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/)

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

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The Sights of Siena

IMG_5273After hiking nearly 100 KM on the Via Francigena, and when my toes turned to fall colours, I stayed in Siena while Kees continued hiking.

The historic center of Siena, or centro storico as it is called in Italian, is very walkable. I love roaming the narrow streets with its thick stone walls of houses that are hundreds of years old. Much of the ancient city wall remains in tact, with gateways into the city, like the glorious Porto Romano. Although in a few places the city fathers have, in their wisdom, decided to destroy the wall to make room for modern day traffic.

Busses run frequently and pretty much on schedule to and from the old center. For 1.50 you can travel quite far. At the Piazza Indipendenza you can simply phone a taxi and it shows up in minutes to take you to your destination. We bought sim cards from a company called Wind, to use our phones in Italy. Reasonable rates, unlimited texting and we can  even use it throughout Europe. It’s been a lifesaver to use the data with maps as we roam the city or countryside without wifi access. What did we do before cell phones and Ipads? Get lost, I guess…

IMG_5193Of course, Siena is famous for its Il Campo piazza. Its unique oval shape slopes down to the Palazza Pubblico. Its Torre del Mangia can be seen from across the countryside. I enjoyed walking around and across Il Campo, despite the many tourist contortionists trying to take selfies. Why would you want yourself obstructing the glorious medieval buildings in your photos? 

IMG_5192The most fascinating story about Il Campo is that this is the site of a bizarre, annual horse race. It’s a historic event (of course) in which all neighborhoods of the city wholeheartedly participate. All year, events lead up to this 90 second race. Watch the Rick Steeves’ video below for a good synopsis. When you walk around the empty square, it’s hard to imagine 50,000 people cramped into the center while horses race around the outside.

When I got hungry, I simply picked one of the many wrought iron tables and chairs outside shops. I had pasta quattro formaggi, 4 cheese pasta, for 4.50 euros.

My favourite discovery in Siena was the Fortezza Medicea, an ancient fortress now a jazz school and event center. Perched on top of the ancient wall was an entire elementary school. No road, just a school with a fenced play yard. The walls of the fortress were a great (free) place to stroll and offered a tremendous view of the old city, the towers and, of course, Il Duomo. IMG_5189

The Piazza Duomo is perhaps the most recognized landmark of the city. Every bit as glorious as the cathedral in Florence, this one is perhaps even more decorative. In fact, when I went inside I thought “this is not a church, it’s a piece of jewelry.” Seldom have I seen such an ornate building. Every wall, every corner, every pillar, every piece inside it, is a work of art. Donatell, Leonardo, Bernini – they all worked here and their masterpieces still show off their talents.

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Sculptures, wood carvings, marble statues, paintings, wall hangings…. It is overwhelming. For a mere 8 euros you can wander on your own and gaze at all the medieval fanciness around you, as long as you like. IMG_5231

When you are outside, you notice a gigantic rough brick wall. Just a wall by itself. It impressive to know that the cathedral was supposed to be that much bigger. But then the plague hit the city and the expansion never happened. 

Inside the cathedral, the floors are perhaps the most mind blowing feature. I took photos but the best ones are on the Opera Duomo website where you have a view from the top. The floors should really be hanging on the walls – they are intricate, inlaid marble mosaics depicting biblical scenes. IMG_5238

Suddenly, to the left, is a small room. It is the Piccolomini Library (I love that name because ‘picollo’ means ‘little’ in Italian so ‘piccolomini’ must be really small! It was a family name). Its walls intricately painted, this has been called the world’s most beautiful library. It was built, some 500 years ago, for a pope and to house his collection of manuscripts. Most of the works on display are music scores, painted in gild and curls.IMG_5255

Outside, blinking in the bright sunlight, you can have an espresso and wander down to the Piazza Mercado, once a lovely, covered market place but now simply a parking lot. But one wall has a brilliant cascade of purple bougainvillea, worth the walk there.

Before I sauntered back down the 2 KM to my AirBnB cottage, I bought furlined socks. It’s nippy in Siena in October!

Siena: http://www.terresiena.it/en/info/tourist-information-offices

Wind SIM card: https://www.wind.it/privati/

Horse Race: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_clMjoa9d1s

Il Duomo: https://www.discovertuscany.com/siena/what-to-do/porta-del-cielo-tour.html

Il Duomo: https://operaduomo.siena.it/en/

The Leaning Tower

IMG_5025Many iconic sites in the world can be a let-down when you first see them in person. But the leaning tower of Pisa, to me, was amazing to see in reality. Photos just cannot convey the awe that I felt when I saw the tower. It’s not just leaning… It’s ornate, delicately carved from marble. It’s gleaming white. It’s gorgeous. And it is definitely leaning! So much so that I am amazed it hasn’t toppled over yet.
I learned many things while visiting the site:
– they starting building the tower in the year 1173 and it took 99 years to complete!
I could just picture the architects, the artists, the workers hauling marble… How would they have felt when their masterpiece started leaning?
– the tower is 186 feet tall. You are allowed to climb to the top (8 floors up on 294 steps). But I’d be afraid it might topple over…
– the tower actually leans out almost 15 feet! That would be like standing on the railing of a pitching ship on sea…
– I didn’t know that this is where Galileo conducted his famous gravity test! He did that while standing on the tower of Pisa! Galileo was a math teacher in Pisa.
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When Galileo was young, one of his contemporaries used these words to describe Aristotle’s idea of how objects fall:

There is a natural place for everything to seek, as:
Heavy things go downward, Fire upward,
And rivers to the sea.

