Living History in Vienna

IMG_5743For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to visit Vienna. Especially in winter. For much of my life I have been enthralled with the famous New Year’s Concert broadcast live from Vienna on PBS each January 1. Alas, landing in Vienna Airport did not mean that we’d get to see the city since we had to travel straight on to Bratislava. IMG_5747

But there, the lovely educator who hosted us, surprised us by saying “Let’s go to Vienna on Saturday!” Turns out it’s only an hour drive from Bratislava, Slovakia to Vienna in Austria.

We dressed warmly, piled in the car and drove the highway to Vienna. There we walked for hours! We saw it all: the famous buildings, the statues, the squares. 

IMG_5802I love roaming the streets where Mozart once walked. His picture is everywhere since every store, it seems, sells Mozart kugels – those delicious chocolate and almond balls. 

We saw Lippizaner stallions at the famous stables of the Hofburg. We walked by Sissy’s palace, admiring the wrought iron gates and statues. IMG_5759It was November, with fall leaves blowing along the wide sidewalks and Christmas markets were sprouting up everywhere. People skated on outdoor ice rinks and sipped hot glühwein. 

But the absolute crowning glory of our day in Vienna was a visit to the National Library’s Prunksaal. This mindblowing ‘cathedral of books’ feels more like a church than a library but was indeed built as a library several hundred years ago and hosts more than 200,000 leather bound books. For a booklover this is paradise – to be surrounded by floor to ceiling gorgeous books in a place where books are revered… I felt very privileged to walk around, to see and sniff books in this historic building. IMG_5772

This brief visit to Vienna left me wanting to come back for more to this beautiful, musical city along the Danube.IMG_5787

IMG_5777 https://www.hofburg-wien.at/en/

https://www.onb.ac.at/en/museums/state-hall 

https://www.onb.ac.at/museen/prunksaal/

 

Slow Train to Slovakia

IMG_5829How exciting to get invited to an international school in Bratislava, Slovakia. We had never been to this country so we looked forward to visiting a new place.

How do you get to Bratislava? To fly there from Switzerland, we discovered we’d have to spend a fortune and fly via Dubai. Not a very economical way to go. So we ended up flying to Vienna instead. I’ve always wanted to see Vienna but there was no time. We had to take a bus to Bratislava right away and found the school, tucked away in a residential neighbourhood, with the help of a taxi. I do enjoy traveling in Europe where each country has such a distinct culture, architecture and atmosphere. You can often see where borders used to be but no longer need passports.   While many countries use Euros now, some countries still have their own currency. All have their own language, stamps and other ways to remain unique within a European Union. IMG_5842

A kind teacher hosted us in her home in the nearby village of Borinka, near the town of Stupava. This way we got to see more of the countryside. I liked the yellow churches with their characteristic steeples. The language in Slovakia is something else – some word are easily recognized (like technológie, taxi and centrum) but other words are beyond guesswork (zastávka is stop; predajňa means shop).

IMG_5853

Bratislava’s Blue Church

Many apartment buildings in the city are still old Soviet buildings. But these get spruced up with more cheerful colours and balconies. The border with Austria is where the Iron Curtain used to be and we wondered how Austrians must have felt to see these concrete cities going up but not being allowed to cross or visit. Apparently they did put up radio towers in an effort to help the people on the other side of the Iron Curtain to help listen to the rest of the world. I was surprised by the number of large factories providing employment here: Samsung, Kia, Volkswagen are all here to have products manufactured in Slovakia.

While I worked in school, Kees explored the countryside and nearby towns by walking until some dogs chased him. He climbed the hill sides and sampled Slovak beer despite the cold wind. We also enjoyed sampling traditional dishes with meat, potatoes and lots of cheese. 

thumb_FH1During our last weekend, we stayed in a funky hotel in Bratislava (The Film Hotel with Oscars at the door, we were in the Bruce Willis room…) and walked all over downtown. The castle towered over the small town with its white walls and red roofs.

We visited squares, statues, fountains, fine buildings and a gorgeous Blue Church. 

