Thursday, April 28, 2011

Backed into a Corner...sort of

I am quite sure that most people have heard of the expression, “backed into a corner”, and quite literally, if this has ever happened to you then you are familiar with the sense of anxiety that follows. Fortunately, if you maintain a cool composure and gather your thoughts, options may begin to present themselves that you may not have considered initially. Hopefully, enough alternatives will become apparent that you can actually “escape” this, shall we say, incarceration. Well, I recently took a wrong turn while driving that left me no option but to back out of the corner, and allow me to explain.
While in the scenic hillside community of Lierna, Italy, along the shores of Lake Como, I was driving a minivan that was designed to carry a large payload of people, but was clearly not designed for some of the narrow “viales” in Italy. I proceeded down one of the many unmarked roadways that should have led to the main street leaving town. Of course, we were on a tight schedule, so Murphy’s Law was lurking at the end of this wrong turn. As we descended the hillside, the road became narrower and more limiting. Just then, what appeared to be a quick route to the bottom of the hill, looked more like an astronomical , “black hole”; no way out. We dead ended into a series of driveways that would only have permitted one of those mini-eurocars, and that wasn’t what we were driving. I felt like we had just checked into the Hotel California; you can check in but you can never leave.

After several feeble attempts to turn ourselves around, it became apparent that there was only one way out and that was to back out without the luxury of our side view mirrors or the skill of a seasoned driver. However, somehow by the grace of God and good fortune, the minivan tracked its way out of this tomb, arising from the “dead end”, so to speak. After gathering our collective energy once again, we reconvened at the top of the hill for our trip back to Milan.

Of all the turns that we face in life, some are more daunting than others, and in this case, there were no turns. It required a concentrated effort and the support of many to retrace our path, quite literally in reverse, which allowed us to get back on the road home. We all agreed that a return trip to this little part of Italy would be worth it, particularly with our dinner in Verena on the shores of Lake Como the night before. However, our little misadventure on the roads of Lierna almost left us in the corner, and I assure you, there was nowhere to turn. Ciao!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Ostersonntag 2011

When I was growing up, my father occasionally would throw out a few words of German that he had learned from his childhood.  With both parents being of German descent, his primary language for thôse preschool years was German.  However, over the years he remembered just the important ones that came in handy around young listening ears.  He'd say, "mein Gott in himmel" when I was getting into some sort of mischief.  After the last few days here in Switzerland where German is the preferred language, I wish I had taken a few lessons from him or from our Austrian neighbors across the street.

We arrived in Brig, Switzerland via the train from Milan.  It was a relaxing ride, since we left the driving up to the Italian train engineers.  It was a magnificent 2 hour ride north along the western border of Lake Maggiore and on across the border into Switzerland.  The trains run just their world reknown time pieces.  The train station was just a short 10 minute walk up the streets of Brig, with the Alps as a back drop.  We scoped out the local Catholic church and the eateries, all before sundown. 

We found a quaint dinner spot where we had some traditional fare, the schnitzel with noodles.  We passed on the strudel, much to my dismay, but there would always be tomorrow, Ostersonntag.  The early service was the high mass for the Easter celebration, and it was not just your ordinary high mass, let me tell you.  They had a full choir and their own orchestra;  I felt as though I was at the symphony and not at an Easter Sunday service.  It was delightful and truly a highlight. 

After services, we boarded the train to Zermat for a day in the Alps.  The views were impressive and the skies were as blue as you could imagine, perfect for this outing.  The first glimpse of the Matterhorn left me awkstruck...much like another day in the mountains.  We walked about town and even made our way up the trail abit before sitting down for a cup of hot chocolate later on.  We visited the Catholic church in town, and the views leaving the church were breathtaking, a divine creation indeed.  We later dined on more traditional food of weiner schnitzel and sauerkraut all washed down with a little German ale.

