Category Archives: Europe
I have wanted to visit France since my two years of French instruction in high school. Being Italian though, Italy came first. This summer I finally was able to travel through this beautiful country. Whereas Italy takes you back to the Romans, France seems to have settled on the middle ages. Rolling hills and farmland are dotted with blocked shaped farms facing an inward courtyard and on occasion a castle pops up at the top of a hill.
I feared that we might not be welcomed, as we are obviously not French and there seems to be if some are to be believed an aloofness to the members of host country but nowhere for the week we spent in this country was that the case. I remembered more French that I thought I would and was able to communicate our needs.
We did learn that gestures are not necessarily universal. We split and enjoyed one plate of crepes and Mike gave the server a “thumbs up,” to share how good he thought they were. Several minutes later another plate arrived, so Mike was forced to eat some more. I told him no more friendly gestures for the rest of the trip.
We spent most of our time in the area of Normandy. This part of France is framed by its large and lush hedgerows. On some of the back roads they actually touch a car on both sides. While beautiful they proved to be deadly for the Allies as they made their way inland. The hedgerows are perfect hiding places for weaponry.
Our first visit once we arrived was to Omaha Beach and put us on what our tour guide later referred to as the second part of this area. It is surrounded by cafes and summer homes, making it difficult to imagine the chaos of seventy-one years ago. The next day we found part one. It is there, especially when the tide is out that you can begin to understand what the soldiers faced on that cold June morning. At this time of the year the waves and wind are rough, and it was no different on D-Day. Soldiers came in from hours of preparation that included being huddled down in full pack – wet. They had to come in at low tide to try to avoid barriers placed on the beach by the Germans. That meant much more land to cover before hitting the cliffs above. Though not sure of the exact date the Allies would arrive the Germans were there and prepared. It is difficult to believe that anyone made it through this barrage of obstacles and enemies.
Our second stop was the American Cemetery, a short distance away that faces the beach as well. It is here that over nine thousand men and women are buried. Symbolic memorials, simple crosses, and patriotic music made this a very emotional experience.
The rest of the trip included sites used in “Band of Brothers.” This helped us to understand how the Allies had to fight for small pieces of land using strategy, skill, and just pure luck. The area of Normandy is still filled with German bunkers and war memorials. It is a living museum.
We saw so little in such a short time that return trips are a must.
Today is a holiday in Italy. It is the day that commemorates Italy becoming a republic. Somewhat like our Fourth of July. In Umbertide they celebrate with a dog show. No it is not Westminster.
The dogs and there were many of them are family pets, most of indistinguishable breeds. Italians are just as foolish over their dogs as Americans. You can find many families out and about walking their dogs in the early evening, even during winter.
The piazza was filled with dogs of every size and shape acting like well, dogs. In fact during their waiting time in the corral, one competitor decided that he needed to show who was boss and got a bit ugly. Others tried to hold their own with him until eventually the show off was moved to a corner. The owners got a work out just keeping the pets entertained. I watched for about an hour and the show was still going on when I left.
I am not sure what it takes to win but everyone seemed to be having a good time.
After a challenging and mostly stressful year, we arrived much too tired to our home away from home in Italy.
The house has not changed and we welcomed the serenity it offers. After a couple hours of restorative sleep, our first thought was of food. Laura, a neighbor, has a wonderful restaurant a block away, Locanda Appenino, so off we headed.
While the low 60s drive most Italians indoors, Mike and I asked if the patio was open and were guided outdoors for a view of the Tiber River, flower blossoms, and the smell of jasmine. Anticipating our first meal of pasta, the menu for the night included roasted chicken and potatoes. I have learned it is best to go with the specials AND chicken (pollo) is rarely on the menu. It was simply divine.
The next morning, we awoke early and walked along the river until it wound back into town ending up at a local bar for breakfast. Not a huge meal in Italy, we were pacified with freshly squeezed orange juice, a breakfast sandwich of prosciutto and omelet, ending with a chocolate filled croissant.
