Monday, May 17, 2010

Lest we forget...

Reposting my post from 2 year ago, after Andrew and I visited various war sites in France.

The train, multi-national: April 28th, 2010

Today was a travel day. We spent approximately 9 hours on the train (not including the local train in Italy to get us to Milano, about 30 minutes), plus layover time (which was around 15-20 minutes at Milano and Zurich), plus a 45-minute, hectic crossing of Paris from one train station to another. We got into Caen, France around 9:00 pm. It took us a few minutes more to figure out where to go for our hotel, but thanks to the assistance of some friendly Red Cross workers we were on our way. Unfortunately, once we got to our hotel they didn’t have our reservation, which was what we feared would happen. We had had some difficulties with the online reservation system earlier and had only an email from a staff member saying we had a room. The staff covered the confusion reasonably well and we were provided accomodations after only a short delay. Once installed into our room Andrew ran out to grab some dinner (donair). We scarfed it down and we went to sleep pretty much immediately afterward.

Caen/Courseulles-sur-Mer, France: April 29th, 2010

On our first morning in Caen we knew where we wanted to go, but we weren’t sure how we were going to get there. Our hoped for destination was Juno Beach, the landing location of the Canadian Army in 1944 when Operation Overlord was put into action. The night before I had noticed signs pointing to the tourist office, so once we were washed and dressed (although not yet fed) we headed out in search of information. It was a nice morning, promising warmth and sunshine, which helped our somewhat aimless wander through Caen. The signs to the tourist office continued; however, the exact direction they were pointing in was sometimes unclear. We did get lost (although not by too much), but we eventually found our goal. The office wasn’t open until 10:00 am, so we took the downtime to score breakfast (some kind of bun-thing with chocolate chips).

Once the tourist office was open, we were helped by a friendly employee. We thought at first we might be able to take a tour to see all of the landing beaches (Gold, Sword, Omaha, Juno and Utah), but the bus was full. When we explained the most important stop for us was Juno, we were informed we could take a local bus directly there, although we would have to wait a bit for the next one (in about 30 minutes), and the trip would take approximately an hour. We located our bus stop, only a couple of blocks away, then took a walk around the immediate area to see what else was around. Most places were closed at this time, but we did pick up a couple of hot drinks before returning to the stop. The bus ride to Courseulles-sur-Mer (the town beside Juno) was pleasant, and as I said, an hour long. It was nice to see the French countryside and the small towns along the way. Our stop was about a 7-10 minute walk about from the beach.
The beach at Juno.
Upon arriving we decided to take a good look around the shore. It looks like a regular beach, there isn’t much left at Juno (although I think that’s not necessarily the case at other landing points) aside from the remnants of a couple of German bunkers, but I found it fascinating anyway. After a half an hour or so we headed into the museum and were attended by some very friendly Canadians (I think it had been a quite morning and they were a tad bored). We chatted as we paid our entrance and signed up for the tour later that day before entering the exhibit. I found the permanent exhibit at Juno exceedingly interesting. I could remember bits and pieces of the information conveyed from school history classes (always my favourite topic). It seemed to me that the designers had made a concerted effort to demonstrate to the rest of the world what Canada was like during the first and second world war, and the toll (different for the war-torn countries in Europe) it took on our country.
The statue outside the Juno Beach Centre.
A close up of the statue outside the Juno Beach Centre.
We took our sweet time going through the museum before heading out to meet our tour guide at 3:00 pm (we headed into the exhibit around 12:00 pm). By this point, the beautiful spring day had turned into an unpleasant, cold, rainy one and so everyone huddled under hoods and umbrellas to stay dry. Our interpreter explained to us the purpose of the Juno Beach Centre, took us into the remains of the German observation bunker, and described what storming Juno would have been like. Afterward we chatted some more with her and were invited to join the Canadian interpreters at O’Donnell’s (the Irish Pub) in Cean later that evening. Before leaving the site we briefly checked the temporary exhibit, which was on the Metis. We didn’t stay long as we hadn’t had lunch (now 5:00 pm) and our return bus was in an hour.
A view of Juno Beach Centre and the observation bunker.
An interior shot of the bunker.
By this point the weather had cleared up again and was quite cheery. We grabbed a quick (and delicious) meal at a local restaurant before heading to our bus stop. Then we waited. And we waited. And we waited until almost half an hour after the bus was supposed to come. Not sure what else to do we headed back to Juno Beach since we knew the Canadian interpreters were heading back to Caen that evening. We felt bad bumming a ride, but we didn’t know how else to get back to our hotel. Being Canadians, and just friendly people in general, they helped us out and six of us piled into a tiny car in order to get back to Caen. I sat on Andrew’s lap while my head touched the roof. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride I’d experienced, but it got us where we were going.

