Solo Journey Through Europe and Self Discovery
I am in Paris France and I have been to the top of the Eiffel Tower! It was cold and rainy and windy, did I say cold? I meant freezing; but amazing none the less. My solo journey through Europe begins.
My adventure begins: the flight from Miami to Paris was nice; first class is the only way to fly – thank you hubby for saving the frequent flyer miles for me). I have to admit that I was not completely surprised by the panic that surged as the plane door closed; it had been lying dormant in the pit of my stomach since I committed to this solo journey. Then the nice lady flight attended offered me a glass of champagne and, as the French say – voil’a!
After a few glasses of champagne, I was calm enough to get a little sleep during the flight. Amazingly I still felt relatively calm as I deplaned at the CDG airport (even without the aid of champagne). I suspect the fact I had made arrangements for a pickup service to meet me, was to my arrival in Paris what the champagne had been for my flight. The pick up company told me the driver would be holding a sign with my name; cool, how often have you seen those guys waiting as you deplane, how important must that Mr or Ms so and so be to warrant such a personalized greeting, now I was one of those special folks. But my sense of importance and control were dashed as I soon discovered there was no one waiting for me at the exit; giving rise to hat familiar knot churning once again in my stomach. But before it could rise to panic, I spotted a young man rushing toward the line of drivers. I couldn’t see the name written on the sign he was carrying so I called out my name and sure enough he smiled and held up the sign – Welcome Kathy.
Vincent and I headed straight away to pick up my daughter and her friend, who had been traveling around Spain. They had planned to meet me for a few days in Paris and later my daughter and I would meet for a few days in Florence. They were flying in from Madrid on Ryan air into at a smaller airport outside of Paris. From there they would catch a bus into Paris, very near the Meridian Hotel, our meeting point.
As we left the airport Vincent pointed out the French Air force One, parked on a runway. The new president was taking office that very day and there were parades and celebrations all over Paris; but, unlike in the US, the streets remained open and we ended up weaving in and out of the parades and official motorcades. The Eiffel tower appeared off in the distance as we made our way toward the meet-up location. As we circled one of many roundabouts I came face to face with the Arc de Triomphe! Ah Paris.
By the time we reached the Meridian hotel I could hardly wait to share Paris with the girls. When they were not waiting for us on the curb I jumped out of the car to check the lobby but they were not there either. Then when I returned to the curb the car was gone, along with all my things, and I do mean all my things. I hadn’t even grabbed my purse as I jumped out. I had nothing – no passport, no wallet, no money not a single form of currency or identification – nothing. Now that familiar knot was quickly rising to full on panic. Vincent must be circling the block, I tried to calm myself; a few minutes ticked by, the panic rising higher; I am a grown, educated resourceful woman, I can handle this I tried to assured myself, still the panic grew. Perched on the edge of hysteria, alone on a curb in Paris, France, my mind finely pushed back against the panic and began to formulate a plan; I would start by pleading my sad, sour case to the front desk at the Meridian. Less than an hour into my grand solo journey I had become the poster child for the stereotyped, clueless, naive, American- the hapless inexperienced tourist. Then suddenly Vincent pulled back up to the curb with a smile and an apology; he had been shooed away by a traffic officer and had, indeed, been circling the block.
For over an hour and a half we drove back and forth between the bus stop for the airport shuttle bus and the Meridian, with no sign of the girls. My phone wasn’t working and they had not contacted home, there was simply no way to reach them. Feeling a whole new kind of panic. I had decided to book a room at the Meridian and wait for them when they finally walked into the lobby; ragged and worn and looking like they had been lost in the wilderness, but they were a beautiful sight. Apparently the ticking of my daughters alarm clock had annoyed one of her fellow youth hostel room mates and they had silenced it during the night. So the girls had overslept and missed their plane. Eventually they found another flight but it flew into CDG, the very same airport I had flown into, arriving not long after me. Since there was no direct shuttle bus from the CDG airport, they had taken a series of buses to get to me!
