We’re On the Right Track (Europe Part 8)

 Most of the notable challenges during travel have involved trains.  Inside of the train terminals there are kiosks, which I assume you need some kind of higher education to operate.  Either that or you need to be a teenager.  Fortunately for us while we were trying to figure out our train from Salzburg to Munich, we encountered a group traveling together being led by a German teacher from Boston.  She had traveled to Germany many times and showed us the cheap tickets that allowed us to get to Munich and then have the rest of the day with free use of their transit system.  Unfortunately, she led us to believe that we could take any train.  This was not true.

This became crystal clear after we boarded our train.  Unlike every movie I have ever seen, there are not porters standing by the doors waiting to check your ticket.  You, and I mean we, are supposed to know which train we are  getting on and where our seats are on that train.  After all, it is clearly written (no it isn’t) on the signage.

We made our way from car to car and found the car with the bar.  There we discovered that we were in fact on the wrong train.  The bartender and a gentleman traveler interpreted our ticket for us.  We had boarded the fast train.  Oops.  A man who looked a lot like Dumbledore was watching us and speaking to the others in German.  It seemed he knew what he was doing and what we should do, but it did not seem like he spoke English.

After much discussion by the three men, they agreed that we should ride the train to the next stop, just five minutes away.  The bartender said, “The conductor won’t be coming by anytime soon.  Just stay on.”

Then Dumbledore spoke up in perfect English, “That is best.  Just get off at the next stop.  You will be fine.”

I knew this was the closest I would ever get to hopping a freight (even if that freight did have air conditioning, a bar and cushioned seats).  Plus we had the blessing of the bartender and Dumbledore.  We stayed on.  After all, it was only a five-minute ride.

Three minutes into the trip, guess who came through our car.  That’s right, Harry Potter.  No, the conductor.  My sister, who was facing that direction, had the color drain from her face as she whispered, “Here comes the conductor.”

I assured my co-conspirators that I would not implicate them.  As the conductor passed us, the bartender and I exchanged a look.  I mimed biting my fingernails.  Dumbledore gave me the thumbs up.

We pulled up almost to the station and sat for ten minutes.  There was discussion as to whether or not we should make a run for it, but we were cool.

As we disembarked, the train we were supposed to be on pulled up.  I looked back at our first train and there was Dumbledore, pointing us in the right direction and giving us a thumbs up.  And then he disappeared.  Okay, his train pulled away.  It was magic.

The Right Train

The Right Train

Winter Can Be Sneaky (Europe Part 7)

We were enjoying our car ride back to our resort in Pongau, near Salzburg, after a lovely day touring the castles of King Ludwig II in Bavaria.  By the time we got in our car, we noticed the weather had cooled and the wind had picked up.  Off in the distance we could see cloud cover begin to cloak the tops of the Alps.  I figured it might be snowing up there.

The scenery was unbelievable.  My mouth pretty much hung open the entire trip.  We were happy.  Bob, my husband, was enjoying driving along the mountain roads.  (Side note – If you ever go on a trip to Europe and plan on renting a car, consider asking Bob to come along and chauffeur.  He is amazing.)

I was getting cold.  I touched the glass on the window and knew the temperature had dropped.  The indicator on the dashboard read an external temperature of 11 degrees.  (Double the Celsius temperate and add 30 to give you the fahrenheit.  That meant it was 52 outside.)  Not bad, but cooler than earlier.  I watched as the temperature dropped to 9.  Then 8.  Quickly it was 2 degrees.

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Soon we encountered a few snow flurries.  How exciting!  My first Austrian snow.  It looked a lot like the snow we have in the U.S. except the flakes were enormous.  They looked like they could have been cut out of paper.  Now the temperature was zero (double that and add 30 – you get 30).

We were winding through the Alps.  It was getting dark.  The flurries had turned into a snow storm.  This Florida girl was not liking it.

We were about 45 minutes from our resort when the snow started accumulating on the windshield and the road.  The temperature held at zero.  The speed limit was around 80 kph, not that we were going that fast.  At one point a car in front of us stopped and Bob had to swerve around him to avoid a collision.  I think the other driver must have skidded and panicked.  We pressed on.

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We were heading down the mountain so we figured we would be driving out of the snow, but no.  It was picking up and now it was totally dark.  We were so thankful to pull into the parking garage at our resort and sleep safe and sound in a warm bed.