I don’t remember when we finally got back to our hotel, but it was around 8:00 pm. We had dinner (Moroccan food) then got ourselves ready to go back out. Perhaps if we hadn’t needed to go back to Juno Beach to get a ride we would have stayed in and gone to bed at a reasonable hour. Instead we went out into Caen around 9:00 pm, located O’Donnell’s, and ended up staying out until 1:00 am. We drank and danced, and in general had a good time with our new Canadian friends. We also made arrangements to pick up one of the newest interpreters who hadn’t yet started work, and take him with us on our journey to Arras (via Dieppe) the next day.

Arras (via Dieppe), France: April 30th, 2010

We woke up far earlier than we would have liked given our late return to our hotel, and walked to the nearby Hertz to see if we could arrange a car rental. This was one of the few aspects of the trip we hadn’t arranged before hand. As it turned out, the rental wasn’t a problem (although somewhat expensive given the add-on fee for the second driver, the drop off for a different city and the GPS). We had the car in maybe 20 or 25 minutes and were off. We ended up driving several (many, like way more than necessary) blocks to just park a street over from where we started then walked to our hotel. We had two things to do before we headed off: 1) Call the folks at Juno to confirm we did have a car and could take our new friend with us, and 2) eat some breakfast. Phoning ended up being more of a challenge then we’d anticipated. Andrew’s cell phone wouldn’t work, nor did the one in our hotel room. We had to keep bothering the hotel front desk workers until we got through.

At around 10:00 am we headed off. I agreed to drive the first leg, so we set up the GPS and off we went. I actually kind of enjoyed driving in France. The rental car was a standard, which was fine as I learned on one, but it did make city driving slightly more difficult as the occasional stall was a problem. The drive out to Courseulles-sur-Mer took around 30 minutes. We didn’t stop long, just giving ourselves enough time to pop into the visitors centre to say hello and thanks, then we were off again. Our first destination was Dieppe, the coastal town the Canadian army attempted to liberate in 1942. The operation was a disaster, although some people try to see it as a training ground and major cause of the success experienced in Operation Overlord. A moment’s consideration for driving cross country in France: it is different then driving across Canada (no really?). In Canada, you tend to get on a highway and drive for ages until you reach your destination. In France I was constantly taking exits, going through roundabouts, and slowing down to pass through small villages. Although the speed limit got up to 130 km/hr at one point, I was generally traveling at something more like 60 or 70 km/hr.

We arrived in Dieppe around 2:00 pm and wound our way to the Canadian museum there. To our unfortunately luck, it was not open (we were a few days ahead of peak season and only had limited hours). We grabbed some lunch at a nearby café then headed out to investigate the beach. It was rocky, but pleasant, and giant cliffs over looked the coast. Our next stop was the Canadian park, at the base of one of the cliffs and over looked by the Dieppe castle. The park was quite pretty, with a few commemorative statues and cheerful flowers. A few locals were sitting and relaxing as we strolled around. After a bit we decided to see if we could get on top of the cliffs for a better view point and headed off down the street. We came to a driveway leading up to the castle and decided to check it out. Entrance was only 4 euros so we went in. The castle contained a collection of naval themed art, and ivory pieces. It was pleasant enough, although didn’t linger for more than an hour.
The beach at Dieppe, with the cliffs over looking the water.
The Canadian Park, at the base of the cliffs.
The castle on the top of the cliffs.
When we were done at the castle we headed out a different exit, which took us higher up the cliffs. At the very top were the remains of some kind of fortifications, but its purpose wasn’t clear. Not too far a long the road there was another bunker, and keen to see what it was and I managed to convince Andrew and our friend to wander down to check it out. As it turned out, we couldn’t get into this particular bunker. The door was boarded up, and the windows were too narrow to shimmy through; however, I noticed there was another building not too much farther along. We continued along on the agreement that this would be the last stop and we lucked out. This bunker was open. We approached it from the front, but quickly discovered we could climb onto the top and around to the other side where the door was still open. Although the main room was pitch-black, we ventured through to what was probably the observation room. Clearly the teens of Dieppe had been visiting this place for decades as the floor was littered with bottle caps and graffiti covered the walls.
The German pillbox.
The entrance to the German pillbox.
The view of the beach from the German pill box
After this exploration we did indeed head back to the car where we made a most unfortunate discovery. We’d received a parking ticket! It hadn’t occurred to us that we might have to pay for parking and so we'd just left the car without thinking more than 3 hours before. We tried to use our GPS to locate the police station where the tickets were issued, but had some difficulty determining exactly where we were supposed to go. In the end it turned out that all we had to do was go to the nearest convenience store and purchase a special stamp that covered the amount we were fined and put it in the mail. Once this task was covered we headed off for Arras, another 2.5 hour journey. We made it (though not without a few “Re-calculating route” comments from the GPS) and while it was still light outside. Parking was a bit of a challenge, but I’ll get to that…

