Monday, May 4, 2009

Back From Europe - and the Remainder of the European Trip!

We flew back into Canada on April 28th, and after a brief overnight in Burnaby, we picked up ‘the kids’ and the trailer, and were on the ferry to Victoria later the next day. We’re settled into the Fort Victoria RV Park, and will be here for the month of May.

Sorry for the big lapse in blog postings. Our European tour – while amazing – was a whirlwind of go-go-go. We were up early every morning, out and about all day, and late to bed every night. Top that with our mandatory indulgences in the local beer and/or wine every night (when in Germany/Paris/Rome etc.), and sometimes spotty access to the internet - composing a blog entry became pretty much an impossibility for me.

I’ve finally had a chance to download all of my 1500+ pictures, and am trying to sort them into some sense of order. No prize winners, but lots of memorable moments captured. All of the churches, castles, monuments, historical locales, buildings, museums, etc. in Europe are generally so HUGE that capturing them on camera was a challenge. The pictures literally do not do them justice – you have to experience the sites in person to appreciate their magnitude.

We put nearly 6000 kilometers on our trusty Mercedes rental van, and drove through Germany, parts of France, a good portion of Italy, into Austria, and back through Germany. (Thanks to Ron and Terry for taking this responsibility – Tammy and I bowed out of that challenge). We’ve seen the worst drivers of our lives (Paris!!! – the scooters/mopeds/motorcyclists all have death wishes …), but survived driving through the outskirts of Paris and Rome – both notorious for horrific drivers.

We tackled and became adept at almost every form of public transportation; driving the autobahn in Germany (180 km/hr was our recorded top speed), the subways/underground trains in Paris, Rome and Austria, commuter trains in Rome and Vienna, and the bus and water taxi in Venice.

We’ve drank the smallest and strongest ‘cups’ (if you can call them that) of coffee known to man,

and consumed some of the biggest mugs of beer I’ve ever seen.

Terry had the horror of discovering that ice is something the Europeans don’t use nor sell - anywhere. Cooler (ice) management for our road trips became a bit of an issue …

We learned how to say the basic ‘niceties’ in German, French, Italian, and Austria’s own German dialect. We ate some of the best food ever in the non-descript smaller centers, and some of the crappiest in the epicurean capitals of Paris and Rome. I finally came to terms with having to keep small change handy at ALL TIMES so you can use the ubiquitous PAY ‘water closets’ ….. (thanks to Lyle for being such a gentleman in Pisa when he denied his own needs to give me the 30 Euros necessary so I could use the washroom before we climbed the 294 stairs up the Leaning Tower!).

During the trip, I tried to capture the key places/events/activities in a small notepad, so will use it as my reference for the blog entry that follows the remainder of our European journey. My last entry had us staying in Freiburg, Germany ….. and be prepared – this is going to be a LONG blog post.

Exploring Freiburg

The next morning, we were up early to explore Freiburg. We wandered to the central area surrounding the cathedral, and enjoyed a café’ and croissant while we observed the farmer’s market taking place around us.

There were stalls and stalls of beautiful flowers and amazing fruits and vegetables.

From there, we toured the Munster Cathedral and braved the 206 steps up to take in the amazing views of the city.

Freiburg is in the Black Forest region of Germany, so the countryside is beautiful. We took a road trip to a nearby recreational area (Schauinsland) that had a 3.6 km gondola ride, hiking trails, etc. Unfortunately, there was SNOW on the ground (thought we could avoid it entirely … had to come to Europe to experience it …).

The views were amazing – they overlooked Freiburg and the Rhine Valley.

We had lunch up on the hill and watched the ‘base jumpers’ running off the edge of the mountain and soaring over the valley in their hang gliders.
We drove on a little further, and came upon a small town with a ski hill that converted to a ‘rollerbaun’ track in the off-season. You take the ski chair up the hill, and race down the hill on a metal track. Fun. We downed a beer on their patio at the hillside restaurant, and braved our way through the course.

From there, we explored a little more of the countryside, and made our way back to Freiburg. We dined at a nearby Mexican restaurant (what can I say – we wanted Mexican), which was actually very good. We strolled uptown, taking in the busy Saturday nightlife on the streets, and finished our night with a couple of drinks at an Irish Pub that had a great live band and some interesting people watching opportunities.

