Europe Trip 2013 – Part Four: Lake Como, Italy

This summer Peter and I went on an adventure to Europe. With the help of a stellar memory and my obsessive journalling, I’m sharing those adventures with you.

Part One: Duisburg, Germany

Part Two: Fritzlar, Germany

Part Three: Bern, Switzerland

Travelling to Italy has been a dream of mine for many years. Knowing that we would start our journey in Germany, Peter and I chose to head into Italy via Switzerland and visit the Lake Como district. Part of our rationale for choosing Lake Como was simply that we didn’t know anyone who’d been there. Well, except for George Clooney, of course.

We headed out of Bern and into Milan on 24 July. Our first impression of Italy was…not great. In fairness to Milan, we didn’t see much more of it than the train station, but what we did see was crowded, industrial, and dirty. Both Peter and I started gearing up for more of a third world experience than we had expected. From Milan we headed to Lecco, where we waited in the rain for our next train. The trains were humid and covered with graffiti inside and out. After the cleanliness and punctuality of Switzerland, we were finding Italy rather grim.

Then we arrived in Varenna. Varenna is a tiny town on the shores of Lake Como, where the train stops. From there we would take a ferry across the lake to Menaggio, where we had booked a hotel. Due to a bathroom break, we just missed the ferry and so had an hour to wait in this tiny, colourful town. It was beautiful, the pastel-coloured buildings facing a big, winding lake, surrounded by green hills and the Alps in the distance. The hills are dotted with colourful villas and other small towns. We sat by the water under a tree and ate bread, Swiss emmental cheese that we’d brought with us, and the last of our sausage from Fritzlar. Dessert was gelato while watching locals swim in the local.

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Menaggio is the closest town to the Swiss border and, for this reason, historically the wealthiest. These days most of Lake Como seems buoyed by tourism. The ferry across is quick, only about 15 minutes, the Grand Menaggio Hotel greeting you as the boat docks. Buildings are crowded in around the shore and up the hillside. Roads are narrow and cars are fast.

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Our hotel was tucked in on a narrow street, just off the lakefront. We stayed at Albergo Vecchia Menaggio. Our room was clean and very, very basic. The only decoration, a small crucifix hanging above the door. Fancy villa, it was not, but a great, central spot to stay for cheap. On the main floor, the owners run a restaurant and we checked-in at the bar.

We wandered through Menaggio, walking up the hill to see where the locals live, and then down along the Lake. Our guide book (Thanks Rick Steves!) said that most tourists would find the lake too dirty to swim. I don’t know if they’ve cleaned it up or if Peter and I have low standards, but we swam and enjoyed it.

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In the evening we wandered around for a long time, checking out the local restaurants. Knowing that Italians eat dinner late (8pm and onwards), we took our time and read menus and debated views. Finally, we decided simply to eat at the restaurant at our hotel. We sat at a table in the street and drank cold white wine. Delicious. I had cannelloni and Peter and ravioli for the pasta course and we both had lake fish with butter and sage for the main. The food was so simple and fresh and amazing. Italian dinner is an event, not just a chore to be got through. We took our time, lingering between courses and enjoying the house wine.

It was dark when we finished and we walked along the lakeside. Still warm but cooler than the daytime heat. In the square, a band of high school children played classical music.

Menaggio has a delightful amount of nothing to do so we could easily fill our days with swimming, sitting on the benches by the lake and wandering through the stores.

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In the morning, we went down to the restaurant again for breakfast, included in our stay.

“Buongiorno,” the lady behind the counter greeted us. “Espresso? Capuccino?”

“Due capuccino, per favore,” we replied, using up 90% of our Italian language skills. The capuccino was delicious.

When paying for dinner the previous night, the owner had handed us a 10% off coupon to his clothing store. Hotel, restaurant, clothing store – this couple was busy all day long.

That day we fully embraced the Italian siesta – napping in our room during the hottest part of the day, after a swim in the lake and time sitting by the water, attempting to guess the nationality of the other tourists.

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For dinner our second night, Peter and I chose a place a little up the hill, slightly off the tourist track, and had our first Italian pizza. Again, simple ingredients, done perfectly right. Italy was turning out to be exactly what we’d hoped for.

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Next stop: Venice, Italy

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Europe Trip 2013 – Part Three: Bern, Switzerland

This summer Peter and I went on an adventure to Europe. With the help of a stellar memory and my obsessive journalling, I’m sharing those adventures with you.

Part One: Duisburg, Germany

Part Two: Fritzlar, Germany

On July 21st, Peter and I said good-bye to our wonderful German hosts and headed out of Duisburg on an overnight train.

Pros to the overnight train: Completing a long stretch of travel while sleeping. Not paying for a hotel that night.

Cons to the overnight train: A reclining seat is not the same as a bed. The snoring. Oh, the snoring.