The view from our balcony April 22 in St. Johann at Pongau, Austria.

The view from our balcony April 22 in St. Johann at Pongau, Austria.

The next morning was beautiful and the weather had warmed up.  We could see the beautiful new dusting of snow on the roofs and trees.  The server at the cafe told us winter had decided to come back but it was gone again.  What a difference a day makes.

 

Oh My Gosh, Oh My Gosh (Europe Part 6)

Here is a perfect example of you cannot judge a book by its cover.  Or, in this case, you cannot judge a hill town by how it looks from the outside.

As we approached our resort, we rounded a bend and saw this view.

All four of us exclaimed in unison, “oh my gosh, oh my gosh.”  It was magnificent, towering in front of us beckoning us to come in.

When the day arrived for us to visit the Oh My Gosh (as we like to call it), we were shocked. It’s actually in the town San Casciano de Bagni.  Today it is a medieval ghost town.  Amazing on the outside and deserted on the inside.  We still enjoyed the view immensely but it was surprising.  I guess that’s why Rick Steves does not mention it in his guidebooks.   Oh, Rick, we are sorry we deviated from your guidance. It won’t happen again.

Florence – Why Don’t we Call You Firenze?  (Europe Part 5)

I cannot figure out why we call some cities by their native name and others by the English/American version.  For instance, Rome vs Roma, Florence vs Firenze, Munich vs Munchen.  I have decided not to contemplate this too much because I am on vacation, but I will say it is much more fun to say Roma, Munchen and Firenze.

Speaking of Firenze, that was our destination today.  Florence had the hustle and bustle going from the minute we turned onto its streets.  Cars stacked up at intersections and motorcycles darted in between them in spaces thinner than a pepperoni.  It was unnerving but totally worth every nail that was bitten off during the drive.

Seeing the Statue of David by Michelangelo would be reason enough to go to this city. He was magnificent.  At 17 feet tall, he literally was head and shoulders above all the other statues in the corridor.

 He was not the only attraction in his area, though surely he was the main attraction.  Michelangelo also had a hall lined with his Statuas Incompiuta (Unfinished Statues).  According to Michelangelo, the figures were already in the stone just waiting to emerge as he sculpted.  They were fascinating.

  

 And, of course, there is a duomo in Florence.  As we left the city an orchestra had assembled on the front steps of the cathedral and gave a small concert.  They appeared one by one as musicians playing solo and then they came together with a sound so magnificent that it brought tears to my eyes.

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As we headed down the autostrada toward our resort, an hour and a half away, we decided we would take a different route home.  We exited at Chiusi to look for dinner in this small town or any of the others that dot the meandering roads on our way back.  It was not looking too promising to find anything.  The landscape was becoming more and more rural.  Our plan was to follow the signs for the first eatery of any kind that we came across.

Since there was nobody else on the road, when we noticed a small sign Bob screeched to a stop and we turned up the unpaved road.  This was what they refer to here as a white road – gravel and narrow.  At the end of this road we found a charming little restaurant, Trattoria del Contadino, and had the best meal of our trip.  We were the only guests and were treated like VIPs – from the antipasto tray all the way to the limoncello at the end of our meal.  It was perfecto.

Unfortunately we lingered long enough that Bob had to drive the white road out of there. We were thankful to be back in our beds that night.

The views at night are a bit more terrifying.

The views at night are a bit more terrifying.

Orvieto (Europe Part 4)

Our first stop out of Rome was Orvieto.  The thrill of visiting our first hill town made it even more impacting.  The beauty of these towns will take your breath away.  So will all the walking.  The town center is typically dominated by a cathedral, which may or may not have a dome.  I thought duomo always would translate to a church with a dome, but it does not.

Orvieto’s cathedral has one of the most spectacular facades that I have ever seen.  Here is our first peek at it.

 This is an example of Italian Gothic architecture.  Of interest is how the look of the facade changed as the afternoon light on the colorful mosaics made them shine like the sun itself.

 

 Strolling through this medieval city was like walking through a fairy tale.  I kept having to pinch Bob to make sure I wasn’t sleeping.

  

I hope you enjoy these few shots.  Ciao for now.