IMG_5837One of our favourite statues here was ‘Men at Work’. 

svickova-and-bread-dumplings

Slovak bread

Our favourite restaurant was The Slovak Pub. This rinkydink old wooden building had many rooms, each with a theme related to the country’s heritage and history: poets, freedom fighters, heroes. The food was fabulous. We sampled Slovak dumplings with bacon, traditional bread and great soups.

IMG_1364Leaving Slovakia, we boarded the train from Bratislava to Prague. Confusing reigned since many travellers had assigned seats but the other half did not. A nice group of young Czech men ‘adopted’ us and gave us their seats. “Ah Canada, good!” they cheered when they heard where we were from. Then they told us they had spend the national holiday weekend going to Slovak to taste wine. In the fall, you can do ‘wine walks’ here, walking from winery to winery and visiting wine cellars. They pulled out the bottles of wine and past them around and around. “We are from Pilsen,” they said, explaining that they all work in the Pilsner breweries in Czech Republic. It was a jolly train ride to Prague!

http://www.filmhotel.sk

https://slovakpub.sk/en/

IMG_1363

A Slovak poem

Switzerland: Fondue & Fun Facts

IMG_5704At the airport in Geneva, every passenger was handed a free transit ticket to travel into the city by train. In 10 minutes we were right downtown Geneva. Suddenly everyone around us spoke French.

IMG_5707The city of Geneva is draped along the shores of lake Geneva. We found a reasonably priced hotel in the city center from where we explored. Every other shop here seems to sell watches, knives or chocolate. Sometimes all three. 

IMG_5710

A chocolate shop!!

Prices in Switzerland are sky high compared to Spain. It was quite a shock to suddenly pay as much for one coffee as we had for an entire meal in Madrid. But the hotel did provide us with a free transit pass for 2 days to use on trams, buses and ferries across the lake. So we took a little ferry to the opposite shore and walked along the floral clock, past glittery shops and high end finance buildings, to the old town. The trees had turned brown and yellow, leaves piled up in the gutters and first snow powdered the hills. When the clouds lifted, we saw a majestic, snow covered Mont Blanc.

IMG_5716

We climbed cobblestone streets to the old cathedral while church bells tolled. I do like ‘old world’ cities with their characteristic centres.

While in Switzerland (I conducted author visits at an International School near Geneva) we learned many interesting facts about this small and unique country. Did you know that this land locked country has a navy? And that the Swiss National Guard serves to protect Vatican City? (You can read more about this 500 year old, fascinating tradition here: https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/trouble-recruiting-_an-uncertain-future-for-swiss-soldiers-guarding-the-pope/44946426)

Switzerland has three official languages: 65% of the country speaks German, 20% speak French (that’s all we heard around Geneva) and 10% speak Italian.

Did you know that the Swiss flag has been a white cross in a red field since 1289? The Swiss founder of the Red Cross used the opposite colour for this organization’s flag. IMG_5709

Switzerland is a republic. Quick, name the president! 

(His name is Ueli Maurer :-). The country has 8.5 million people of which about 25% is foreigners. Switzerland is slightly larger than Vancouver Island. And while the Swiss are famous for their chocolate and for being a neutral country, they have also achieved many inventions like cellophane, the Swiss Army knife and the potato peeler. 

I was surprised to learn that Switzerland, although firmly hugged by European countries on all sides, is not a member of the European Union. They still have their own currency (Swiss francs) rather than euros, and also their own license plates. They also like rules, i.e. no lawn mowing on Sunday – not because of religious reasons but because the Swiss value peace and quiet.

Something else that surprised me is that the country is covered in grape vines and many wineries. Yet, they do not export wine. Those smart Swiss keep it all for themselves. You can only buy local wines in each village. If you visit a winery and like the wine, you have to go back to that specific village to buy more since they do not sell wine anywhere else but where it is produced.