Completely exhausted from the stress of the day, we climbed into the car. Vincent calmly suggested we take a deep breath and relax while he showed us Paris. He drove us past all the major sites and pointed out where to shop, dine and even picnic. Finally we left the city behind and drove past idyllic French villages, and lush green fields to the Chateau d’ Etoges, http://www.etoges.com/, in the Champagne region, where we would sleep in the tower of a castle.
The Chateau, complete with its own mote, was beautiful. Although the furnishings were a little tired, the architecture was incredible. The small village of Etoges circles the Chateau, so we wondered through narrow streets, oohing, aahing and snapping pictures.
We popped into a small grocery for a few supplies and with a mixture of Spanish, Italian, English, French and exaggerated hand gestures, the three women working the store helped us select our supplies. Later we enjoyed a delicious snack of cheese and bread and champagne, offering a toast to all that had so far touched our travels in a positive way, “Too Vincent and the three kind grocery ladies; and to hubby for the first class flight.”
That evening it was cold and rainy. The girls, not completely recovered from their stressful day, didn’t feel like dressing for dinner, they wanted to wear their jeans and sweaters and reluctantly I conceded. As we entered the foyer of the dining hall we were greeted by tuxedo clad waiters that, despite our casual attire, smiled and led us to our table. Dinner was a six course, gourmet meal; cold tomato and mussel soup, Foui Gras, sea bass, and roasted pigeon, a bottle of champagne (personally suggested to us by the sommelier), mango desert, port wine and coffee. The service was wonderful, although we did notice a few bemused glances at our inappropriately casual attire. The setting was grand and the presentation beautiful, but the girls struggled through the mussels and liver courses, while we all struggled with our waiter’s interpretation of English. It was 11:30 by the time we finished the meal and with the Chateau bathed in an enchanting soft light we walked through our very own fairytale, to our very own room in the tower of a castle. So ended my first day in France; May 16th 2007.
Day 2 May 17
On my second day in France, after a wonderful breakfast of crescents and real cream, yum, enjoyed under a giant chandelier, we departed the lovely chateau d’ Etoges for the town of Epernay, the capitol of the Champagne region. There we toured the Cellars of Masion d/ Marcie, culminating with a champagne tasting. I must say the girls have taken quit readily to the chateau and champagne life, but it was time to say good bye to this beautiful region and return to Paris.
With the confidence of a well traveled veteran Kate led us effortlessly through our initiation into European train travel. Forty five minutes after departing Epernay, we rolled into a cold and dreary Gare Lyon Station in Paris. A short time after that we were standing in front of the two enormous, beautiful, bright blue doors on Rue Vernuill.
Behind the doors there was a cobble stone court yard walled by lovely apartments rising up several stories on all sides. At the far end another set of doors then a narrow twisting staircase of wood, worn to a warm beautiful patina. One floor up and we were in our Parisian flat.
I had arranged a house swap for the flat, and it was a lovely little two bedroom with large screen-less windows opening onto the courtyard. There was a tiny kitchen, nice size bath, and a comfortable living room. But as sweet as our apartment was, Pairs called to us from our doorstep. So we headed back through the big blue doors, took a left and walked to the end of the block. A left onto Rue d’luc put the Louvre straight ahead, past the Musee d’ Orsay, on the far bank of the river Rhine. But the Louvre would have to wait for today we were in search of the Eiffel tower.
We strolled along the Rhine in the direction of the Eiffel tower. It wasn’t long before we could see the peak of the tower and we knew were going in the right direction. So it was towering up into the sky right in front of us, calling us to climb to the top, well ride to the top. As we waited in line it began to rain and then a cold wind began to blow. At last we boarded the lift that would take us to the first observation deck, it was cold and crowed. On the last leg of the journey, packed like sardines into the glass lift, I began to feel a little uneasy, we were terribly high. When the doors finally slid open at the very top, a collective gasp came from the lift at the sight of Paris stretched out in front of us in every direction. Even on that gray, cold, rainy day it was unbelievably amazing.
