Category Archives: Europe
After almost ten years, we finally gave our daughter her graduation trip to Europe. First stop – Munich, Germany. I discovered that the treat of visiting familiar places is that you spend your time visiting and rediscovering favorites: a brat at the Hauptbaunhof, a stroll to the Marienplatz, and dinner at The Augustiner were just a few.
A day trip to Berchtesgaden, the site of Hitler’s retreat, known as the Eagles’ Nest, proved to be a major disappointment. I usually plan my trips down to the last detail. This was a last minute decision to visit what I thought would be a piece of history. The view is outstanding but the building is a restaurant, with tours offered only in the morning. The place was packed with diners consuming the German equivalent of fast food. It was difficult to get a sense of the places’past.
We ended this part of the trip with an overnight stay in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a lovely mountain retreat. I chose a local hotel and wondered if it would be possible to find the little restaurant where I had enjoyed a plate of Bavarian “mac and cheese” four years ago. It was with great surprise that as we entered Gasthof Fraundorfer, I realized that that this was it, the exact place. What a surprise that with a multitude of choices, I had accidentally wondered back to this traditional German restaurant. The mac and cheese was still good.
While I can appreciate all of the beauty of Germany, my heart belongs to Italy. Its ancient buildings, pasta, and wine beckon me. This time, I rented an apartment, wanting to experience a little of the Roman lifestyle. It did not disappoint. No working air conditioning, no dryer, a shabby exterior all combined to make it an authentic experience. I am not sure what happens when I visit this country but all of the comforts that I need in the US seem unnecessary here.
We returned for a second time to one of my favorite places, the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary. This is an amazing place where volunteers accept several hundred displaced felines, vaccinate and neuter them, as well as provide any necessary medical care. Many of the pets are blind, sick, or hurt but they are all loved by the very caring staff. The cats are allowed to wander the ruins of four small temples. Visitors are welcome to pet, talk with the volunteers, and of course leave a donation for this very worthy cause.
Wandering the narrow, cobblestone paths, eating gnocchi quatro formaggio, enjoying a cappuccino, licking a Bacio gelato; these are a few of my favorite things.
I always throw a penny into the Trevi Fountain to ensure a return visit to Rome. Let’s hope its magic does not disappoint.
Spain was invaded by many different cultures. Evidence of this is in abundance so we scheduled a time to view the ancient wonders. Situated on the Mediterranean, offering lovely seaside views. is Peniscola and Tarragona, Spain. Peniscola has a castle that sets atop of the old part of the city surrounded by stone walls. Upward we climbed until we reached the top of the castle. It was a little too touristy for my nature. It is difficult to imagine days gone by when caterers arrive with bouquets of flowers intended for a wedding later that day but panoramic views of the sea abound.
Tarragona proved to be the driving nightmare that we had begun to expect with Roman ruins setting amidst modern buildings. Our hotel was across the street from the coliseum where people continue to host modern entertainments. We walked around viewing thousand years old structures intertwined with a Spanish Elvis tribute band and eateries situated around and through the stone. What incongruousness! Fortunately we drove to a really great ruin of a Roman aqueduct several km outside of town and got to walk rather close up to the engineering wonder.
Our final side trip was conducted through a tour group up to Montserrat. I am Roman Catholic, something that defines me as a person. We are not an evangelical people so my intent is not to convert but to explain. I went to the mountain enclave to see a bit of history, the goal of the tour guide. Tucked into the side of a mountain, (Montserrat means serrated mountain.) it is home to a Benedictine Monastery. According to legend in the 800s shepherds saw a light in a cave indicating the presence of the Holy Mother. During the 1200s a statue was carved in her honor. The Virgin of Montserrat is a black Madonna holding her child. Not able to move the statue the monks build around it. Today la Moreneta (“The little dark-skinned one”) is housed behind the alter in the Basilica. For hundreds of years, people have made pilgrimages to this holy place, asking for miracles. I knew little of this before we arrived and thus began our explorations at the gift shop. We then made our way to the Basilica where we found a long queue and decided to ignore our tour group and join the lines of waiting people. Our tour group was going to meet and then proceed to the Basilica where at 1:00 a boys choir would sing two songs, a tradition that began in the middle ages. The hour long wait allowed us time for prayer and contemplation, moving through thousand year old rooms with lovely alters and statues before we ascended the narrow staircase to the Madonna. The choir began to play adding to the specialness of the moment. Before me were two middle age Spanish ladies obviously prepared for this trip. Their eagerness shown through the language barrier. Each person is allowed a moment to honor the Virgin before moving on. These ladies were overcome and even peeked back into the room as I moved before the Holy Mother. As a Catholic, I need these reminders of God’s spiritualness and didn’t realize how truly filled with awe I would become. It was accident that I meandered into this queue not a tour stop destination but it provided one of the highlights of my trip.
