a call.

  4.  Turtle Beach on the south end of the island sand is not the soft white quartz.  It’s brown, coarse, and ordinary.  Siesta Beach and Crescent Beach are quartz sand.

  5.  Rentals only provide one roll of toilet paper (2 if you’re lucky) so plan ahead and don’t get caught short.

Lagniappe:  A few extra views from Siesta Key

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Siesta Key, FL

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Siesta Beach, FL

IMG_6893

Siesta Key, FL

 

Categories: Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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