Arras, Vimy Ridge, France: May 1st, 2010

We had breakfast at our hotel that morning (all you can eat, with lots of fruit, breads, cheeses, etc) and checked out before heading out to retrieve the car. The night before Andrew had parked in the square nearby, believing that it was safe to do so over night. Well, it was safe, and we didn’t receive another parking ticket, but it was surrounded. An outdoor market had filled the streets around the square that the morning. On first glance we weren’t too sure how we were going to get out of our spot, but after a quick survey of the land, Andrew was able to determine it was possible. We slowly inched our way out, having to wait for people to get out of our way as we crept along the street. We found another parking lot nearby that was free (and you know, a proper lot). Andrew headed back to meet up with our friend, while I checked out the market in search of some lunch food.

Around 10:30 or 11:00 am we headed off for Vimy. It was probably a good thing we’d rented a car, as even though we could have made it to Arras by train, we would have been hard pressed to find our way out to the ridge. No public transportation goes that way and it’s a solid 10 miles (not km) outside the city. I was surprised when we reached the park to find that there were all kinds of joggers and walkers on the trails--I’m not sure why, maybe because to me this seems like an almost sacred place, but to the people who live there I suppose it’s just another park with some war monuments. As we followed the signs around the park to the Vimy monument I marveled at the enormous crater holes left behind from the shelling and landmines during the war. Numerous signs had been posted warning visitors to not step onto the fenced off areas as active mines are still buried in the ground.
A view of the Vimy memorial from the parking lot.
The monument.
The Vimy monument is an imposing figure when you arrive at the site, even on a grey, windy day. The two columns tower over the ridge, and the base is just plain massive. As we approached we noticed a Canadian interpreter standing by unoccupied, so we asked her if she could show us around the monument and she seemed happy to oblige us. She walked with us along the path and explained the history of the monument, its construction, the meaning of figures (such as the mourning parents, Mother Canada, etc) and kindly answered our questions. Eventually we wander about the monument on our own, taking a closer look at the carvings and gazing over the over 11,000 names carved on the walls. After some time we decided to drive (thinking the distance was greater than it was) over to the visitor's centre.

At the visitor’s centre we were able to sign up for a tour over the trenches and subways left behind at Vimy. We picked up some pins, postcards and stamps as we waited for our tour to start. Remains of both the allied and Germany trenches are still in place. We were able to pass through these trenches, and gain the faintest of ideas of what it might have been like to spend time in the trenches, only a few feet away from the German lines. These trenches are dry of course, and didn’t smell, so we couldn’t really image what it might be like to spend hours in these mazes. We also ventured into the Grange subway system and saw the only remaining piece of authentic first world war graffiti--a maple leaf carved into a stone wall.
The maple leaf graffiti, protected behind a sheet of plexi-glass.
The remains of the trenches at Vimy. These were the Canadian trenches.
Once we’d completed our tour we carried on to the two war cemeteries located in the park. As we walked, we passed the herd of sheep that live on the grounds. They are the park’s lawnmower as the heavily cratered ground are not amenable to electric or gas run mowers. We took our time as we passed through the rows of headstones. Not all of the stones had names, some just stated “a soldier or the great war” where the buried soldier is unidentified. Before departing from the park we returned to the monument once more for a second look around. Before coming I wasn’t sure how I would react to visiting these war sites. I thought my imagination and my emotions might overwhelm me and that I might break down into tears. I didn’t, but I was definitely full of thoughts of what it must have been like to be at war.
The sheep mowing the lawn at Vimy.
We headed back into town around 5:30 pm. We returned our rental car (after a couple of loops of the streets of Arras as we tried to figure out exactly where we had to go), and managed to grab some dinner before our train embarked for Paris. We said goodbye to our friend, who was heading further north, then relaxed on the train as we ate our dinner. We were in Paris a little less than an hour later. It probably took us no more than twenty minutes to get from the train to our hotel, which we booked based on it’s proximity to the train station. We watched several episodes of Simpsons in French as we re-packed our luggage and wrote postcards.