We are settling into to our summer routine – reading, writing, and sleeping, with a few errands for good measure. Our next-door neighbors welcomed us back and we stopped and chatted with an English artist we befriended who went native many years ago. He caught us up on all we missed throughout the last year.
Umbertide doesn’t have the children, grandkids, or pets. There is no television or movies. Internet has to be rationed. Despite this it offers a much simpler way of life, one that starts off feeling strange but rejuvenates and helps to live productively thought the rest of the year.
We received an invitation to an art show about 45 minutes north of Umbertide. The exhibition was located in a palazzo (palace) in the center of the historic district. It is only open to the pubic once a year, so in addition to seeing paintings, we were able to glimpse a little bit of an upper class Tuscan home.
The artist, Vincenzo Calli, has a unique style, blending old techniques with new. I especially enjoyed how he created a “3-D” element by adding sculpture to the painting.
Upon leaving the exhibition, we noticed that the narrow street in front of the building had been barricaded for what looked like a race. The runners were two and three-year-old boys and girls. The organizers walked the children about a block away and in corrals separated by gender, they raced their way back to the finished line, seeming to enjoy the cheers from the sideline crowds.
Our next stop was the number one restaurant (according to TripAdvisor) in the walled city of Citta di Castello, an Umbrian town about 20 minutes north of us. The friendly owner server us over sized plates of pasta so I was only able to enjoy one course.
When we arrived back in Umbertide, the town was lit up for a festival. At the base of the Rocco (a former guard tower now an art gallery), a stage was set up with inflatables and fair like vendors. We stayed for a bit watching what seemed to be a warm up acts for something else. We had been told that Cuban dancers were expected. Unfortunately the hour was late and so we left (not before Mike stopped at the local bar to check out the ongoing World Cup game between Germany and Ghana).
Several minutes after we readied for bed, I heard the unmistakable sound of fireworks. Our bedroom window points toward the Rocca and we were treated to a show.
All of this is to point out that when the evening began, we were going to an art show. As it turned out there was much more to see and do. This was not a special holiday; it is how these people live.
Across the street from our house in Umbertide is a piazza. It is nice place to walk to see people, enjoy a coffee, or a glass of wine. Recently I discovered the area is actually made up of two piazzas. The second one looks like a parking lot but upon inspection, this seemingly common area is actually much more.
On April 25, 1944 allied bombers aiming for a bridge over the Tiber River, a short distance away, missed and dropped two bombs into the small neighborhood of Borgo San Giovanni, killing seventy people and displacing hundreds of others. The homes were never rebuilt.
Today, the area has been renamed Pizza April 25th. Those who died are honored with a permanent plaque of their names. Among the stones of the parking lot are red bricks, which signify the places where buildings once set. A number inside the brick identifies the particular house.
I wonder at the idea of never rebuilding and replacing a neighborhood with a parking lot. I am sure what was done was best. Perhaps it is the way to remember.
I am a list maker. I can’t get through my day-to-day life without them, experiencing an exquisite thrill as I check off each to do. I am making progress.
Therefore despite the fact that there is now time to do nothing, beauty abounds, and the culture encourages the art of enjoying the moment, I am somewhat lost. It is not easy to shed the habits of the other eleven months. In other words I don’t know how to do nothing easily.
Yesterday, I decided that we needed to travel to a town thirty minutes away for Saturday market. Several years ago, I found local cookies that I have neither a name nor a flavor to describe them, only a place. I wanted the cookies. There was Saturday market but it has evolved to street after street and bin after bin of clothing. No cookies. I was disappointed and could not check cookies off of my list.
We have been hunting for a fire extinguisher since we arrived over a week ago. Despite trips to many different places, we have none. The market town had a hardware store. Surely success would come but alas no fire extinguisher and no guess as to where to buy one. Can’t check fire extinguisher off of my list.
The heat has risen and with no air conditioning, ninety degrees is something new to experience. I curled up under a fan, slept and read, still discouraged.
