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).

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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’. 

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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/

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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/

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