There was no tradition of describing experimental research in Galileo’s day. Controlled experiments were almost unknown. So Galileo’s report was pretty skimpy. He seems to have dropped different balls from a tower. But what weights? What tower? We can be pretty sure it was the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But we end up doubting whether or not he really did the experiment. Maybe he just reported what he thought should have happened.

One result of the experiment surprised Galileo, and one surprises us. Galileo found that the heavy ball hit the ground first, but only by a little bit. Except for a small difference caused by air resistance, both balls reached nearly the same speed. And that surprised him. It forced him to abandon Aristotelian ideas about motion. If he really did the experiment, it was surely a turning point in the history of science.  ( John H. H. Lienhard)IMG_5045

– the tower of Pisa is, sometimes, listed as one of the 7 wonders of the world.
And yes, it is PISA, not pizza! But if I had an Italian restaurant somewhere, I’d call it the Tower of Pizza!
We simply took the train to Pisa, left our luggage at the train luggage depot and walked to the tower, about 2 KM.
Oh and by the way, I do not have a photo of one of us pretending to hold up or push the tower… because about a million people were all standing there, looking like idiots, pushing up the air while their friends where being contortionists snapping silly photos…
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Florence: In the Footsteps of Michelangelo

IMG_4923Firenze, or Florence – with the emphasize on the second syllable and pronounced with a French ‘ah’. Ah, Florence… ancient Italian city with iconic cathedrals and towers, first city in our month of exploring Italy.

I flew in from Vancouver, via Seattle and Amsterdam – a long sit but pretty much on time and not too uncomfortable. Especially seat and meals on Delta Airlines were good.

Florence’s airport is small. Right outside is the platform for the new T2 tramway into the city. For 1.50 euros you end up downtown in 20 minutes, on a ticket that is valid for 90 minutes so you can even explore more: http://en.comune.fi.it/administration/tramway/line2.html You buy the ticket on the platform and don’t forget to validate it in the stamp machine inside the tram. A great way to reach the city centre!

IMG_4912It was less than a 10 minute walk to the hostel we booked: Leonardo House turns out to be located in the very heart of the city but on a tiny old street with almost no traffic noise: https://leonardohouse.weebly.com It is very quiet and comfortable, the room is spartan but we don’t need more than a large room, a kingsize bed and our own bathroom. The staff is extremely nice and helpful. No breakfast included so we walk around the corner for coffee and croissants. There are also ATM’s and lots of eateries nearby. A supermarket, near the train station, is harder to find. Kees arrived a few hours later and we found each other easily at the T2 platform final stop: Unitá.

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…others keep it all under wraps

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David is naked…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We explored the city on foot. Of course we visited all the famous landmarks. The Santa Maria Novella church is right around the corner on a nice square with pricey eateries. The Duomo, the most important monument, is packed with hordes of tourists around but also open for actual services. The Bell Tower next to it is an impressive piece of gothic architecture.

We really do want to see the interior of this cathedral, which is among the largest of the world. But we do not want to traipse through it amongst thousands of tourists. So we make the choice to attend a service. Mass it too long and probably just as crowded. So we chose 5 PM vespers on a Sunday. With only a handful of people we relax in a quiet part of the impressive church. The Gregorian chanting is a massage for the mind, almost putting us to sleep. A fabulous way to see the church and to give thanks for this amazing trip. IMG_4927Several times we cross de Ponte Vecchio, an ancient bridge clustered with merchants’ stalls. The medieval looking stalls themselves, built from dark wood and cast iron hinges, are more impressive than the souvenirs they hold. I love the serene views of the mirroring water of the river Arno as it meanders through Florence. Go early in the morning to avoid crowds, or enjoy the lights of an evening stroll across the bridge.

IMG_4903The Church of Santa Croce is also an impressive building. Its square especially pleasant when a man with a violin plays wonderful classical pieces. We sit on a bench and soak in the atmosphere. At night we eat a toasted ham and mozarella sandwich before heading into San Stefano for a Vivaldi, Mozart and Pachabel’s concert. It’s beautiful in this ancient setting. Although going to a soothing concert right after arriving from a very different time zone is not a good idea: we kept drifting off to sleep…

Early on Sunday morning we climb the hill to  Piazzale Michelangelo. It’s 500 years since his death but his legacy lives on in his hometown. The hill is a steep climb with stone stairs part of the way. We pass under the ancient city walls. A replica of David looks out over the city and we follow his gaze over the Duomo and palazzos. Nearby is the Palazzo de Medici. We also walked by the house where Michelangelo lived. The ancient walls and cobblestone streets make it easy to believe that he roamed these very same streets. So many famous people lived in this city, names I had to learn in history class: de Medici family, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Dante, Donatello, Botticelli, Amerigo Vespucci, the famous explorer, Florence Nightingale was born here… and even Pinnochio. IMG_4953