Paris, France: May 2nd, 2010

We awoke early-ish (around 7:45 am, I forget for sure) as we hoped to go to the Lourve first thing in the morning. After a filling breakfast at the hotel, we headed out on foot, zig-zagging through the streets to the museum. I had hoped that, as this day was a Sunday, and the day after a national holiday, the Louvre wouldn’t be too busy. As it turned out, I had hoped in vein. When we arrived at museum only a few minutes after 9:00 am, a sizeable crowd had already assembled. The line moved quickly, although it wasn’t until we passed under one of the archways, which opened up to the main courtyard (where the glass pyramids are), that we realized how enormous the line was. Additionally, we discovered that the entrance was free this day. So, we were able to get into the Louvre without paying, but because of that there were probably twice the number of people than normal, and we couldn’t get anywhere near La Joconde (the Mona Lisa).
One of the courtyards of the Louvre, and first part of the line leading into the museum.
We spent much of the day at the Lourve and even after 6 hours of wandering and admiring we probably only saw half of the collection. I liked the Venus de Milo a great deal. She wasn’t as heavily admired as La Joconde, so I was able to stand to one side and see her clearly. Several of the other visitors to the Louvre took pictures of themselves in front of paintings and statues. I found this excessively strange and while I was standing near the Venus de Milo I had a very strong urge to mess up people’s photos. I managed to contain myself and not make faces or other such nonesense, but it was tempting nonetheless.

Once we left the Lourve we decided to walk to the cathedral of Notre Dame. I actually enjoyed reading Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, so I wanted to see inside the church, which I hadn’t had the chance to the last time I was in Paris. It was raining when we left the Louvre so we opted to grab a snack before heading all the way to the cathedral. By luck we were in the café long enough for things to dry up and so the 30 minute walk was pleasant, warm even. Entrance to the cathedral was free and so we happily wandered in. I was surprised to see that Notre Dame has modernized itself. There are monitors mounted on the pillars for the congregation members, the confession booths had been remodeled with glass walls, and there were posters advertising the cathedral’s charitable works. All of these things were absent from the churches we saw in Italy and Germany.
The cathdral of Notre Dame, slightly off kilter.
After we’d finished our tour of Notre Dame, we headed out toward the Eiffel Tower, but stopped before we managed to leave the church square to watch a couple of street artists paint “name pictures.” In what was probably less than ten minutes, these artists were able to spell out the names of their customers using the figures of birds, fish, flowers and other scenes. We had our last name “Milne” drawn as the artists only charged 5 euros. Once our painting was dry and we were able to roll it up, we carried on our way. We opted to walk along the river bank, which was quite pleasant; however, by the time we’d reached the Tower, almost an hour later, it had begun to rain. The lines for the elevator up the tower were 45-minutes long and by this time it was almost 8:00 pm. I had hoped to go up as Andrew had not been to the Tower before, but we hadn’t had a proper lunch and we had to get up early the next day to get our train back to Germany.
The Eiffel Tower.
We had some difficulty working out the local train system in Paris, figuring out how much tickets were and which trains would take us where, but we got it figured out and got back to the area of Paris where our hotel was with surprising ease. The only thing left to do was pick a restaurant for dinner. I had noticed two potential restaurants the night before when we arrived in Paris, so we consulted the menus posted outside and selected one where enjoyed a delightful meal. It seems pre-ordering a three-course meal is common in France. You pick your starter, entree and desert from the menu, and the evening precedes with little interruption and much delicious food. I started with french onion soup, followed it with duck comfit, and finished with an apple tart.

The Trip Home: May 3rd, 2010

Finally, and briefly, we caught a train from Paris to Mannheim. Our next train was 10 minutes late, and packed, but when it finally arrived it successfully took us from Mannheim on to the Frankfurt airport. We had some confusion over where exactly to check in, but we managed it with sufficient time to stop at the airport McDonalds for a meal, which included veggie burgers, curly fries and beer. The plane was full, and also somewhat late to take off. We had to hurry through Pearson to catch our final connection from Toronto to Edmonton. Just before 10:00 pm we staggered through our apartment door, gave our cat several pets and nuzzles, then went to bed.
Andrew and I, on our last train, on our way back to Germany to catch our plane home.
Enjoying our one an only McDonalds meal while in Europe.


Monday, May 10, 2010

European trip, 2010: Northern Italy, April 22th to 28nd

The Train, multiple countires: April 22nd 2010

Thursday morning we took a somewhat round-about route (I tried really hard to plan things efficiently as possible, but sometimes my best efforts turn out to be not as good as I intended) to Milano, Italy. We started out taking a train from Interlaken to Bern where we had to switch to a different train which took us to Zurich. From Zurich we switched to another train that carried us on to Milano. Unfortunately the ride from Zurich to Milano was a little rockier than any of our previous train rides and both Andrew and I were feeling a little queasy at different points throughout the trip. We survived it though, and arrived in Milano at around 2:00 pm. From there we had to switch trains again to the local commuter trains to reach our host. Now, I have to say that sadly, Italy’s local commuter trains are not the most pretty of beasts. Many of the cars are heavily graffitied on the outside, and old and smelly on the inside. They run, though, and got us where we were going on more than one occasion, so I guess that’s a step up over many of the cities in Canada.