Our day in the Alps fell on Easter Sunday, an unplanned coincidence to say the least.  Mein Gott in himmel reminded me that no human hand could have created all of what we saw.  It was truly divine.  Thanks Dad for helping me find the words to describe this glorious part of the world.  Al weidersehen!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Some say patio, others say piazza

When we were young kids, I recall my mother organizing her flower pots on the back porch getting them ready to put out for the season.  Of course, she had kept them in from the harsh winter weather, so they would come back on their own in the spring.  She was among the first ecology minded individuals to grace her generation, or perhaps it was simply a behavior she acquired during the Great Depression.  Regardless, she frequently used these opportunities to enlighten us about life through her peripatetic teaching style.  During one of those lessons, she graced us with her knowledge of the Roman plazas or Italian piazzas.

For as long as I can remember, we referred to the back porch as the back patio.  On this particular day, however, she decided that we needed to know what a piazza was, only she pronounced the double zz softly, more like an "s" sound.  From that day on, the back porch or patio became the the back piazza.  For many years, I just thought that she had her own way of saying the porch which was different than what we originally had learned, but over time, what she really was doing was educating us about life.

While sightseeing in Italy, I had the ocassion to visit a number of those famous "piazzas", only this time I tried to pronounce it in my best Italian accent, much like Stefano would do.  As I wander the streets, drive the roads, and ride the rails all over northern Italy, I find myself smiling over the informal manner of education my mother took  with all of us when we were younger.  It has served us well over the years, and to that I toast my mother with a nice glass of red wine, "saluti".  Ciao!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Has anyone looked at the map?

Many of us have access to a Garmin or Tom Tom, so map reading and directions are rapidly becoming a thing of the past.  However, not all roads lead to Rome when it comes to finding your way out in the country along some lonely, deserted highway.  If the signage isn't just right and the traffic is heavy, you can almost forget getting there on time when you are traveling in unfamiliar territory.  We had an experience like that today, so let me recap it for you.

We picked up our rental car in La Spezia and had what we thought was a short ride to Lucca.  Before we left the city of La Spezia, we logged several additional miles on the car while we were looking for the Autostrade.  Just about the time we felt we had taken the proper turns to arrive at the on ramp, we missed some critical turn in the road that left us off the beaten track again.  However, after much random luck, we eventually ended up up on the route out of "Dodge" with a glimmer of hope of arriving at our next destination safely.  This time we were headed for Lucca, an ancient city surrounded by walls but a whole lot of charm.

From here, we were planning the short 35-50 km ride to Castle Florentino which, in the real world, should have taken us only an hour or so, even under the most strained conditions.  About 2 1/2 hours later, we were still cruising about the countryside in our rented minivan.  None of the roads looked as though we had traveled them more than once, but we sure as heck didn't make short work out of that little trek.  It took us nearly 3 hours, one bottle of Rolaids and the hope of a few liters of local wine to get through that ordeal.  We didn't think the Sun ever set in Tuscany, but we were decidedly misinformed!

However, we did finally reach our "humble" villa in the hills just north of Siena and have enjoyed the time we have had ever since.  Today, we visited Florence, viewed the Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio, and walked the streets unimpeded, all while leaving the driving to the Italian train engineers.  It was lovely.  So, the next time you need to follow the map...don't, especially if it isn't up to date.  And remember, if you're there, then that's where you are, and if you are here in Tuscany, who cares?  Ciao!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ka-"Cinque" Terra

When the $$ signs roll up, there is a common reaction called, "ka-ching" reminding us of the sound the cash register makes when you rack up a big bill.  Often times, it is an expression associated with one of amazement or surprise, but clearly, it is not one that you would like to experience if you are on a reasonable budget.  Well, sometimes mishaps occur, and ka-ching, the savings go by the wayside.  We had one such slight miscalculation today, and it cost us a few extra euros.