The Sistine Chapel (Europe Part 2)

During our last trip to Rome the Sistine Chapel was closed for the day – that was quite the disappointment.  But, since I had thrown a coin into the Trevi Fountain on that visit I knew I would return.  This time I was not disappointed. Michelangelo’s magnificent ceiling was more beautiful than I had imagined.  But it was his The Last Judgment painting that got to me.  As you walk into the Chapel, you pass under The Last Judgment.  The symbolism was striking.  I entered into the chapel under judgment.  I walked out in freedom because of what Christ did for me.  He took my penalty.  The One who was sinless has cloaked me in his righteousness.  Such a picture!

Photographs are not allowed to be taken in the Sistine Chapel.  The tour guides take you to the museum gardens near the chapel and explain what you will see.  There are panels with pictures of all of the art work displayed for their tutorial.  This is a picture of The Last Judgment from one of those panels.

Of course it does not do the original work justice, but in case you have not seen it before, I wanted to show you.  Especially vivid is the bottom right corner where those who were not covered by the blood of Jesus entered eternal damnation.  Of interest, the man depicted prominently is said to have criticized Michelangelo’s work.  I guess that is one way to be immortalized in art.

The other work that affects me so much that I find it difficult to stop looking at it is La Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica.  Michelangelo was 23 when he was commissioned to do this work.

 Our guide told us that it is said that Michelangelo worked alone.  Other artists had students who often worked on projects with them, but Michelangelo did these two works of art alone.  My take on what she said is that his genius did not lend itself to working and playing well with others.  That made me think of how God has gifted people so individually for the work that he has for them.  Perhaps If Michelangelo was more of a teacher or less of a perfectionist he would not have created these masters.  I am not an art scholar by any means, but that was food for thought for me.

No Roads Lead Out of Rome (Europe Part 3)

After a riveting 48 hours in Rome we were ready to head to Tuscany.  If you ever travel to Rome and make the mistake of renting a car, be sure to get a GPS that speaks your language.  I can only imagine how helpful that would be, because Bob did not spring for a GPS.  To his credit, he does have an excellent sense of direction.  But that is not quite enough in this part of Italy.

The first challenge was getting the car out of the parking garage.  It was like trying to put toothpaste back in a toothpaste tube.  It can’t be done without getting messy.  I will spare you the details of his efforts, but it is sufficient to say that in a mere 47 minutes we were out of there with no noticeable scratches or dents.   Then the fun began.  We circled and circled trying to get away from the terminal, which is also where you pick up the rentals. Thankfully it was morning so we knew what direction we were heading because of the sun.  We eventually broke away and headed north.

The signs are all in Italian, of course, and there are so many signs placed close together that I would suggest to you that if you are driving in Italy, make sure you have three other people in the car with you.  Between all of them, you might luck out and have someone read the sign you need and point you in the right direction.

We decided to look for a petrol station and fuel up.  It is not a good idea to get low on gas whenever you are a stranger in a strange land.  As Bob fueled up, I ventured inside to buy a map.

The lady clerk did not speak any English.  None.  She understood “mapa” even though I am not sure that is the proper Italian word.  She said, “Roma?”  I said something that confused her and we went back and forth for a while.  Finally I said, “Arrivederci, Roma,” and she pulled out a map of Italy that would be great to don any classroom.  It was huge.  Then this kind woman called someone in that spoke English and I was able to tell him we were going to Orvieto and Tuscany.  During our conversation an older gentleman who was riding a motorcycle came in to pay for his fuel and he got into the conversation, too.  I have never encountered such helpful people.

The man on the motorcycle, who did not speak a word of English, offered to lead us to our exit.  We followed him for two to three miles (or an unknown number of kilometers) and he pointed us to the proper exit.  We are fairly convinced that if it had not been for these three people we would still be in Rome.

Driving along the highway was such a treat after meandering around the vicinity of Rome.  We watched the scenery change to rolling hills dotted by Italian Cypress trees with the occasional hill town standing majestically in the distance.  Ah, Tuscany.  We are so happy to see you.

Heading for La Dolce Vita

Life on the Lighter Side is going to Europe.

Bob and I are getting a jump on our 40th wedding anniversary celebration, which is in August.  We chose to travel in April for a couple of reasons.  It’s not prime season.  That means smaller crowds and cheaper flights (allegedly).  Also, I will do just about anything to keep from sweating.  (The irony of that statement combined with the fact that I live in Florida is not lost on me.)