We arrived at the train station nearest our host's place of work (place of study, really, since he is a PhD student) around 3:00 pm. He picked us up, and drove us to the University for a tour and meet ‘n greet. This was for Andrew’s benefit rather than my own, as our host became acquainted with Andrew when he (and his wife and child) came to Edmonton for a stint in the lab Andrew works in at the University of Alberta. I listened as politely as I could and tried to remain focused on the discussions, but superhydrophobic surfaces and water droplets are somewhat outside my realm of study/interest/understanding. Around 5:30 pm we headed home via the supermarket. We ended the day with a delightful dinner with proper Italian pizza, and made plans for the next day.

Venezia, Italy: April 23rd, 2010

Our first destination for our stay in Italy was Venezia, or in English, Venice. Another train ride was in order for this day (2.5 hours), but it passed in relative comfort on the Italy Eurostar (way cushier than the local commuter trians). After a slightly longer-than-necessary wait, we managed to grab a map of the city and directions to the nearest grocery store, then off we went to explore. The first few steps outside the train station were wondrous--a little like entering Disneyland for the first time, I suppose. The main canal was right there, there were bridges, there were boats passing on the river...oh, and there were gorgeous, old buildings. We snapped a couple of pictures right away.
Our first view of Venezia out of the train station.
The main canal, from a bridge as we crossed.
The side trip to the grocery store took a little longer than intended--both in the length of time it took us to find it (went one street to far at first), then switching cashier lines when we were ready to pay (Andrew thought we were being told we needed leave the line because we had too many items for the express counter), but eventually we were off. We walked mostly without aim, turning down which ever tiny, narrow streets seemed interesting. Occasionally we checked our map to make sure we were at least progressing toward San Marco, which was our goal. If you have never been to Europe, you may not realize, but there aren’t really shopping malls like there are in North America. Shops, and boutiques are crammed into buildings amongst the historic architecture of Europe. So in Venezia (and Milano, and Florenze, etc) shopping in done out of doors with a mixture of stores inside buildings, and outdoor vendors.

In Venezia, fancy, decorated face masks, and glass are particularly famous. Many of the shops carried one or the other of these and sometimes both. We decided it might be nice to pick up a mask, which we eventually did on our way back to the train station at the end of the day. We chose to support one of the smaller vendors, who decorated the masks onsite. She was very friendly, which was why we went back to her, and spoke at least three different languages (English, Italian and French). Eventually we wound our way to San Marco (it took as three hours, maybe?) and paused there for some time to admire the architecture. Ultimately we choose not to go into any of the museums, so we just got an external view. We started working our way back around 4:00 pm, in order to catch our train home. Although the weather wasn’t spectacular (rather grey, with a light pattering of rain at some points) we had a very nice day, ambling the streets on our own.
San Marco square.
San Marco square.

Milano, Italy: April 24th, 2010

After our early start the previous day (we were on the train by 7:00 am) we were able to sleep in to around 8:00 am this day as we were driving into Milano with our hosts. After a breakfast of a cappuccino (for me) and biscuits we headed off with our first destination as the castle of Milano. It was quite a spectacular building, definitely a proper castle with turrets and fortifications, and it must have been quite grand in it’s time. We were free to wander about the interior walls, which gave us a good view of the building and many photo opportunities. As an added bonus, the weather was already demonstrating it was likely to be a decent day, with not too much sun, but pleasant overall. After the castle we continued on along one of the main shopping streets on our way to visit the huge city centre cathedral. First, we passed through a famous archway dedicated to long ago royalty. While under the arch also had to take a turn spinning on the balls of a bull--yes, truly. There’s an image of a bull placed in the sidewalk and you’re supposed to place you heel on the bull’s balls and turn around to ensure you will one day return to Milano. A reasonable-sized crowd hung around it and I found it difficult to butt in and take my turn.
A snapshot of the interior of the castle.
The arch.
Andrew, turning on the bull.
From the arch we emerged by the square in front of the cathedral where we milled around for a bit before deciding to wander around for a little while before heading in. Our hosts wanted to show us a second church, not for away, so we headed over there; however, it turned out this church wasn’t open until 3:00, so we headed back for the main square. En route we stopped at a bakery as our hosts wanted to pick up some marzipan (decorated in the shape of various fruits). As we waited outside Andrew and I wondered about a curious, shell-shaped pastry, which was then purchased for our sampling. I can’t recall what they were called, but they were slightly crunchy on the outside, while soft and chewy on the inside. They were very good and very filling. As Andrew and I munched, we all headed back to view the cathedral. Apparently this church has the 3rd largest dome in the world after Rome and a place in Germany. It was overall quite beautiful, as our most churches from that time, with lots of ornate paintings, sculptures, etc.
The main cathedral in Milano.
At this point we agreed it was time to hunt down some lunch, and decided to try one of the best places in Milano for panzarotte. Similar to our experience in Worms, the best place was quite busy; however, the line up was moving quickly and we waited. The panzarottes were indeed very good. I had one with spicy sausage and cheese, and Andrew bravely went for the panzarotte of the day without knowing what it was--as it turns out, it was “German” with sausage and sauerkraut. They were both very delicious. Afterwards we ambled around the street-lined shops for sometime. If on our own I probably would have wanted to stop in several of them and try on clothes, but with our hosts I didn’t want to slow us up. I just window shopped, which is better on the wallet anyways. It should be noted that clothing in Italy wasn’t actually all that expensive. Definitely the high designers like Cocco Chanel, Fendi, Prada etc., were not within my price range, but many of the higher-priced, average person stores were no worse than going into a Mexx, or a Tristian and American in North America.