IMG_1353One of our favourite nights was spent in Auberge de Saviese in Geneva, a fabulous traditional fondue restaurant. They offer thick, gooey Guyere fondue as well as raclette, another traditional melted cheese dish. It was a good thing we had reserved a table. I have never, anywhere seen such a steady stream of people come into a restaurant. Many were turned away. The place bustled and bursted at the seams. And rightly so. If you are every in Geneva, go try the fabulous fondue in this popular place, but be sure to make a reservation! (https://www.aubergedesaviese.com/en/)

One Trullo, and it Truly is Two Trulli

IMG_5639Have you ever slept in a wind mill? Or in an igloo or a yurt?

Some types of dwellings are specific to only a small region on earth. When we were researching places to visit in Italy, I came across a photo that blew me away: unusually shaped houses with grey stone, domed roofs. They looked impressive and I studied the websites. But the small region where these traditional homes occurred was in south east Italy, and specifically the town of Alberobello, which was not on our itinerary.

Then an excited young woman, Italian but living in England, contacted me and eventually arranged for my book Stepping Stones to be published in Italian. And it would be launched in Bari while I was still in Italy! And Bari is very close to Alberobello! So….

IMG_5602We took the train east, 4 hours, from Naples. Then a bus, an hour, to Alberobello. The first thing we noticed is how clean other cities were after the garbage strewn streets of Naples. Shiny sidewalks, lovely green parks… And Alberobello exceeded all of my expectations. The historic centre of town has more than 1,000 trulli! Yes, it is a touristy place but the little house are truly historic (no pun intended). To the extent that no new trulli are allowed to be build.

IMG_5603Our ‘hotel room’ is a small trulli in one of the areas with just narrow walkways connecting the homes. Some are used as shops, others as pubs or restaurants. But all are restored, authentic dwellings. And some have not yet been restored. The ‘hotel’ has several trulli around town. For breakfast we walk to a lovely restaurant on the town square with an extensive breakfast bar. We can make tea and coffee in our little house. It has been beautifully restored and I’m impressed with the tasteful decorations: simple stone floors, a wooden ladder holds clothes hangers, a simple wooden table. It all suits the environment of original farm workers homes. 

IMG_5617Around the year 1,400 farm workers in this area needed homes. They simply used the lime stone available, stacking them to build small, rectangular huts with domed roofs. I find it amazing to see the rectangle turn into a round dome. The stones are simply piled on top of each other. Only later did they start using whitewash. While the name ‘trulli’ likely comes from the Greek, archeologists suspect that the origin shapes of the dwellings came from Mesopotamia. 

IMG_5642

Here are some good websites that tell you more about trulli:

Trulli: https://sites.google.com/site/trulliitaliano/unesco-world-heritage

Alberobello: http://www.costadeitrulli.org/en/region/alberobello-55/

Info on trulli: http://www.italia.it/en/discover-italy/apulia/poi/the-history-of-alberobellos-trulli.html

Unesco site: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/787/

Our hotel: https://www.trulliholiday.com/en/

Trullo symbols: https://trullocicerone.com/2017/06/19/trullo-symbols/

IMG_5626

Pompeii: City of the Dead

IMG_5597

The city of Pompeii

240 KM south of Rome is the city of Naples. As soon as we step off the train, we realize that this is a whole different world from northern Italy. Naples is chaos: an anthill of houses and streets and people. We’ve been warned about increased crime and plenty of pickpockets. Street vendors swarm everywhere. Garbage is overwhelming, as is dog poop and cigaret smoking….

IMG_1340

Eating on the street

We are happy to discover that the hotel we booked here, is a beautiful, modern apartment. On the outside, Palazzo Settembrini is a historic building in a narrow, busy street. Laundry decorates the opposite houses, there are little shops all around. But inside, the building has a modern lobby and an elevator. Our apartment has gorgeous stone flooring, a spacious living room with kitchen, a bathroom and large bedroom with crisp white linens. It is also very, very quiet if we keep the windows closed. It’s lovely to have this much space for the price of an ordinary hotel room. The lovely couple that run the place, point out the bakery, the supermarket and nearby restaurants. One night we eat around the corner, on the street. The local food is great and we feel very authentic, sitting under the city wall’s gate while mopeds zoom nonstop by our table…. Another night we try to find one of the classic pizza places. After all, pizza was ‘invented’ in Naples. But a large mob crowds outside, waiting to get in. So we sit down at a pizzeria across the road. How could pizza be any better?