It was getting late when we finally left the dizzying heights behind, so we dined not far from the tower. Off a typically Parisian, tree lined street I had the best pasta I believe I have ever eaten, simply made with olive oil, herbs and three cheese, but oh what cheeses; and I was eating it in Paris. When we finished our meal and headed back to our little flat on Rue Vernuill, the Eiffel Tower, already a glow with lights, began to sparkle and twinkle from top to bottom; it was the perfect exclamation point to a perfect day. As we stood transfixed by the sight a small crowd of tourists and Persians alike gathered in its glow, spellbound all, by the beauty that is Paris.
Day 3 May 18th
Breakfast and espresso at the corner pastry shop and then we were off to the Louvre. It is huge, standing beside the structure and gazing down along its wall is a study in both perspective and vanishing point. The girls were satisfied to see the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa and the works found along the way, but I wanted more, much more, so after our picnic lunch of French bread sandwiches and wine in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, we parted ways.
On that first day in Paris Vincent had suggested I do the Da Vinci Code tour at the Louvre, so reluctantly I paid my 10 E, put on the head phones and tucked the embarrassing evidence, the recorder, under my sweater. Leaving the Hall of Napoleon, located under the pyramid, I climbed the beautiful staircase of the Winged Victory of Samothrace into the halls of the Louvre and the pages of the “Da Vinci Code”. As my narrator guided me past master pieces scattered throughout the warren of halls and galleries, Tom Hanks periodically interrupted with some dramatic clue or insight, but I could pause the recorder at any time, which I did quite often, to stand and gazed in amazement at the art of masters. Although it was a little corny and more than a little embarrassing, it turned out to be a far easier way to navigate the complicated maze of rooms while struggling with the equally confusing map.
For dinner last night we ate at a little place just down the block from our big blue doors. Le Rouge Vif is a tiny place with ancient beamed ceilings and stone walls. To be seated it was necessary for the waiter to pick our table up and hold it to the side until we were seated before placing it back down in front of us. The menu was hand written, all in French on a chalk board propped up in a chair near our table. There was a group of three Englishmen sitting near us, very, very near in fact, an older couple and a young man. The older gentleman kindly translated every item on the menu for us while the younger man flirted harmlessly with the girls.
Day 4 May 19th
We braved the Paris metro system today. We had tested the waters yesterday with a short point to point trip on our way back from our picnic at the Eiffel Tower. But today we purchased a day pass as we planned to visit Notre Dame, Champs Elysees, Arc de Triomphe and the Mussee d’Orsay. The Metro is the second busiest system in Europe, second only to Moscow and not easy to navigate; but Kate got us everywhere we wanted to go without a single mishap. Our first stop was the beautiful Gothic Cathedral, Notre Dame.
We had planned to climb the towers but the line was well over an hour wait, so we decide to just tour the inside. As we entered, incredible stained-glass windows pierced the shadows. With my eyes slowly adjusting, an amazing space began to form around us with soaring, ornate ceiling and massive stain glass windows; awe inspiring. Candle smoke and history drifted through the hushed space, which it’s self seem scared. We paused to light candles and say a prayer for our troops.
A metro ride from Notre Dame, we emerged from the subterranean system onto the Champs Elysees. We dined at a sidewalk café and shopped along the famous street where we purchased shoes for me, a jacket for Cindy and dresses for each of the girls, and then we made our way to the Arch de Triomphe. The Arch was constructed by Napoleon to show the power and permanence of France and the four pillared monument was to embody the glory of France. Today it was draped in a gigantic flag from the recent presidential parade.
Back on the metro we were off to the Mussee de Orsay and the genius of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Rhoden, Monet, Lautrec and all the great Impressionists and post impressionists. We headed quickly to the upper floor where we would find our “must sees”. Unlike the Louvre’s towering halls and ornate galleries, the d’Orsay, housed in a converted train station, had small intimate galleries. Several times I found myself in the center of a gallery turning slowly, letting the history, creativity and beauty circle around me – me a farm girl from a rocky ridge in KY; life is amazing. Just as I had done with the Louvre, I returned again to the d’Orsay on my own.