After a rest in a small coffee shop we were able to visit the second church, which was in deed very unique. We only took a few steps inside the church and stopped, when our host asked us if we could tell what was different about it. We paused. Andrew looked around closely and so did I. Our host hinted that we would have to be very good to be able to tell the trick from where we stood. I think we walked in a little farther and stopped again. Andrew reacted as if he had realized what was going on and I looked again. I’m not quire sure how I was able to tell, but I too realized the quirk: the front of the church was painted to act as an optical illusion. There was really only a few meters of depth behind the alter although it was painted to look like the church continued on much deeper. Unfortunately photographs of the interior were not permitted. When we’d finished in the church we headed back to where the car had been parked. We’d walked a fair bit by this point and our hosts' son was fast asleep in his stroller.

Isola Bella, Italy: April 25th, 2010

This morning I had faith in it being a beautiful day. I wore capries and sandals--my faith, as it turned out was rewarded. This day was pleasantly spent on Isola Bella. The drive took about an hour and a half (I’m not quite sure as I was busily reading Beauty, by Robin McKinley) to we arrive at a parking lot beside a small dock. We had to wait for sometime after our arrival for a group of friends of our host who were going to join us and seemed to have gotten lost. After a slight delay we were off to the island. At first we just took a circuit of the island. Many of the shops carried things like postcards (for excessively cheep prices), glass jewelry, more masks, etc. I liked to look at the various wares available, but the only thing I picked up was postcards (for virtually every oversees trip I have taken I have sent back a small army’s worth of postcards to friends and family--it’s easier and less expensive than kitschy souvenirs). It’s amazing (being a native North America) how Europeans cram as much as they can into tiny spaces. The streets on the island were only big enough to walk along. I thought it was all very beautiful, but that may because I don’t see such scenery on a regular basis.
The streets on Isola Bella.
Once we were done browsing we paid our entrance into the huge manor house (built by the Borromeo family). We took our time as we meandered through the house, admiring the enormous rooms (including the library, ball room, salon, etc.), and the fine furnishings. Bellow the house was a number of grottos, which although not natural, were designed and built to look like they were made out of rocks. Eventually the route through the house spit us out into the garden. I think the garden was as spectacular (if not more so) then the house. It contained lemon and orange trees (with fruit easily twice the size we see in Canada), palm trees, other spectacular plants (which I cannot name since I am no horticulturalist), plus white peacocks, which roamed freely throughout the garden.
Me, admiring the scenery from the Borremeo garden.
The interior of the garden.
The white peacocks.
After we exited the garden we grabbed some lunch (it was something like 2:00 pm by this point, so I was very happy to sit and have some food). We ate at one of the restaurants on the island, and to our surprise it was not as expensive as anticipated (given the island is something of a tourist trap). I enjoyed grilled a vegetable and cheese plate. Vegetable consumption tends to be a bit low in Europe for my preference, so I enjoyed my lunch greatly. For desert I grabbed pistachio flavoured gelato from a vendor outside the restaurant. Yum! At this point we caught a ferry over to another island, only a few minutes away. This island was mainly shops and restaurants, so we didn’t stay as long here. We enjoyed the view of the coast, watched some people attempting to maneuver the choppy lake on water bicycles, and walked a little further before returning to the mainland and to our car. Again on the ride home I spent much of the time reading (hey, it was a good book).