One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to shop at the local stores. It says so much in terms of how people live and what is important to them. In search of a reasonably priced GPS I found that the European version of a superstore, Carrefour and one could be found near our place in Albir. Thirty minutes later after several false attempts we arrived. The store looks a lot like Sam’s Club but without the need for membership cards and individual rather than large quantities of items. My first stop was the book section. I love to look for books in Europe because the stores often have English versions of their local authors and the newest publications from European authors.. Sure enough I acquired a Spanish novel and the latest from Cecilia Ahern. We found a Garmin that was two-thirds as much as the last one purchased in the U.S. From there we proceeded to the food section. First up was an icy display of fresh fish. Some were being scaled as we watched. An entire eel lay before me ready to be purchased and prepared. Leaving Mike to get some video of the process, I went on to the important stuff – pastries, cookies and candy. I am always amazed at how much of these items can be found in European stores but how few really overweight people we see. They must know how to achieve a balance that eludes me. Meats are important in Spain, especially pork so there was a large charcuteria or delicatessen, decorated with whole hams that included a foot. Perhaps to give you a peak at to what the animal looked like?? Among our more unique finds were ham-flavored Pringles and Coke-flavored Jell-O. I guess my best buy had to be Spanish hot chocolate. Resembling pudding, it comes already made in a carton. Heated up with some whipped cream it is almost a spiritual moment (that is if you like chocolate.)
The next trip took place with Garmin firmly planted on the front window. The destination was Xativa (pronounced Sha-ti-va). We arrived with no problems to a medieval town with one lane, one way streets. Miss Garmin was misinformed on this information so we were on our own again to locate the Castile. Mike was given an opportunity to show off his driving skills as we went up and back down the wandering (or as the travel book said, “higgledy-piggledy”) “ maze that is the historic district finally lucking up on the path to the Castile. After parking the rest of the afternoon was spend mostly climbing up. Spanish castles (maybe others, I am not an authority) are situated at the top of mountains. We climbed the smaller one first and found out that Hannibal had stayed there. His wife even had her own room where she gave birth to a child. It is truly emotional to realize that you are standing on history. More so for me, when it comes off the beaten path and not a touristy area like the Coliseum for example. Unfortunately he left no elephants behind. They would have proven useful for the further walking. But it was worth it. The panoramic views were inspiring and left us with renewed appreciation for the land and life in castles.
We completed our day trips of the Costa Blanca region with a trip to Alcoi. Up windy roads for about sixty minutes we arrived to a rather large city situated among the mountains. Known for its sugared almonds and tiled buildings, we saw neither. A few pictures and a dang good gelato later, we decided to give it up and head on back. The loveliness of this city missed us or we just couldn’t find it. Travel books can only do so much.
Onward tomorrow to the province of Roman ruins.
We are home-based in Albir, Spain, a small town by the Mediterranean. The pebble beach is a vacation spot for many northern Europeans making this a beautiful place to stay for the view but our days will be spent taking trips in the opposite direction. I really don’t enjoy “relaxing” on a beach and would rather venture out to look for history , culture and nature.
We rented a car in Barcelona – a Citroen Picasso. I love it! It is a small, cute, station wagon; easy to drive BUT the rental place decided that I did not request a GPS (I did) and we are without. This has made most trips twice as long as they should be. Tomorrow we are going to the local superstore and try to purchase one. Spanish highways and street signs are not always easy to see. You can make few left turns and most locals do not speak English.