Paris Bound

On the road early and on our way to Paris! Must say that we really enjoyed Freiburg – it is a beautiful city, and worth the stop over.

We crossed the border into France, and enjoyed the beautiful scenery – much farmland and open space. Just across the Rhine in Alsace, France, we came upon the Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle. Built in the 12th century, it is perched high enough to provide fantastic views of the Alsace plain, the Vosges Mountains, the Black Forest, and apparently the Alps on a clear day. It is a perfect medieval castle, and well worth fighting the crowds that came out that day to see it.

We carried on and made our way towards Paris. We all agreed that it would probably be better for us to find a hotel outside of Paris, as parking would be a definite hassle. The night before, we searched the internet for options, and selected the Hotel Gabriel. It was very reasonably priced, and close to the underground metro system. The rooms were modest and ‘tiny’, but fine for our purposes.

We checked in, found a nearby Japanese Restaurant (no ‘French’ restaurants open that hour) and enjoyed a surprisingly good meal.

The next day, we were up and off to tackle the underground metro. First stop – the Eifel Tower. It is an impressive sight, but the crowds were quite overwhelming. We took many photos and strolled around it and the surrounding park, but decided to forego the trip up as the lineups were too long.

We spotted a ‘hop-on/hop-off’ tour bus, and decided that was probably our wisest move. It was an open-top double decker bus, and provided headsets with recorded information about the key tourist destinations.

From there, we stopped at the Louvre Museum. First impression? It is absolutely HUGE - beyond belief. Apparently it would take 4-months to see every exhibit. The inside courtyard is massive – and it was filled with people. The lineup, again, was endless. As it was already early afternoon, we decided that we would carry on with the general ‘hop-on/hop-off’ tour and take in as much of the city tour as we could, and save the Louvre for the next day. The plan was to get there as early as possible to avoid the huge lineups, book a 90-minute (highlights of the Louvre) tour, and carry on to other must-see spots.

Paris is immense. The monuments, buildings, sights are all HUGE. It is beautiful, but completely overwhelming. The vision of a ‘romantic city’ with little street-side cafes and couples strolling arm-in-arm is not what we experienced. The city is a mass of people and just plain HUGE in every sense. We kind of wandered around in a daze, and tried to make sense of what we should do next, given the short timelines we were living within.

We decided that an evening cruise down the Seine would be nice. Dinner cruises were hugely expensive, so we found a basic evening cruise, and looked for a place to eat dinner beforehand. We ended up having a nice meal in a restaurant just off the Champs-Elysees. The cruise was nice – the lights of the city are beautiful, and the Eifel Tower at night is far more spectacular than during the day.

Next day, we breakfasted at McDonald’s (they have a lovely and inexpensive breakfast brunch of croissants, yogurt, etc.). As I mentioned, our intent was to hit the Louvre first and catch an early tour. The Museum opened at 9:00 a.m., so we made sure we were there for the opening.
After getting off the bus and walking into the courtyard to the main entrance, we were pleasantly surprised by the lack of people.

Happily, we walked towards the entrance, ready to purchase our tickets, when we saw the sign …… CLOSED TUESDAY! Can you believe it?? No other place on the planet closes on a TUESDAY!

Sigh. No Mona Lisa. Plus, this experience was a bit too parallel to the ‘Griswold’s Vacation trip to Walley World’! We felt a little foolish.

Humbled, we carried on to Notre Dame. While we were there, Lyle was hit up by his second gypsy beggar. We soon found that beggars/gypsies converge at every church (and probably make a killing).
To get into the spirit of ‘Gay Paree’, Lyle purchased and donned a lovely beret.

Back onto the bus for and on to the Champs-Elyse for lunch. Tammy had heard that the Catacombs were worth seeing, so we decided to go there next.

The lineup for the catacombs was long, but we toughed it out. The catacombs are a series of underground tunnels (from a former quarry) that house the remains of nearly six millions Parisians. A number of above-ground cemeteries were closed and emptied in the 18th century in order to facilitate the development of Paris and to contain disease. The bones were removed and placed there with great ceremony by the church.

It is hard to describe the intricate ‘walls’ of human bones and skulls that line parts of the tunnels. It was well worth the wait to see.