I am a good sleeper. Like, it’s my super power, I’m so good at sleeping. But I had a terrible night on that train. At about three in the morning I came dangerously close to marching down the aisle, shaking a strange man awake and telling him something must be seriously wrong for him to snore like that. Instead I lay awake and listened to the train cars get unhooked while the workmen in the dark stations outside laugh and talk.

The overnight train was supposed to take us to Basel, Switzerland, where we would transfer to our next train to Bern. So we hopped off at Basel HBF, only to realise we were still in Germany. Turns out there are two stations in Basel – one in Germany, one in Switzerland. Entirely thanks to Peter we figured it out fast enough to get back on the train and go one more stop into Switzerland.

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We arrived in Bern two hours later than expected but it was only 9am so we wandered around and looked for a place to eat the breakfast we had packed along. In a pretty garden by Munsterplatz, surrounded by a stone wall and overlooking the River Aare, we ate breakfast. Bread, cheese, and sausage from Fritzlar. We looked over the Old Town as I fed bits of banana to the sparrows.

We found the zyglogge (astronomical clock) in time to watch it ring and then located our hostel near by, close the Rathaus. We couldn’t check in until 3pm but were able to leave our bags so that we could explore Bern unencumbered.

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(We stayed at the Bern Backpackers Glocke and I would recommend it. We booked a private room with a shared bathroom. Our room had bunk beds!)

We discovered that Bern literally means “bear” and that the city has fully embraced its name. Statues and crests with bears were everywhere. And along the river there was even a park with real, live bears.)

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We walked along the river where we saw one man floating on his back down the swift current, past the city.

“Look at that guy!” we said to each other. “He’s crazy!”

Then we saw more and more people floating down the river and we started to wonder if we could do it too. It was after noon now and brightly hot and many businesses had closed for a mid-day siesta. We had to wait until we could check-in and get our bags and then we set about figuring  how to go swimming in the river. The Aare curls through Old Town Bern and takes you quickly away from where you jump in. We would have to walk through town to get to and from our hostel. What should we do with our stuff? People floated by us clutching dry bags and we saw bags for sale in stores but couldn’t justify the 60 Swiss Francs price. So my ingenious husband came up with a plan.

We walked back to the park in flip flops, our swimsuits on under our clothes, and chose a spot to enter the river. We put our clothes in a ziploc bag and then put that bag in a cloth bag I had brought along. In went our flip flops and then Peter’s piece de resistance – an empty 1.5 litre water bottle. We tied the bag shut. It floated! We held hands and jumped in.

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The water is glacial, coming down from the Alps, but the river is shallow enough that it gets quite warm. If the current weren’t so strong, you’d be able to stand in many places. The river is clear and clean and the same brilliant turquoise colour as so many lakes in the Canadian Rockies. It was perhaps the most unique way I’ve ever viewed a city, the old buildings lining the shores on each side. Mostly, you simply float and let the river take you, though when you turned a corner, the current wanted to push you to shore. We floated past the bear park and under two bridges, people above pausing to watch us. Some brave (or foolish) teenagers jumped from above.

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As we got further and began trying to figure out where we should get out, we heard singing on either shore. The Swiss Army in training, out for a run along the river. We floated by, watching them run as they sang their marching songs.

Dotted along the river are stone steps with red railings to help you get out. That’s the hardest part – timing it right to reach the side exactly when and where you want to. Without scraping your knees on the rocky shores.

Then we walked back upriver for a second run. When we were finished we sat on the grass along the shore and dried off in the sun. Our clothes, secure in their ziploc bags, were mostly dry.

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We spent two nights in Bern and we floated on the river each day. It was great way to cool off as we explored the town and wandered in and out of shops.

Truthfully, we had chosen Bern simply as a convenient stop along the way from Germany to Italy. But we were left with a definite desire to return to Switzerland one day. Bern was beautiful, clean, and fascinating. And expensive.

Switzerland maintains its own currency – the Swiss Franc – and in an effort to not have money left over when we entered Italy and returned to the Euro, we took out the bare minimum in cash when we arrived in Bern. We bought all of our food at grocery stores and made use of our hostel’s kitchen. The only eating out we did was drinking espresso. Oh, and eating Swiss chocolate, of course! We spent our mornings wandering through stores, window shopping, marvelling at the differences in groceries from Canadian markets, and discussing our souvenir options. On Tuesday we got to see the open air market along Marktglasse – stalls of clothing, bags, antiques, flowers, cheese, and vegetables. In the afternoon we went back to the river.

On our last evening we walked along the other side of the river, following the hills to search for the best view. We found one in the rosegarten at the top of a hill and sat to watch the sun set before walking back to our hostel in the dimming light.

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Next stop: Menaggio, Italy

Summer’s Still Here

Summertime on the Sunshine Coast is an especially wonderful time. The days are long and bright, the water is warm(er) but always refreshing, and there is always something to do outside. From kayaking and mountain biking to sitting on your own or someone else’s deck and drinking a cold beer.