Taking a cue from the literature on paid tours, we traveled on our first day to Jalon, a place known for its vineyards. Up a steep mountain road we went, oohing and ahhing, until we located the small town. It has one vineyard that is closed on Sunday. Oh well, I suggested we sit down at a lovely grape leaf (real ones) adorned bar and enjoy some Sangria. Not being a Sangria expert I didn’t realized the punch would come in large pitcher. I thought the waitress was mistaken when she brought it to me. She was also surprised that I was not part a of a large party and suggested that we order some food. She didn’t think that much wine on an empty stomach was a good thing and we agreed. Soon plates of meats, cheeses, olives and tomatoes arrived with a basket of bread. We were delighted. Couldn’t finish the drink but the food was good and the conversation with the Dutch people beside of us made for an entertaining afternoon.
The next day we ventured up another mountain to the small town of Guadelest. You must walk up and through a short tunnel to enter the old part. In that section is a 17th century home that has steps which will lead you out to a castle built in the 13th century. Unfortunately earthquakes have made the castle mostly ruins but you can see the valley below which overlooks Lake Guadelest, an azure blue lake. I have only seen this color artificially, never for real and am sure that my photographs will not do it justice. A torrent of rain held bay until the last souvenir was purchased and we dashed back down the hill to eat at a recommended, privately own restaurant. The waitress allowed us to go out to a closed in deck so we were able to view the castle while dining and enjoyed a carefully prepared late lunch (or early dinner) depending on your cultural preferences. The gazpacho was divine, creamy, and seasoned with just the right amount of olive oil and salt. We finally found the correct and most direct route back which also included an orange stand. Our unit has an electric juicer and I want to make fresh juice. I also purchased some chocolate soap which I hope will make me smell delicious. It doesn’t get dark until about ten o’clock allowing enough time to relax, read and swim, not necessarily in that order.
This was my third trip to the eternal city, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite places to visit. While the attitude of the people can be trying to Americans I find that if I drink, relax and take in the atmosphere, it is a very special place indeed. Where else can you go just to eat!!
The food is delicious. I can honestly say that I have never had a bad meal in Italy. I chose to eat simply this time and discovered some of the best spaghetti and lasagna I have ever tasted. That combined with wonderful wine, fresh bread, hot cappuccinos, yummy pastries and gelato made us jump out of bed each day to savor the delights.
Two new attractions for this trip included Palatine Hill and The Cat Sanctuary. A very likable tour guide led us through the rain to discover the lifestyle of ancient Roman emperors. It was raining and we walked uphill a lot but there is nothing like happening upon the place where legend says Romulus set up his hut beginning three thousand years of everything life can throw at you. The panoramic views of the city make the tour worth it.
Being a lover of animals the cat sanctuary was a unique experience. A short walk from the Pantheon, sunken ruins are home to about 250 cats. Unpaid volunteers rely on the charity to neuter, vaccinate and provide food and plenty of love to felines that have been discarded by others. They take in sick and injured cats providing them with the care they need to flourish. The cats enjoy your attention and the volunteers love to share the history of the place and will take time to show you around. All of this is free but just seeing their dedication makes you want to leave a donation.
The four days spent here went by much too fast but a few suggestions. I will never fly Alitalia again. The airlines is much like the country – somewhat dirty, laid back and noisy. After flight delays that resulted in connections problems, I will choose a more reliable airline in the future.
We stayed at Hotel Raffaello, a lovely boutique hotel between the Termini and the Colosseo. The room was European small but very clean. Breakfast is provided with many choices – cereals, eggs, meats, cheeses, yogurts, fresh fruit, pastries, cakes and bread as well as coffee, tea, juice and hot chocolate. There is Internet access (5 euros for 2 hours) in the lobby. The metro is two blocks from the hotel which is located by many restaurants, bars and groceries.
I booked two tours through “Dark Rome” and “Through Eternity”. I thoroughly recommend “Through Eternity” but “Dark Rome” was led by a pompous guide who gave too many of his own opinions and went over the allotted time by two hours preventing us from doing something else that we had planned. Oh well… we just enjoyed another plate of delectable spaghetti and headed back for a nap. Such is the stuff for “la dolce vita.”
I signed up for a two hour Nordic Walk using walking sticks. When the time came Mike and I were the only people wanting to walk and the trip was canceled. Disappointed we asked the front desk for other options and she pointed out a nice walk across a mountain. It was short distance from our condo so I eagerly set off. After about a mile or so we arrived at the Hundle ski lift. Up the mountain was easy (considering my fear of heights) and then we began the walk. Some of it was uphill but most was very pleasant with awe inspiring scenery. The region is known for its cheese so cows are everywhere and since they need to be rounded up they wear cow bells, This tinkling sound accompanies the walkers. As we ascended a man about seventy came upon us riding his bike – what fitness some of the people have (and muscular calves)!