We wrapped up the day with dinner at a French restaurant close to our hotel. Turns out this was our only experience with major language difficulties in all of Europe. We didn’t speak any French (damn school system), and they did NOT speak ANY English. Their only solution when trying to explain the menu to us was to talk a lot more, and in more detail. We all just sat there and finally said – ‘chicken’. They fed us a horribly dried out portion of chicken with a side of crappy spaghetti and some tater tots. Not memorable.

On to Italy

Au revoir to Paris. We made our way to our next destination – the Palace of Fontainebleau.

It is located only 35 kms from Paris. The Palace is quite simply unbelievable – it has been a residential palace of French kings since the 12th century.

During the tour, you walk where Napoleon trod. Very cool.

We enjoyed lunch across the street from the Palace and soaked in the ambiance. From there, we pointed the Mercedes south east towards Italy. We began driving into the mountains, and were on a toll highway towards Turino, Italy. There were many tunnels, including a very long (10 km) tunnel that was rigidly controlled for speed and distance between vehicles.

From the tunnel, you pop out into a mountain valley in a region called the Valle d’Aosta. This area is under Italian rule, but is considered a distinct society. Locals speak both French and Italian, and there are differences in their culture, food, etc. Sound familiar ….

The area is stunning – mountains and ski hills, castle ruins on the hillsides. It was getting dark, so we decided we had better stop for the night. Lyle found a hotel using our GPS system, and we pulled into a lovely little town – Ponte Romano, Aosta.

The hotel was very nice, and run by the nicest lady – Simona. She checked us in – spoke great English – and then arranged for the restaurant upstairs to stay open so we could get fed. She helped interpret the menu for us, and later met us for drinks. We needed to get some laundry done, so she made arrangements for us to have that done the next day.

The hotel is located beside an impressive 1st century B.C. stone bridge. According to Simona, the bridge was the only piece of infrastructure to survive bombings in WW II. She also told us the legend of the bridge. The first person to walk across the bridge (St. Martin) would lose his soul to the devil. To foil the devil, a dog was sent across instead.


We bundled our laundry up for cleaning, while we toured around for the morning. We had spied the impressive Fort Bard on the hillside as we drove through the day before. We decided to tour it while we were waiting for our laundry. Fort Bard is a massive fortified complex that was built in the 18th century. It has been restored and is used as a Museum of the Alps, and a performing arts/cultural center. We gave the museum a miss, and took in the view from the Fort.

We decided to ask Simona for lunch - in thanks for being so helpful to us (she even gave Terry a BIG bag of ice for our cooler – SCORE – COLD beer for the road trip). She took us on a 10-minute drive into the next town to a restaurant she recommended. We asked her to choose items from the menu that were typical foods from the area. Be careful what you wish for …

The first dish was thinly cut raw beef covered with a mushroom sauce (cold). Next dish, some kind of strange vegetable thing that was like a cross between a nut and a sweet potato/yam. Next dish, a sautéed vegetable dish LOADED with anchovies …. Things were going a little rough for us.

Finally, the next dish was a fantastic ravioli/pasta dish. We ended on a high note. Anyway – the experience was great, and we all met a friend in Simona. Once lunch was over, we picked up our laundry and hit the road again, enroute to our next stop of Pisa.

We arrived in Pisa that night, found a hotel and did ‘take-out’ at the McDonald’s drive through (typical Norte Americanos!).


Up that morning and off to the Leaning Tower – along with thousands of other people. Crowds! The tower is quite a spectacle.
In order to walk up it, you have to book a time (they limit the number of people up at a time). Terry, Lyle and I decided to spend the bucks and committed to do the 300 steps up. Turns out the walk up was easier than other climbs we had made. It is, however, very interesting to note that you feel the lean of the tower from inside. We made our way up and enjoyed the spectacular view from the top. They no longer ring the bells, as they were felt to contribute to the shift of the building.

We said ‘ciao’ to the Leaning Tower, and started our trek to Rome. As in Paris, we decided that staying outside of Rome would be in our best interest. There is no parking, TERRIBLE drivers, and great potential for car theft in the city. We chose a route that paralleled the ocean, and stopped when we came to a seaside town that looked pleasant (San Marinella).