We have been planning this trip for months.  Of course, that means Rick Steves has become our best friend.  We love his travel books.  I follow him on face book, which is how I discovered that he is in Italy right now, paving the way for us.  That also means I have the opportunity to stalk, I mean look for, Rick.  It will be my version of “Where’s Waldo.”

Besides devouring Rick’s books and making a steady diet of watching his PBS shows, I have been working on getting myself in shape so that I can best enjoy our trip.  Our destinations include Rome, Tuscany, Austria, and Bavaria.

My workout regime focuses on four main areas.

  1. Walking.  We will be doing walking tours.  The last time we were in Europe we walked everywhere.  When I got home I missed being able to walk to a destination instead of doing the much less inspiring laps around the block in my neighborhood.
  2. Bike riding. We will do a bike tour of Munich.
  3. Spinning.  Not to be confused with any form of biking.  We will be doing the Sound of Music tour in Austria.  You know that part of the movie where Maria walks up the hill, makes a dramatic spin and belts out “The hills are alive?”  I plan on doing that.  The problem is I get queasy with the slightest twirl.  That’s why I’ve been working out.
  4. Drinking wine. I love wine.  Especially red wine.  One of the big draws of Tuscany is the myriad of vineyards and local wines.  I have been pretty much a one-glass-of-wine person.  Two makes me sleepy.  My sons like to tease me about this and have suggested that I try to increase my endurance in this area.  So, I’ve been working on it, but only for the good of my trip, mind you.

We will touch down in Rome tomorrow morning.  I plan on blogging (wifi permitting), so if you’d like to follow my adventure, stay tuned.  I’ll share the highlights with you (assuming that second glass of wine doesn’t put me to sleep).

Give Me Some Space

Personal space is a very American mental structure. Please allow me some space to explain. When I get in line to go to the movies, I’m careful not to stand too close to the person ahead of me. That space is theirs, psychologically speaking. I don’t want them to feel crowded and I appreciate the same consideration. When I go into the theater, I don’t sit directly next to anyone unless the theater is packed (no matter how much fun I think it would be to mess with a person). That buffer area is part of personal space.

The first time I went to Europe I found myself getting annoyed at how people cut in front of me while I waited in line. It was like I wasn’t even there. This happened several times before I realized that by European standards, I wasn’t in line. Being in line in Germany or France meant you could feel the breath of the person behind you on your neck. I think this is why the early explorers crossed the Atlantic. They needed some elbow room. It also could explain why four out of five Europeans where neck scarves. So now I’ve learned – a line in Europe does not have any open space. You find the end and wait up close to the person ahead of you, all the while hoping the guy behind you doesn’t let loose with a sneeze. If you want open spaces, go to Montana.

Parking spaces are another thing we Americans have over Europeans (except maybe in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Costco on the weekend). When Bob and I first visited Europe we made the rookie mistake of renting a car (a mistake we have repeated each trip). Our final day of that particular trip we were in Zürich, Switzerland. We had a few hours to see the city before catching a plane home. Bob was prepared. He printed out maps and directions so we would have them in English. The maps were easy to follow, but unfortunately they often led us to the wrong place. I can tell you from experience that there are a lot of dead-end streets in Zürich. Finally we decided to pull over and get directions, which sounds simple enough except evidently Zürich city planners don’t believe in parking spaces. We looked for one all over the city and finally found one at the airport rental car return. We parked and took the shuttle to our hotel. We’ll see Zürich another time (by bus).

Storage space seems to be another American construct. We’ve traveled through eight different countries in Europe, and I have never seen a sign advertising storage units for rent. In all fairness, though, I do not read signs well unless they are written in English – with the one exception of “degustation,” which means “wine tasting.” We stopped just about every time we saw this sign. We visited lots of vineyards, drank lots of wine, and saw no storage units.

In Orlando you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting a storage unit facility (or a Starbucks). In case you are reading this and you are from Europe, a storage unit facility is a place where one rents a covered, sometimes air-conditioned space to store the things that have been purchased which don’t fit inside of your house or apartment. These things are so special that they cannot easily be parted with, yet they also cannot be tolerated in the home in which you actually live. Some brilliant person came up with this concept so that we can keep and purchase more stuff than ever thought possible, which is the American way. It also was a good use of the excessive amount of parking lots all over the city, which is why Europe will never have storage unit facilities. Of course, if you go backwards through the history of storage units you will probably end your search with the creators of the hit A&E series, Storage Wars. These guys are brilliant – talk about foresight.

Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart Basilica)

Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart Basilica)

On my recent trip to Paris I had the opportunity to challenge a woman’s personal space. We were at Montmartre, the artsy area on the highest hill that overlooks Paris. Aubyron and I stood in front of Sacre-Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris) taking in the view of the city and enjoying the music of a harpist who performed on the steps there. It was the kind of moment that you couldn’t adequately capture with your camera but we were compelled to try anyway. I walked around the top of the stairs shooting pictures from every angle and then came back to Aubyron who was trying to photograph the harpist. She had been attempting to get that picture for five minutes but was hampered by a woman who had put down roots on the step about four feet from the musician and directly in line between him and Aubyron. She seemed to be in her own world and content to stay in that place for the rest of the day. Aubyron was about ready to move on, sadly giving up her picture when I jumped in and said I’d take care of the situation. I left Aubyron with a puzzled look on her face, walked down the steps and stood next to the woman. Now when I say next to the woman, I mean very, very close to her. She looked at me with confusion and I smiled as I planted myself in her personal space all the while feeling a strange mix of being very American and very European.

The brunette is the woman who stood there so long.  Aubyron snapped this picture just as she started to leave.

The brunette is the woman who stood there so long. Aubyron snapped this picture of me just as she started to leave.

After a few awkward moments, Aubyron took this picture.

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A picture worth waiting for

I suppose we should have given up on the picture or just asked the woman to please move over a little, but I saw no fun in that; and I was fairly certain she wouldn’t have spoken English anyway. Quite honestly, it was an impulse. An impulse that gave us one of our favorite memories from our trip and no doubt gave that woman a funny story about the strange American that crowded her on the steps.

Europe Part 7 – Fun in France, or, I’d Rather Be Called a Pig in Paris than Anywhere Else in the World

20140122-132043.jpgIf you have planned a trip to Europe, you probably have been warned of pickpockets and scammers. These warnings are appropriate. One morning as we were walking to the Musee d’Orsay, some space opened up between Aubyron and me and Bob and Joe. As Aubyron and I looked ahead we saw a woman try the ring scam on the guys. I was so jealous. I wanted to have a scam attempted on me. I felt like my Parisian experience would be incomplete without one.

I was explaining this to Aubyron when it happened. The same woman walked toward us, bent down and scooped up a gold ring which she found right in front of us. I was so excited! I did what you’re supposed to do and walked past saying a simple, “No,” without making eye contact, which is the Parisian way. My heart was racing as I checked another experience off my list.

In case you don’t know, the premise of the ring scam is that the scammer finds the ring near the scammie. She asks you if it is yours and you say it is not. The kind-hearted scammer tells you that it’s not hers either. She shows you a mark that indicates it’s gold and since it must be worth something, offers for you to take the ring and sell it. Of course, she suggests that you give her a wad of your hard-earned cash as a way of splitting this amazing find.

I found it hard to believe that anyone would actually fall for this. Doesn’t everybody read Rick Steves’ Tourist Scams and Rip-Offs in Europe? Aren’t we all suspicious of everyone nowadays?

20140122-131625.jpgHours later as we crossed a bridge and headed back home we came across this same woman. (Evidently scammers have long shifts.) I saw her pull a middle-age couple into her scheme. The wife was obviously being duped while the husband stood back trying to assess the situation. We went a little past them, and I looked over my shoulder and saw she still had them in her clutches. I made a wide U-ie and circled back gaining the husband’s attention. “Be careful. It’s a scam,” I mouthed to him and turned back to catch up with my family.

He moved in, took his wife by the arm and walked away. I experienced the same exhilaration I had that morning, which came in handy because now this woman was following us. I wasn’t afraid. She was a tiny woman and I felt like I could take her, but it still kind of gave me the willies. I wanted no part of a brouhaha while crossing the Seine.

I didn’t understand everything she said, or should I say every name she called me, but there were definite slurs mixed with words that are universally insulting. She made it clear that she was mad that I had kept her from earning money. How’s that for irony? She called me a pig and sushi, which must be more insulting in French than in English. And that unspoken French rule of no eye contact – that was out the window.

But, c’est la vie. I love Paris! The city makes you feel so alive.

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