After a delightful day of loitering around Monterosso and then having a lovely dinner, we arrived at the train station to make our way back to Manarola where we were planning to to take the moonlight hike up the hill to Volostra.  However, in our haste to catch the earliest train back to Manarola, we boarded the wrong train and were off to La Spezia instead.  Our Italian conductor rewarded us with the bad news that we were indeed headed to a different destination than we had in mind.  Once in La Spezia, we checked for the next train heading back to Manorola which wasn't until 11 pm.  As we considered our options: 1. wait for the next train or 2. find out how much the cab ride to Volostra would be.  After haggling with the taxi driver over the price of 40 euro, about $55-60, we opted for the cab ride back to our hotel.  Ah, the sound of those clinking nickels going out of our pockets, "ka-ching" with a capital E for euros.

Yes, this little mishap cost us a pocket of change, but in the end, we didn't have to walk up the hill which would have added dearly to the long day.  What's a few euro among friends and
 when you are on vacation?  The reality it's still a few euro, but we had a great time talking about it.  Ciao!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A High Five for Sure

Likely you have heard the expression, "give me five or give me a high five".  Ordinarily, it refers to giving one a handshake of greeting or a gesture of congratulations after some sort of accomplishment.  Well, for the last 3 days, our travels have taken us to the Cinque Terra region on the Ligurian Sea where we have taken to the ancient paths of yesteryear.  The trails have been here for years and apart from the arriving traffic from the sea, they served as the only connections between these ancient cities on the hillsides of the Italian Riviera. 

We arrived via train to the village of Manarola, the second in the series of seaside villages.  From the town, we made our way up to Volostra where we have been staying at a B&B.  This has served as our ground zero for the last 2 days of hiking.  Our elevation from the sea is nearly 1000 feet, which means that the ascents and descents have been significant.  Unfortunately, the "sientero azzurro" or the trail along the sea has been washed out, so our feet have had to carry us up and down the hillsides but have provided us with some spectacular vistas.  Equally, we have not encountered any inclement weather which has made this experience possible all the more enjoyable too.

Tomorrow we make our way to the final city of the quintet, Monterosso.  I suspect that we will find it just as fascinating as the others have been, but it is not just the cities but the whole experience that makes this region so pleasant.  It is no wonder that it is the destination of so many tourists, but it is not for anyone who is unwilling to climb even a few hills.  You quite literally rise from the sea, and over the centuries, its inhabitants have built their cities into those hillsides.  From what have seen, it has taken both hands of its laborers to fashion this magnificent place, and that deserves a high five and then some.  Ciao!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Boarding Pass

For anyone who has ever traveled by air, you are undoubtedly familiar with the significance of the boarding pass.  It is swatch of parchment that gets you past the gauntlet of security and onto the jetway.  From there,  it’s simply a matter of identifying your assigned seat and settling in for the ups and downs of air travel.  However, even with that ticket to ride in hand, it doesn’t guarantee that the flight will actually push back from the gate and allow you to put your seat back, relax, and enjoy the flight.
I remember my very first flight, a trip home from Biloxi Mississippi with my Dad.  We had visited my uncle and aunt who were stationed  at Kessler AF base.  It was one of those older, propeller planes; it reminded me of the plane in the closing moments of Casablanca, only it had 4 engines which was a relief to me.  Since then,  I have flown on many different types of aircraft, including the workhorse 707,  regional  jets, the L1011, a 747, 727’s, 737’s, a 757, a 767, a 777, and the A300 Airbus.  What do these jet powered successors to the Wright Brother’s  prototype have in common?  They all carry people places, and as a result, have made global travel a practical reality.
Yes, with a boarding pass and the proper identification, you  can go just about anywhere.  However, when you fly standby, the airlines don’t issue a boarding pass until they are absolutely sure there is room enough to accommodate you.  For my sister, her family, and myself, we were fortunate enough to get the “golden” pass.  In the end, the angst associated with our standby status led to a first class trip across the pond to Milan.  The complimentary wine, the delicious crab cakes, and the heavenly ice cream sundae capped off a truly first class junket to the start of our holidays.  Ciao!