The town was approximately 45 minutes by train to Rome, our hotel was overlooking the ocean, and only a 10-minute walk to the train station.

Perfect! The young hotel manager, when checking us in, noted that her husband was from Halifax! Small world. We would meet him at breakfast, which was his responsibility at the hotel. There was also an elderly lady working there that we were sure was a vampire. She worked ALL the time (day/night), and always wore the same outfit. She was ALWAYS there, and moved silently ….

That night, we walked up to a little pub that we noticed on our drive – the Monkey Pub, and had the biggest glasses of beer ever! Back at room for a nightcap, we were doubly impressed with the “Pope Hat’ lampshades that our room sported!! Of course we all had to try them on.

How did we manage to always hit the ‘big’ centers on the weekend!!? Off to Rome.

We hopped our first train ride at our station and stood in the crowded train for the 45-minute drive. We stopped at the Vatican City station, and made our way to the epicenter of Rome. Again, blown away by the enormity of it all.

Vatican City is unbelievable – as were the lineups.

We were immediately bombarded by tour operators offering us ‘VIP’ access into the Vatican Museums. We rebuffed a few till we could regroup, and then finally decided on a tour operator. Thankfully, it was a legitimate tour operator, and the tour leader was an extremely knowledgeable guide. In fact, it was almost ‘information overload’. He was obviously an art history major, and supplied us with more information than we could ever retain – ever.
The Vatican museums are mind blowing – the artifacts/works of art are out of this world.

Finally, we made our way to the Sistine Chapel. As we waited to go in, our tour guide warned us that taking photos and videos was ‘completely forbidden’, and that our cameras/phones/video recorders could be confiscated. So, I put my camera away. We reverently made our way into the Chapel …..

Only to be greeted by the blinding flash of THOUSANDS of cameras. I wish I would have taken a picture of the crowd taking pictures! It was too funny! There were a number of priest-type fellows who would periodically yell out to the crowd ‘NO PHOTOS’. But to no avail. I, unfortunately, was still intimidated enough not to take any pictures. Lyle did.

We all laughed about it later, and thought that it would be more effective if they had a pre-recorded LOUD, god-like voice that would BOOM out to the crowd – ‘I SAID – NO PHOTOS!!!!’ and see the reaction.

The Sistine Chapel was interesting, particularly after hearing of Michelangelo’s experience working on it. Apparently he did not want the job, and was very unhappy while working on it. The project was always delayed, and he did not get along with the Pope of the time, who would come it every morning and ask him ‘when the job would be completed’. Bone of contention for Michelangelo, which he portrayed in some of the scenes he painted.

From there, we toured St. Peter’s Basilica. What can you say about the ‘greatest church in all of Christendom’? It is massive, it is mind blowing, it is beyond description.

On to the rest of Rome. We once again took advantage of the ‘hop-on/hop-off’ bus tours, and winded our way around the massive city. Next stop for us was the Coliseum. We joined a tour, and were amazed at the cruelty of the ancient Romans. According to our tour guide, on opening day, over 5,000 wild animals were killed within a few hours. And we worry about the violence kids are exposed to nowadays …

That pretty much wrapped up the day for us, so we headed home on the train. It began pouring rain, so we once again hit the Monkey Pub, and enjoyed another BIG beer with our supper.


Up and on the train in the morning, we made our first stop the romantic Spanish Steps. At one time in history, the Spanish Steps were actually considered Spanish territory, and people walking them sometimes disappeared – recruited into the Spanish Army.

From there, we walked to the Trevi Fountain, and following tradition, threw our coins (backwards, coin in right hand and throwing over the left shoulder) into the fountain.
This is supposed to ensure that you will one day return to Rome. Apparently over 3000 Euros are thrown into the fountain every day.

It began raining again, and not wanting to walk in the rain, Tammy, Ron and Lyle carried on the ‘hop-on/hop off’ bus to see the Castel Sant’Angelo, while we walked around the Palatine Hill. This is the centermost of the Seven Hills of Rome, and one of the most ancient spots in the city. The ruins are immense, and very impressive. This is an area you could take a day to explore.