Soon after we started across the mountain path, it began to rain. The trees are so full in the area that they provided a nice shelter. The rain in the area quickly comes but also disappears as fast so we were able to continue on and encountered a small forest. We felt like Hansel and Gretel being careful to watch out for the witch. Our of nowhere appeared a small restaurant with a toilet. Wonderbar!!!! A lunch of pork roast, potatoes, Kaiserschmarr (cut up pieces of pancake served with applesauce) and a Ratler (beer and sprite) energized us to begin the descent. This proved to be somewhat more difficult than climbing up. Walking slowly we made our way down and took a bus back to Oberstaufen. The trek was a total of seven miles, a pretty far distance for these southern Americans.
The next day we went on an expedition to a cheese factory. The area is known for its moutain kase (cheese). After a breakfast of cheese (of course), fresh bread and the best marmalade I have ever tasted (red current) we walked past the cows to the cheese factory. The tour was conducted in German and translated by our guide who spoke a little English so I really don’t know the facts but figured out that the local farmers bring their milk which is poured into a large vat and stirred. I am sure other things are added and then the cheese is placed into a press to rid it of all excess water. Interestingly this collected and sold to be used as beauty and bath ingredients. The large round bundles are then dipped into a salt bath and turned on a frequent basis. After that they are transferred to a cold room to mature. Every two days the cheese is flipped to the other side. The more it ages the better. We were able to eat as much as we liked but since cheese was the main course for breakfast I was not as enthused as I should have been.
For a mere 48 Euros we decided to take a day bus trip to Switzerland. Beginning at 9:50, Mike and I climbed aboard a air conditioned (rare in this area), comfortable bus with a tour guide in traditional Bavarian dress (lederhosen on a somewhat stocky man – not exactly Brad Pitt.) The route took us to Lindau on Lake Constance the largest lake in Germany down to Austria and west to Switzerland. We stopped in Zurich, which is a large banking city. The Swiss did not join the Euro system and operate with Swiss Francs which is annoying. They also have one of the most expensive economies so my shopping adventure turned out to be mostly window viewing. I did find a nice pair of hiking shoes and some books as well as one of the most chocolate pastries eaten on this trip yet but after two hours I was more than ready to get back on the bus. Zurich may be appreciated better by the rich and famous.
Next stop the Lindt chocolate factory outlet. We were able to purchase as much as we could hold which for us meant as much as our suitcases could hold. It was fun picking up flavors that I have never seen in the U.S..
After re-boarding the bus, we went around some awe inspiring mountain vistas with lakes, trees and meadows. I tried to quickly capture it all through the bus window and was somewhat unsuccesful.
The group passed on through the principality of Lichtenstein another very wealthy area. It is always enjoyable to see and learn new things but I appreciate the tiny quaintness of Oberstaufen to the grandness of Switzerland.
We ended the evening at a local rathaus where no one spoke English. I pulled out my iPhone and used the translator app. After a painstaking time of trying to interpret the menu, I chose rump steak (not really sure what I would get). The waiter stopped by several times and Mike attempted to get him to understand what I was doing. He looked at my choice and shook his head appearing to say that they were out of it. The whole restaurant broke into laughter – apparently a stray pair of Americans is worth observing. Oh well, I quickly ordered schnitzel and fries and moved on. Perhaps another night I will find out what rump steak is.
Our destination for the second week of this European vacation was Oberstaufen, Germany. This is a small town in the southwest part of Bavaria. Nestled in the mountains is a tourist destination for the local people. We stayed at Mondi-Holiday, a resort with chalet type apartments. While tiny, they had all of the things we needed to be quite comfortable.
The English speaking staff showed us the short cut into town and since our stomachs’ were grumbling we immediately set off. The short cut was all uphill and I was plenty grateful for the hours spent on a treadmill and at the track this past year. Atop of the climb was a small town filled with a beautiful church and many nice places to eat. My favorite so far has been Spatzle mit Kase (a Bavarian macaroni with cheese).
We went to Mass on Sunday to a totally German service but since the Catholic service is universal I had no problem joining in. I even sang to one song since I knew the melody. The service was accompanied by a choir with organ, violins and timpani so it was quite lovely. The congregation was predominately older people and we were told later that the younger folk hold Christian values but do not care for a church that does not seem to fit in the 21st century.