I honestly feel a little sad to have missed out on the majority of summer here. Don’t get me wrong, I travelled in Europe for a month so I’m not exactly feeling sorry for myself, but summer on the Coast is a world class destination.

The good news is this: Summer’s not over. You might think it is because Labour Day and Back to School and a couple of days of rain, etc. But it’s still officially summer until 21 September and our good weather here has been known to last into October.

So I’m holding on to summer and enjoying our beautiful home with the following activities:

1. Jumping off the local pier.

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2. Adventures up the hill with friends.

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This was also the day I had my first sighting of a Sunshine Coast bear. More accurately – the bum of a black bear as it ran away from us into the bushes.

3. Picking apples from our tree and baking with them. (Pictured: using one of my favourite thrift store finds!)

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From our own back yard we have also enjoyed golden plums so juicy you have to eat them outside. And from the garden of friends we were gifted with kale, lettuce, carrots, and a giant zucchini. Pair these goodies with the salmon Peter caught the other week and it’s the best local diet ever.

4. We pass by this lake every time we make the trip from our house in to town.

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That’s Trout Lake and since February Peter’s been telling me it’s nice to swim in. So, on Labour Day, we went. I learned to swim, to canoe, and to pull leeches off my skin in a lake.

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5. Just this past weekend I tried two water sports I’ve never attempted before.

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Our friends kindly lent us their paddle boards and so we’ve been exploring our shoreline in a different manner. It’s surprisingly peaceful.

On Saturday, Peter and I went over to my in-laws to go tubing. Unfortunately, the tube fell apart before I took a turn. This can happen when your tube is 20 years old and has pulled around countless numbers of kids. After a few attempts with the kneeboard, we got out the waterskis. Peter made it look pretty easy and got up on his first attempt in about 17 years. I still don’t think I can say I’ve waterskied exactly but at least I’ve attempted.

Thirteen summer days remain. Make the most of them.

Europe Trip 2013 – Part Two: Fritzlar, Germany

This summer Peter and I went on an adventure to Europe. With the help of a stellar memory and my obsessive journalling, I’m sharing those adventures with you.

Part One: Duisburg, Germany

Friday evening (19 July) we got a late start to Fritzlar with Thomas and Claudia. The drive was about two hours, much of it on the autobahn. No speed limit but some traffic so the fastest we got was just over 160 km/h. We stopped once on the way to look at a church, dating back to the Romans.

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Where once a village surrounded this church, now only rolling hills remain in every direction. The whole region is lush and green; farms growing wheat and hay in each direction. In the fields we saw small wooden huts on stilts – hideouts for farmers to shoot deer and boar to protect their crops.

It was dark by the time we reached Fritzlar, which is the town that Claudia grew up in. We explored the town square of this medieval village by electric light.

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Originally a walled city with numerous towers to stand watch from, Fritzlar’s buildings have the brown and white facades that are almost exactly what you might imagine when you think of a German town. A fountain in the town square bears a statue of Roland the Giant. The streets are immaculately patterned with cobble stones.

Legend has it that St. Boniface came to Fritzlar (or somewhere nearby) in 723 and felled a holy oak tree, dedicated to Thor. The people believed that if that tree were ever cut down, armageddon would be let loose on them. When Boniface chopped the oak down and nothing happened, the townspeople converted to Christianity. This is commonly believed to be the beginning of the spread of Christianity in Germany. Boniface used the wood of the oak to build a church and today, on that same site, stands the Dom of St. Petri, Fritzlar’s cathedral. A statue of St. Boniface faces it. In one hand he holds the church, in the other an axe. On Saturdays, a market fills the space between Boniface and the cathedral.

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St. Peter’s Cathedral in Fritzlar.

The next day, we explored Fritzlar in the light. We climbed the stairs of the main tower, finding one level where they’ve recreated a medieval prison. Complete with creepy mannequins in stocks. Nice views though.

View of Fritzlar, the cathedral in the distance.

View of Fritzlar, the cathedral in the distance.

Today the main industries of Fritzlar include a Volkswagon Factory and a sauerkraut factory. There’s a joke about Germans in there but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

We had lunch at an Austrian-style restaurant on the main square where I had some sort of delicious, German approximation of pizza, called flammekuchen. If my time in Germany taught me anything it’s that German food deserves more recognition in the world.

A tower at the end of a Fritzlar street.

A tower at the end of a Fritzlar street.

Then a mid-afternoon visit to Claudia’s parents, enjoying their backyard facing the river, where we were fed three different types of kuchen. Obviously, it would have been rude to not try a slice of each!

Claudia’s parents’ English far outranked our German and, with the help of a Deutsch-English dictionary, we communicated fairly well. They taught us names of things on the table and I learned that the cake I most enjoyed – made with iced strawberries – was called erdebeerenkuchen. It was a special experience to simply sit by the river, drinking coffee and eating cake, listening to the conversation in a mixture of German and English, and to be welcomed in to their home.

Next stop: Bern, Switzerland