That evening, we tried to find the restaurant that had been referred to us by our Halifax transplant/Italian hotel manager. Unfortunately, it was dark and we missed it, so ended up going to a rather bizarre restaurant where we were served a rather bizarre meal. Terry ordered the seafood special, and was given a plate of whole, fried fish that appeared to have been pulled from their kids’ aquarium, along with whole, fried shrimp – everything intact. He grappled with his meal, to say the least.


Ciao to Roma, and on to Pompeii!

We arrived around noon, and found (or should I say he found us) a personal tour guide – Jimmy, who assured us that he had led tours of the site for 54 years. Needless to say we were a bit concerned whether his heart could take the walk. Fortunately, he turned out to be a terrific guide, was extremely informative, and not afraid to tell the too-long lingering photo buffs to ‘hurry up’ when needed so we could take our turn at the sites.

Pompeii was very, very interesting. They were an extremely advanced society, and a very remarkable one. We toured some of the more famous home sites, their public areas, thermal baths, store fronts, bakery and ‘house of ill repute’.

The cast bodies on display of the citizens buried by ash were quite incredible.
Unfortunately, it was an overcast day, so Mount Vesuvius did not present itself as well in the pictures as I would have liked.
While we were on our tour, a helicopter flew around the site. That would have been an amazing experience to see Pompeii from the air! Next time. Trevi Fountain do your magic!

Pompeii is a World Heritage Site, with many, many areas that still have not been unearthed. Jimmy noted that there is some discussion of leaving portions of the site untouched – a treasure for future generations. Fascinating.

With the meter ticking on our holiday, we left Pompeii, and started our way north and east towards Venice. We stopped that evening at the town/city of Arezzo, and stayed at a hotel there. We had probably the best Italian food we had experienced to date there – your typical Italian ‘many course’ meal, which each couple shared. Very good. Unfortunately, the door to Terry’s and my room appeared to have had many break-ins, as there were knife marks/pry marks all over it. We called it the ‘stabby’ room, and could not sleep until we slid the heavy marble coffee table to the door. If someone was coming in – we’d at least hear it first! Luckily – no problems.


On to Venice. After a bit of a hiccup with directions, we made our way to a hotel outside of the City. There was a bus just up the road from our hotel that would take us to Venice, so again, no hassle with parking. There is no driving in Venice itself.

After dumping our luggage in our rooms, we hopped the bus and headed into Venice. What a beautiful, magical place Venice is.
It is so different than I had imagined. Stunningly lovely. By far and away my favorite place. The maze of streets are narrow and the buildings interesting, crossed by bridge after bridge. The Grand Canal is immense and impressive. It is not just a place – it is an experience unto itself. There are over 100 islands linked by 354 bridges over 177 canals.

We walked around and soaked up the ambiance. Of course we had to have a gondola ride. We struck a deal with a handsome young oar man, and off we went.
The 45-minute boat ride was broken up by his cell phone call, and his flirtatious calls to girls walking down the streets. He had warned us that he was a relative of Casanova … hmmmm..

Back to our hotel for supper that evening.

The day was hot, sunny and beautiful – perfect for a day in Venice. Just after we stepped off our bus, we were approached by a man who offered us a free boat ride to the island of Murano, to tour a glass blowing factory. We were a little apprehensive, but took him up on his offer, as we had wanted to tour the area by boat.

The water taxi transported us over to Murano, where we were escorted into the glass factory, and assigned a personal guide. He led us into the demonstration area, where there were a number of other observers.

The demonstration was very impressive.
First, one of the craftsman made a beautiful glass vase, followed by a glass bending demonstration where a perfect glass horse was made.
From there, we toured their show room and checked out the fabulously ornate glass chandeliers and one-of-a-kind pieces of art. We picked up a few trinkets from their gift shop, and prepared to leave. Terry asked our escort if there was anything else worth seeing on the island, and was informed ‘NO – nothing to see here. Take the water taxi off and go over to the next island’. We decided not to heed his words, and walked further down, only to find HUNDREDS of glass shops – of course with cheaper prices for the same things! Oh well. We strolled around Murano – very neat place – and had lunch at an outdoor cafe.

We decided to attempt the water bus, hoping to see more of the area from the water. Not sure of the routes, we jumped on one, only to find that it was very much like your basic public transit – crowded with people – standing room only, and with no opportunity to enjoy the scenery around you. We were desperate to get off and just walk around again.