Florenze, Italy: April 26th, 2010

We struck a bit of bad luck this day. First, I woke up with the beginnings of a cold (the whole left side of my throat and face felt congested) then, once we arrived in Florenze we discovered that all the museums are closed on Mondays. This meant we couldn’t go see the David as planned, and we couldn’t go to the Pitti Palace, which was a definite bummer. The day was sunny, at least, which in my books makes anything at least somewhat bearable. It was also rather hot, although quite tolerable when hiding in the shade. So, although Sandra Bullocks’ character from While You Were Sleeping dreamed over going to Florenze and thought it the best destination possible, Andrew and I were somewhat unimpressed. I liked Venezia better even though the day we visited there it was cool and damp.

We spent a good deal of the day walking. First to the art museum were the David is housed (before we had realized everything was closed), then to the Pitti Palace (where we determined that no, indeed, the museums were closed). Then we walked a bit farther yet thinking we might be able to get into a semi-nearby garden—we couldn’t. In the end we decided to sit for a dessert and a drink then killed time by doing some shopping. I tried a few things on, but didn’t purchase anything. Around 5:00 pm we took a peak in the main cathedral in Florenze. It has a fancy dome, which is really high up (supposedly some kind of engineering feat) so you have to crane your neck to see the art work. Andrew took pictures, some of the few we took in Florenze. We caught the train back to Milano at 6:00 pm, and were back with our hosts around 9:00 pm (we had to wait awhile for our connecting trains).
The dome.

Como (and other small villages) Italy: April 27th, 2010

This was the day we went to see George Clooney’s house. Well no, not really, but we liked to think that’s where we were going. Mr. Clooney has a house in Como, which is a very pretty town on a lake of the same name. Houses are built at the base of mountain, just like you might imagine from a European postcard. Unfortunately, the day we went was not particularly postcard-like. It was grey, cool, and windy. Plus, by this point we didn’t have much in the way of clean clothing so I wore my capries again, and the weather was only barely warm enough. We arrived in Como around 12:00 pm (Andrew and I slept in that morning, me because of my cold, Andrew because...well...he likes to sleep) and wandered around the pier for a bit. If it had been a nicer day it would have been really lovely, but as it was, it was only tolerable. We continued to meander around the town for a while, but as it was mid-day many of the shops were closed (the siesta is a common practice in Italy).
Along the pier, toward the edge of Como (otherwise there were construction cranes in view).
We picked up lunch from a local bakery (pizza and bread) and ate it by a fountain in a small square. I haven’t really mentioned it so far, but I really love the plethora of bakeries found in European cities. They really love their baked goods there; whether it’s bread (which is rarely plain white or whole wheat), rolls, croissants, or fancy pastries, they’re readily available even in the smaller cities we visited. I happen to love bread in all its shapes and forms so this didn’t bother me in the least. I ate chocolate croissants whenever possible, and often had bread covered with Nutella when not. I love the way Europeans eat...aside from the lack of vegetables. Anyways, once we’d finished lunch we walked a little longer and headed up toward a small park were there were several memorials/crypts including one for the inventor Alessandro Volta, and one for the city of Hiroshima. At this point we made our way back to the car and drove farther along the coast.

We arrived in the town of Cernobbio around 2:00 pm (I think) and again went for a stroll along the lake. Judging by the city centre, this town was considerably smaller than Como, and so the main purpose of stopping here was to take a quick look around before catching a ferry, which would take us to the other side of the lake. Thankully the wind had died down by this point, so I was more comfortable with bare legs. In order to kill time we stopped in one of the local restaurants for some refreshment. I ordered tiramisu as I hadn’t had the chance to have it anywhere else in Italy and this was our last day. It lived up to my expectations with a tasty cream/custard filling. Unfortunately we missed our planned ferry at 4:00 pm due to taking are sweet time in the restaurant and had to wait for the next one which was at 4:50 pm. Even then we nearly missed the second ferry as we were confused about which dock we sailed from.
The walk way along the lake front in Cernobbio.
The ferry took us to another small town on the other side of the lake. The boat was quite small, especially when you consider the gigantic ones that cross from Vancouver city to the island. Ten cars fit on this ferry (it was a tight) and we had to tip-toe through the vehicles to get to the seating (outdoors, on an upper deck). On the plus side, by this point the day had warmed and the sun had come out so the crossing was pleasant, as was the walk around the town. We stayed maybe an hour at most as we needed to get back home in time for dinner. We were a little late in getting back; however, as we undertook a small (okay, slightly epic) treasure hunt to locate a stovetop cappuccino maker for myself.
From the ferry as we approached the opposite side of the lake.
Our hosts offered us tea or a cappuccino every morning with breakfast, and I always opted for the cappuccino. They had a nifty little stovetop 2-cup maker decorated with cow spots. It has a chamber in the bottom where you place the water and coffee grinds, and a top compartment that screws on where you place milk. As the stove heats the water in the bottom it evaporates and filters up through the coffee grounds into the top pot that contains the milk. Andrew and our host were gushing about the engineering involved in this design...oh engineers. I commented that I liked the cappuccino maker and might be interested in purchasing one if they weren’t too expensive, and so on our last day we drove to several places in town in order to find a store that carried the right product. I’m now the proud owner of the Tweety Bird model of the Muuka maker by Bialetti.