IMG_1337

Pizza originated in Naples

Naples might have gorgeous cathedrals and other historic landmarks but after Lucca, Siena, Florence, Rome we’ve seen enough cities for a while. But Napoli is where pizza originated so we can’t wait to try authentic pizza here. Also, an Italian friend recommended porquetta – slow cooked, stuffed pork roast, thinly sliced. And it does taste beautiful. Italian coffee is served very strong in tiny cups. I have to laugh when we ask for a larger coffee and get the same tiny bit, just in a larger cup!

IMG_5596

Mount Vesuvius

To us, Naples is the jump off point to visit nearby Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. The trains throughout Italy are not bad. They are very reasonably priced and pretty much on schedule. The little train from Naples to Pompeii, however, is a different story. Be warned: reaching Pompeii or nearby Herculanum on your own is not for the faint of heart. We found the special platform at the very end of Napoli Centrale. It’s a small company that runs this train: Circumvesuviana. The signs on the platform did not work. There was no indication whatsoever which train would go to where, or from which platform. Through word of mouth we finally figured out where to wait. A train did not show up for an hour. Apparently they kept getting canceled. When a train finally came, you could not have fitted another body onto the platform. We all squeezed into the, already full, train to the point of suffocating. It was a half hour, with about 20 stops, to get to Pompeii. There are no announcements at all about your next stop. And to make it worse: all signs at stations’ platforms are completely covered in graffiti so that it is impossible to read the name of where you are. Not a pleasant journey! The up-side is that it only cost 2 euros.

IMG_5553Once in Pompeii, it is not clear that all the signs ‘tickets’ are not the official ticket sellers for the site. We were glad we had read lots of information beforehand and walked straight down until we reached the official entrance where we bought 15 euro tickets to enter Pompeii.

One of the best things we had discovered, during our research, is the free audio tours by Rick Steves. We listened to the entire soundtrack prior to going and then played it again, on our phone, while we walked through Pompeii. His information was perfect. It told us where to walk, when to turn off the track, etc. It saved us about 15 euros each for a rented audio tour. Rick Steves’ tours are available throughout Europe, for most cities and sites. The app is free and so are the downloads. Highly recommended!

Pompeii is fascinating and eery. An entire city of 20,000 people with streets and squares and intersections. In your mind’s eye you see the merchants, the women, the scholars. They walk along the sidewalks while chariots rush down the roads, their wheels leaving ruts over the ages. There are busy shops and food places, there’s a pub, a brothel.  A large home from a well-to-do merchant, a poet’s house.

IMG_5566

This was a food shop with bowls fitting into the rims.

The public bathhouse had ornately painted ceilings and heated floors. The city had a good water supply system with reservoirs and leaded pipes. They were so advanced! The ceilings had ruts to prevent dripping. 

These people had no idea at all that the mountain near their city was a volcano. They had no way of knowing because Vesuvius had not erupted for 1,200 years. Suddenly, in August of the year 79 it did blow. It completely took everyone by surprise.

IMG_5561The nearby resort town of Herculanum (Ercolano) was covered in lava.

Pompeii was smothered in ash and gasses. 2,000 people died. Both towns were effectively sealed and preserved, to be discovered by archaeologists 

more than a thousand years later… When they found human remains, they poured plaster in the cavities and made perfect moulds of the human bodies in the positions in which they died…. Eery but also fascinating.IMG_5547

https://www.palazzosettembrini49.it/en

https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/audio/audio-europe

http://www.oraricircumvesuviana.it/fermate

https://www.pompeionline.net/pompeii/

Rome wasn’t built in a day…

IMG_5439Rome wasn’t built in one day… and you can’t see it in one day either. We spent a day walking across the city to Borghese Gardens, a huge city park full of families, people strolling, ice cream vendors and crazy bikes. We rented a bike like contraption for two. It was heavy to pedal, then would suddenly speed up and was hard to brake. We almost wiped out but at least we didn’t run over too many pedestrians…. And we had a lovely picnic in the park. 