We toured the Piazza San Marco, along with a massive crush of people (why on a Wednesday??), and marveled at the Palazzo Ducale and the Basilica di San Marco.
We toured inside the Basilica, but the crowds in the Palazzo Ducale were just too long to wait.
Back onto the water taxi to make our way back to the bus terminal.

Terry, Lyle and I felt that we could make better time back to the bus terminal on foot, while Tammy and Ron disagreed. The race was on! We jumped off the water bus at the next stop, and weaved our way through the maze, finally figuring out the route markers that would direct us to the parking area. We made it, and with time to down half a beer before they caught up to us. Vindicated!
Back to our hotel, and dinner. Luckily, we had a very friendly waitress, and Terry made arrangements to procure another bag of ice for our travels the next day. Another score!


Ciao to Italy, and on our way to Austria. The next highlight of the trip was a visit to the Royal Lipizzan Stallions in Vienna.

The scenery in Austria is absolutely stunning – the most scenic of any place to date. We found a hotel out of Vienna in the small town of Modling. It was a lovely town – your cobbled streets and neat stores and restaurants.
We found a nice little pub/restaurant and enjoyed the first chicken wings we had seen anywhere in Europe – and they were good, too! The only negative thing about Austria? They permit smoking everywhere, and EVERYONE SMOKES. The restaurants (and basically ALL public areas) are very smoky, which was a real disappointment.


We took a train from Modling into Vienna. The train was beautiful – clean, fast. We had to transfer from the train onto the subway to get into the city Centre. Once we disembarked from the subway, we ran into a massive crowd of people, and it soon became apparent that there was a demonstration taking place. Not knowing what it was about, we decided quickly that we had better find a quick route out of the mass of people. Turns out the ‘protesters’ were school kids, protesting the loss of 5-days of their holidays because of an adjustment to the school year. No terrorists as we had imagined.

The Lipizzan Stallions are kept at the Spanish Riding School, located at the Imperial Hofburg Palace, right in the city core. We booked a viewing of the stallion’s morning exercises, followed by a tour of the facilities later that afternoon.
This was a dream of Tammy and Lyles’ to see the stallions in action.

No photos were permitted (shades of the Sistine Chapel all over again), but of course people were taking pictures. I complied, but Lyle managed to sneak a few shots of the horses. I’ll try to get some photos from him for posting.

After our tour, we booked a scenic (and romantic) carriage ride (for five) through the city. Vienna is probably one of the most beautiful cities we have seen.
It was a real surprise to us. We had not expected to see such a historical, monumental city – yet with a real cosmopolitan population.
The people here were probably the most elegantly dressed of all the cities we had visited.

We wandered and enjoyed the city center, where there appeared to be a street fair taking place. There were musicians and street buskers performing en masse, and many people strolling the streets. It was a very festive atmosphere.

Back on the subway and train and to our hotel for the night.


Up and on the road the next morning. We needed another ‘castle fix’, so stopped in Salzburg to see the Hohensalzburg Castle, famous for being Europe’s biggest fortification.

It sits above the City of Salzburg, so offers an amazing view of the area.
But of course we had some serious uphill hiking to get there …. Once there, we toured the facility and enjoyed lunch in the scenic, medieval surroundings.

From there, we drove to the nearby Salz Welten and toured the old salt mine. We had to don white coveralls for the tour,

and learned the history of the salt mine while taking part in such activities as a ride on the pit railway, sliding down the miner’s slides, a boat ride across the ‘salt lake’ and watching the multi-media presentation. Interesting.

Back on the road and onwards to Germany. We ended up spending the night at a small town near Nuremberg.

Back to Germany and Homeward Bound

Up and on the road by 9:00 a.m. We drove to Dorverden, and enjoyed a barbeque hosted at the barn by Horst. We had to get the rental vehicle back that night, so left by 9:00 p.m., and dropped off the Mercedes. We had booked rooms at the airport hotel.

We left Bremen at 11:20 a.m. and once again flew into Amsterdam for a 3-hour layover. We arrived in Vancouver by 5:20 p.m., and noted that we had experienced approximately 23 hours of daylight!
Europe was great – would love to go back again.

1 comment:

Mimi said...

This reminds meof my hop on hop off rome bus
tour.I went there last month & bus ride was fabulous.