Tuesday, May 4, 2010

European trip, 2010: Interlaken, Switzerland April 20th to 22nd

Interlaken, Switzerland: April 20th to 22th, 2010

We arose at a not too early hour (about 7:00 am) to catch a train from Mainz that took us to Mannheim, and from there to Interlaken. The walk from the train station to our hostel was relatively short…although it would have been quicker if we hadn’t turned down the wrong street first. We stayed at the Backpackers Villa, which although slightly prison-like in its dorm interior, was otherwise quite comfortable. We choose to go to Interlaken for one reason: paragliding. I went on a tandem paragliding flight there three years ago when I last visited Switzerland, and I wanted Andrew to have the chance to experience it as well. So, one of the first things we did upon arriving in the town was book our flight. Tuesday was cloudy with a little bit of rain and so no one was flying when we arrived, but we were told Wednesday was expected to be perfect.

Once we set our flight time, we headed off to explore the town. It’s quite a picturesque little place, with mountains surrounding it in every direction. It also has lots of shops to look in. Perhaps not surprisingly, there were a number of places that sold watches and Swiss army knives. Watches can range from 70/80 CHF to several thousand CHF. On our first day we didn’t purchase anything, but enjoyed browsing through the available wares. That night we decided to go back to one of the fancier restaurants and enjoy traditional Swiss cheese fondue. It was quite tasty and very filling…but not so filling that we couldn’t fit in chocolate fondue afterward. We spent close to two hours at dinner, so by the time we were done, we simply headed back to our room and relaxed.
One of the huge hotels in Interlaken, with a few mountains in the background.
Me, enjoying cheese fondue.
Wednesday was indeed the glorious day promised. Having slept well, we awoke a little earlier than planned and headed out for a run. We weren’t really sure where we should go on our run as there was no convenient river to follow (like the Rhine in Germany) so we wound up going up part of a hill (small mountain?) then out of Interlaken and into one of the neighbouring towns. I probably could have run on for longer, but since I knew there was still a lot of walking ahead in our day we turned back after 20 minutes, for a 40 minute run altogether.

After breakfast we headed into Interlaken, not too sure what we would do with our time before our paragliding flight, which wasn’t set until 2:00 that afternoon. We brought along one of the tourist maps provided in our room and decided to visit the Interlaken Castle, which is probably really more of a big manor house. We didn’t go into the Castle itself as it’s used for local government offices, but did visit two churches (situated right beside each other). One was a much older church, although I don’t recall when it was built, and the other much newer. No one was around when we went into either church so we just wandered about the pews and sanctuary. The both had lovely stained glass windows. Afterward we continued into a lovely Japanese garden (only a block or two away), where giant fish inhabitant the pond. Then we walked. I think we must have walked for over two hours, up the side of the mountain a little ways (not too far up as we didn’t have extra food or hiking shoes with us) then when we got back down to the town level, along the river and through the country side. It was lovely.
The country side around Interlaken.
Before heading out to our paragliding flight we stopped by our room to get rid of all unnecessary baggage (backpacks, etc), then off we went. The company we flew with took us up the side of one of the mountains where a number of people were already lining up to take off. We somehow managed to jump the cue and be the first to take off. How does one take off, you might ask? Well, by walking off the side of the mountain--truly. You stand on the side of the mountain with your pilot strapped to you from behind, then you take a couple of steps and before you know it the canopy is filled with air and you’re soaring in the sky. Wednesday was a good day to fly. It was clear, and we were able to see all around the valley. Altitude is gained by catching thermals, which we were easily able to do that day. We did some tricks while we were in the air, slaloms, and spirals, which are just as good as any rollercoaster before we landed. I think the flight was half an hour total. Sometime I need to learn how to fly a paraglider myself.
Andrew and I before heading out on our paragliding flights.
Me, coming in for a landing (I could also be a random person we don't know.)
We took it easy for the remainder of the day, resting in our hostel, writing postcards and drinking local beer. We also did some laundry, which was getting to the crucial state given we were about a week into our trip. I also decided to purchase a watch--a proper Swiss made watch. It’s a Balmain watch, and in my opinion both pretty (with some neat scrolling things on the face) and shiny. It is not, should I have to mention, one of the multi-thousand dollar watches. We went to bed at a reasonably early hour since we needed to by on the train by 8:30 the next morning.