IMG_5434From there, we walked to the famous Spanish Steps. Lots of people sitting on the steps, rose vendors and a cascading fountain. In my mind’s eye I saw Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. There are certainly enough scooters around, thousands of them. And tiny Fiats. And all sorts of other little cars. Bill Bryson in Neither Here Nor There gives the best description when he says “You come around any corner in Rome and it looks like you just missed a parking competition for blind people.” That’s exactly how it looks! Cars stick out, parked on crosswalks, cars with literally not one inch between bumpers. We are happy to use public transit here although traffic in Rome is not as bad as I had expected. It’s busy but at least cars stop when you start to cross the road. So far. Many side streets are solidly lined with scooters, almost as many as you see bicycles in Amsterdam. IMG_5485

There’s an astonishing amount of garbage on the streets. Cardboard, bags, bottles all piled up around lamp posts and overflowing garbage containers. Homeless people sleep in doorways steps away from streets lined with Gucci and Prada shops. Street vendors and operators of little shops and restaurants are mostly from Bangladesh. I was shocked to even see homeless people on the streets of Vatican City. IMG_5414

If Kees hadn’t stayed with Dutch people who run a B&B in Umbria, while hiking the Via Francigena, we would have never found out about a Dutch church in Vatican City! We couldn’t believe it. But it turns out that there were some historic connections here. Willibrord, a Dutch priest from the mid 600’s, who was exiled to Ireland, tried to convert the Frisian people from the Northern Netherlands to Christianity. Eventually he was made a Saint. Frisian Christians lived at the Vatican and built their church here, close to the burial place of Saint Peter.

IMG_5451When In Rome… do as the Romans do and so we decided to attend a church service, albeit in Dutch, a unique experience. After the service, we walked outside onto St. Peter Square and listened to Pope Francis deliver his regular Sunday message to the masses. 

When we took the Metro to Vatican City earlier that morning, the platform was absolutely packed. Rows and rows of people lined up. When the train arrived, it was already jam-packed but we all got pushed in until you could not have fit a sheet of paper between people. It was crazy. At Vatican City everyone got out and streamed upstairs to the streets. A huge line-up formed for those wanting to go inside St. Peter’s Basilica for Sunday morning mass. We went to the quiet Dutch church instead and enjoyed listening to a Dutch sermon and psalms. 

IMG_5468Once the Pope started his address, St. Peter Square was packed with a sea of people. I guessed there were thousands, but when I researched the capacity of the square, I found out that the church itself holds 60,000 people and the square can hold 300,000. It wasn’t filled to capacity but it was impressive none the less.

We walked back across one of the bridge over the River Tiber, to piazza Navona with its ornate fountains and palace. We followed narrow alleys, past the Pantheon, to the Trevi Fountain, our favourite although it was packed with people. Obviously everyone in Rome – locals and visitors alike – enjoyed the warm sunshine and strolled along the streets, sipping coffee and enjoying gelato. IMG_5531

The most bizarre experience came when we were practically back at our hotel near the train station. A little car stopped, the window lowered and the driver hollered at me, waving a map. I cautiously approached. A nice, older gentleman asked if we could tell him how to get to the train station. We told him and even gave him our map. Then he reached down and produced a gift. “Here,” he said, “for you because you helped me.” Turned out he was with Ferrari F1 racing team and this was the VIP gift bag for the Grand Prix with some very nice and valuable gifts, including a Max Verstappen watch worth over a thousand euros…. As our son said, “Most people get mugged, you guys get gifts on the streets of Rome.”

Frisian Church, Vatican: https://www.friezenkerk.nl

Rome Tourism: https://www.romeinformation.it/en/

Vatican City: https://biglietteriamusei.vatican.va/musei/tickets/do

We stayed here: http://www.hotelenricaroma.com/?lang=it

We really enjoyed eating here: https://www.thefork.it/ristorante/la-grotta-romana/407303

IMG_5424

Rome-ing Around

IMG_5301All roads lead to Rome… and so does the Via Francigena. We traveled the last bit by train since we did not feel like hiking through suburbs and industrial areas.