This weekend Oberstaufen held a street market or neighborhood festival. Kiosks of food surround tables and a musical stage. We ate sausages, roasted chicken, french fries (which are huge in Europe) , roasted almonds and different kinds of cakes. I drank Apfelschorle (apple juice with fizzy water) while Mike sampled the local beers. The music was Bavarian what we might call oomph music. It made you want to swing back and forth which much of the crowd did joining in on refrains. The night ended with a five piece Alpine Horn band (think Ricolla cough drops) which was peaceful and seemed to be the same song over and over. I enjoyed mostly watching the locals enjoy a favorite past time.
We stayed one night in the Frankfurt, Germany the city of banking and Apfel Wein (apple wine.) Our German friend Uschi took us around the old part of the city explaining that unfortunately most of the older buildings had been bombed in World War II. The Germans rebuilt this small area of the city that includes the town hall. Uschi explained that she had married her first husband in that building.
Michael Jackson died the day before as well as a young woman in Iran. The area was filled with people mourning their deaths through displays of pictures and candles as well as musical tributes. It was fascinating to see German teens dressed as Michael singing his most famous songs. Of course Mike joined in for a bit of the sing-a-long.
We ate dinner at Uschi’s favorite restaurant, a small place on the outskirts of downtown Frankfurt. Her friends Ziggie and Herbert awaited us with a traditional pitcher of Apple Wine. It is low in alcohol and very dry. The Germans usually mix it with fizzy mineral water or orange juice. I chose the mineral water and found it very refreshing. Germans love to eat outside (regardless of how pretty the indoors might be) perhaps because they don’t get many opportunities to do this so we sat at a long picnic type table under umbrellas in a fenced in former parking lot. It is also a custom in most European countries to value the hundes (dogs) so many canines shared our dinner atmosphere, usually politely parked under the table of their owners. I ordered the Frankfurt Schnitzel, a wonderfully crisp piece of pork and fried potatoes that came with a indescribable but delicious creamy green sauce. Dessert was fresh strawberries over Bavarian cream. It took several hours to finish the pitcher of wine but the good conversation (in German and English) made the time go fast. Another characteristic of European dinners is the length. Server only come when you need them and allow you to have a relaxed dining experience. You have to ask for the tab. We have been told that they get paid well and tips are extra not expected. Perhaps that is why.
First and foremost I am glad that I got to spend a day in one of “the most beautiful cities in the world.) That being said, it is a dirty city filled with bicycles, motorcycles, trams and cars. These forms of transportation will go down any street as long as they fit. Pedestrians seem to have no right of way so you take your life into your hands in a seemingly quiet walk way.
A city of canals, they are brown and decorated with houseboats that may or may not have curb appeal.
The most important thing on my agenda was seeing the Anne Frank Huis. An important help tip – buy your tickets in advance on the Internet. The lines are long and in the sun. With tickets in hand we bypassed the queue and walked right in. There are many things to see, hear and read but the highlight is standing in Anne’s room imagining her writing and dreaming of a better world. Knowing that her dream was not realized makes you ponder destiny and your place in this world. Did she accomplish much more for dying??? They have the actual diary under glass – how awesome.
The book shop was a teacher’s delight! I bought so many that the cashier asked if I was an educator. They had books that I would never had been able to get in the US or Amazon.
We then went to the Rijks Museum – the home to many Dutch Art Masters. I stood in front of and learned about Rembrandt’s “Night Watchman” and “The Jewish Wife” but the highlight for me was the three Vermeers. After watching “Girl With a Pearl Earring” I developed an appreciation for the camera aspects that Vermeer applies to his work.
The day was concluded with a requisite canal tour that provided a different perspective of the houses and an hour to relax your feet.
I was glad that we were able to return to Drenthe, a quiet province to the northeast. Amsterdam was too busy (it even gave Mike a headache) that the peacefulness gave us a great night’s sleep.
In spite of all of the touristy things, the highlight of my day was noticing a real hedge hog creeping about outside our window. I have never see one especially in the wild. It looked exactly like a Jan Brett illustration. I was thrilled. This area’s love of animals – geese, ducks, cows, sheep, goats, cats, ponies and dogs can be seen almost everywhere helps to keep me from missing my own too much.