Later that evening, I received a text to join Mike in the piazza for a glass of Prosecco, my favorite wine. I was tempted to decline as I had already drunk a glass but something told to me to accept. With no plan nor list and a sweaty body, I walked across the street.
Mike was delighted as he is able to take pleasure in any small thing that life offers. I envy his optimism and child like enthusiasm. He had met several locals, gave and received a language lesson, as well as was treated to a glass of wine. He also had learned where you could refill water bottles for 5 cents a bottle. What a find!
I received my glass of sparkling wine from Mary, an extremely friendly bar owner and settled in to people watch. Everyone was coming out to enjoy the Saturday night. I willed myself to just relax and after a fashion, I realized I had. I tried out my Italian with a few people and admired the many dogs that accompany their owners into the piazza. Later we took a walk and learned some interesting history of our lovely town (will share in a later posting).
Dinner was eaten in a local Ristorante owned by a young woman and her mother. Almost everything we ate was home grown and homemade, and quite delicious. Another walk through the neighbor hood brought us back to the piazza where at eleven o’clock in the evening, it seemed like they were having a sidewalk sale. We met an Artisan, whose medium is glass, purchasing a set of earrings and a sunflower plate of sculpture.
It was on our walk home, that I realized how the real magic of the night was in my allowing it to unfold, without a list. No plans had been made. All I needed to enjoy the evening was a partner to share it with, time, and the willingness to relax. Grazia Umbertide.
Coming to Italy while always special is now a regular part of our traveling. This is the first winter trip for both of us and it is the first time we have spent alone in our new home in Umbria.
Unlike the summer, the “Green Heart of Italy” is wet, dark, and cold in winter. An umbrella stays at our side. Sunlight is a brief friend. The days are short. Life’s discomforts make one appreciate its beauty. I now understand the Italian love of sunlight and long days in which to do nothing but take a walk or savor the taste of fresh fruit.
But we are here now and there is still beauty to be found and had. In the town square is a large Christmas tree; it towers the buildings beside it. I can’t begin to imagine how it was transported and placed there. It lights up the piazza at night and is the centerpiece for the people who still take walks, despite the weather and savor the taste of a fresh tangerine.
There is fog. The fog settles over the Tiber River and forming a frame for the old stucco apartments that pepper the hills that overlook the waterway. Looking through this mist creates a different form of beauty but beauty nonetheless.
Inexpensive lighting and plastic Santas climbing up plastic ladders suggest the Christmas holiday. A red carpet is tacked down on the narrow streets of the old city square welcoming one and all to come end give praise to God’s gift, the chance to enjoy a day whether it be the one hoped for or the one given.
The temperatures are in the nineties. Sunshine fills the crevices in the piazza and it is difficult to remember that four of our five weeks in Europe were cold, windy, and most of rainy.
June of 2013 brought record flooding to areas of Austria, Germany, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. We spent our first day in Germany visiting a tenth century Monastery. The cavernous rooms weren’t suited to warmth. Umbrellas went up and down as we paraded in subsequent days through churches, synagogues, castles, and shopping areas.
On one of the few pleasant respites we had during this time, our host in the Rheingau invited us to a favorite place along the river to sip wine and watch the recently born goslings. When we returned to this same area two weeks later, the geese had taken residence across the street, daring vehicles to cross through the water soaked highways. The following photos show some of the effects of the unprecedented precipitation.
I took a risk with this part of the vacation and exchanged a timeshare week for one in Keszthenly, Hungary. The “resort” was advertised to be close to Lake Balaton so I assumed (which is not a good way to process information) that is was a lakeside resort. It was also advertised as a one-bedroom unit with privacy for four.
Upon entering the unit, I thought I had stepped back in time to the early 1950s, when the country was part of the Soviet Union. Gray-green paint with plain and dated furnishings served as our living quarters. The bedroom was situated so that we had to go through the living room to get to it; meaning the couple in the living room definitely did not have privacy. The lake was several miles away. The lovely restaurant advertised as a way to “relax after a day of site seeing” was extremely cheap but you get what you pay for. Everyone’s meal but mine was a heated up frozen dinner. I got lucky because I ordered a salad.