We found a quaint ‘hotel’ – the large room is a bit bare, like a hostel but  with a private bathroom. It’s in a historic building that was likely an apartment building until it was converted to hotel rooms. There’s a lush green court yard, a wrought iron gate, even breakfast of coffee and a croissant. And we’re less than a 10 minute walk from Roma Termini, the main train station. Once we arrived by train, we simply walked here and settled in.
With an old fashioned paper map, we find our way around to all the main attractions of Rome. The very first thing we want to see is the Colosseum. It’s late afternoon and the sky is grey. But we walk for a few kilometers and suddenly, there it is – the famous curved walls on which the Vancouver Public Library is based. We walked all the way around it to see it from all angles as well as to the Roman Forum. We try to take the Metro back but the machines are out of change, or the printer doesn’t work, or it just doesn’t feel like helping the hordes of tourists lined up for tickets. In the end, we walk all the way back while the skies burst open. The first rain we’ve had on this trip.

We are constantly aware of pickpockets since we keep getting warned about them. On our one rainy night, we walked huddled under one umbrella, when suddenly I felt a hand in between us. I slapped the hand and a young man jumped away behind us. Somehow he tried to get into Kees’ pocket right in between us. To no avail but it brought home the message again. We leave all valuables in the hotel and carry only a bare minimum. 

IMG_5328The next day is blue sky again and this time the Metro ticket machines work fine. In fact, there was a country wide transportation strike announced. We were told it might be hard to take the Metro. But, instead, we find an almost deserted station and mostly empty trains that rush us to our destination: Vatican City.

There we follow the tall stone wall (boy, Romans liked to build walls in the olden days) and follow it until we find an opening: the entrance to the Vatican Museums. This time we have booked an online tour, directly with the Vatican City people which was much cheaper than via tour operators. We walk through the museum exhibits, which are mostly things collected by popes and the church. 

Through court yards, past statues and fountains, we go through the papal apartments. Impressive halls ornately painted. Michelangelo lived here while he worked on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Ultimately we make it to the Chapel. It’s very different in reality, at least from the way I pictured it. The Chapel itself is a rectangular stone building. From the outside, you’d never guess it was special. We approach via  endless corridors and rooms with paintings, carvings, collections and fabulous, gigantic tapestries from the Middle Ages woven in Belgium.

IMG_5350

The Sistine chapel is a colourful sequence of painted stories. I try to imagine Michelangelo working here on his scaffolding, day after day. He felt that he was a sculpture, not a painter and tried to decline the job. But the pope insisted in hiring him to paint this ceiling. I like how our guide explained how he learned about proportions as he went, changing figures that are too small, too detailed to larger figures in the next scene. It really looks like the very first graphic novel – the stories unfold in wordless pictures. What really floors me is that he put himself in the picture as an empty skin in The Last Judgement. Did he have a sense of humour or was he a morbid thinker?

After the Chapel we walk through the Papal Corridor where the cardinals walk as they go into conclave when a new pope is selected. We hear the story of the white and black smoke – traditionally produced with leaves but now with a moveable, mechanical chimney. Even the Vatican adapts to time.

IMG_5371The hallways eventually connect and we approach St. Peter’s Cathedral. Our guide explains how Peter was one of the first Christians, shortly after the life of Christ. He was killed on the spot which is now the center of the square where an obelisk marks the spot. Once Christianity caught on in Rome, an alter, and then a church was built on the site. St. Peter’s Cathedral is now the largest church in the world. And it is large! Its capacity is 60,000 people! The pillars inside are immense. The marble statues are amazing, especially The Pieta, carved in 1449 by Michelangelo of Florence. IMG_5378

After roaming through the church, we climb down and exit via the grotto where many popes have been buried over the ages. St. Peter’s Cathedral an impressive, special place to visit with an almost palpable history.IMG_5389