It was decided that a week there was no holiday, so we checked out the next morning and headed for Budapest. The hotel I chose was located in the “Castle district,” a very apt description and came a grand view of the Danube River. Hungary is in a state of transition and has some very beautiful buildings. Sometimes these structures are next to some very plain or downright ugly structures but it seems the people are trying to remedy that situation. Except for two desk clerks, ALL of the people we encountered everywhere in Hungary were friendly and willing to do whatever they could to help us, despite challenging language barriers.
There is a saying, “All roads in Hungary lead to Budapest,” and I think that is accurate. There do not seem to be multiple large towns to explore unless you are more adventuresome than me.
We had an absolutely wonderful meal of goulash soup and cucumber salad with an assortment of local desserts. A tour of the Great Synagogue was my first time in an actual Jewish place of worship. The guide carefully explained aspects of Judaism worship as well as the history of the area. The synagogue was part of the Budapest Ghetto during the war. In fact 10,000 people died here from disease and living conditions. They are buried next to the place of worship, which is uncommon in the Jewish faith.
Hungary is part of the European Union but has not converted to the Euro. They will take Euros in many places but you will probably get change in Forints, their country currency. Forints are most often expressed in forms of 1000 so at first the prices seem to very expensive until you realize that 220 Forints equal about $1.00.
Another lesson learned was that Hungary and Austria have a different way to collect highway tolls. You must purchase a “Vignette” before traveling on any of their major roads. In Austria this was a sticker and in Hungary, they registered your license plate online. Failure to do this will result in a large fine.
Failure to put enough money into a parking meter will earn a traffic ticket. Not understanding how close we were to our car, a decision was made to take a chance and not go back to the car to put in more Forints. Unfortunately Mike arrived to see a ticket stuck to the windshield wipers. He inquired at a local bakery and learned that you can pay the fine at a post office. Wanting to get out of the busy rush hour traffic, we waited to pay it in a small town post office. We encountered no problems and paid about $28.00. One more lesson learned.
Because I am a bit picky, this place would have been more enjoyable had I done a little research because the positives definitely outweighed the negatives. Hungary and Hungarians are lovely!
Visions of summer vacations have flowed through my mind for most of the last semester this year due to an unusual amount of stress that accompanied the school year. I couldn’t wait to sleep in, see some sights, and then read. Well…. it hasn’t happened in just that way.
Our first week was spent in Germany as a working trip. Mike was lucky to receive invitations to several schools in this area. I haven’t found a part of Germany yet that I didn’t like but much of this part of Europe has been challenged by excessive rain. It is also colder than what we are used to so the sun has become a rare friend at this point.
We trod forth with umbrellas. Under our protective dome, we visited a medieval monastery, a Riesling vineyard, the only intact Jewish cemetery in Germany, and the alpine village of Grainau.
Riesling comes from an area west of Frankfurt and is the pride of the people who live in the quaint looking towns of this region. To my surprise the glasses served to me were “trocken,” which means dry and are delicious! Very crisp and fruity!! I have always associated Riesling with sweet.
We are spending our vacation with another couple, who are experiencing their first trip to Europe. Artists, they are in awe of the views and their cameras are getting a work out. Merrie and I rode a cable car that led us to a walking path. We hiked for about two miles and then rode down on a ski lift. That led us into a fairy tale looking town where we sat down to local fare, and then caught a boat to tour a small section of the Rhein River back to where we started. It was a sunny day so we had a lot of fun.
The week ended in the mountains of southern Bavaria, where the temperatures were in the low forties and constant rain. This made it difficult to do much but get some great photos of the Alps and enjoy some hot chocolate.
Despite the weather, I adore my trips to Europe and have enjoyed seeing new things. Onward to Austria and Hungary!