For our last night in Paris we got all dolled up in our Champs Elysees purchases. With high spirits we strolled through the streets of the beautiful city of lights, stopping occasional along the way to pose like starlets on the streets of Par’rie. We dined at a little place across the Rhine from the Louvre where the high ceilings were ornately painted and gilded in gold leaf. After dinner we took pictures on the bridge and returned for the last time to our little flat where we shared stories and professions of our new found love for Paris and a beautiful bottle of Bordeaux.
Day 5 May 20
Au revoir France; buongiorno Italy
I rose with a start this morning, my alarm did not go off, so I dressed in less than five minutes, kissed two sleepy girls good bye, lugged my bulging backpack down the spiral stairs across the courtyard and through the beautiful blue doors for the very last time. Vincent was there to take me to Gare du Nord for the first truly solo leg of my journey.
I was obviously nervous when we reached the station and stunned when Vincent parked the car to escort me inside. Without my asking he had decided to give me a crash course in navigating European train stations. While he explained the process a few fellow dazed and confused souls fell in behind us listening to his tutorial. He showed me/us how to validate a train ticket in the yellow box near the tracks, then he explained that platforms, called quai, are marked with either letters or numbers, at Gare du Nord the quai were marked A – N; then he was gone and I was on my own.
Nervously I watched the schedule board positioned high on the wall opposite the tracks for the quai from which my train would depart. At around 7:45 quai # 5 was posted for the 8:04 train to Milano; quai # 5? What happened to A – N? I felt my chest tighten where the */@ was platform #5? Instinct took over, telling me to follow the crowd that suddenly began to move away from the schedule board. The crowd was headed for a corridor on the opposite wall. My instincts were right, that corridor lead to an entirely different set of tracts, in a different area of the station; where I found and boarded my train on quai # 5, with no time to spare.
The train left Paris traveling east through rolling country side dotted with picturesque villages and neatly groomed fields toward the French Alps. The mountains rose dramatically with vineyards twisting like bootlaces at their feet. The train chugged past high lakes watched over by ancient churches and beautiful chateaus. Soon the quintessential wooden chalets of the high Alps replaced the opulent chateaus.
We stopped briefly at Chamberg, St Jean de Maurienne and Modane. We also passed through several tunnels the last one being very long and we when emerged from the other end, we were in Italy. Now all the announcements were made in Italian; of which I’m sorry to report, I understand almost as little as I do French – so much for all my Italian studies. The mountains changed as well, being much softer than the harsh craggy peaks of France. The mountains relaxed into the plains of Rosoto. My first impression is that Italy appears more worn than France, perhaps a result of picking the wrong side for most of WWII or a reflection of the Italian dolce vita attitude on life.
In Milan I transferred to the train that would take me on to Venice. Naively I had not realized that what I thought were the names of many European cities are in fact the English spelling and pronunciation of them. Sometimes they are similar to the native version such as Milan, Milano, Rome, Roma but other times they are far less so like Florence, Firenze. Fortunately I realized this in time to locate and board my train, not to Venice but Venezia; and I made a note to pay much more attention to the local vernacular pertaining to my destinations.
I had the first and last train meal of my trip, it was awful and pricy. After my sad, on board lunch, I met some travelers that were dinning on things they had packed for the ride, which I will be doing from here on. Inges (spelling?), a woman in her fifties, is a tourism ambassador from a small town in Uruguay, was traveling with her mother. Badu was a young West African man in his mid-thirties. We all spoke only un poco of each other’s languages but had a fun trying to communicate while getting to know one another. Badu left us in Milano on his way home to Ravena. Inges, her mother and I continued on together on the next train. Later we ran into Badu in the station while we waited for our train, he had apparently lost his wallet and was still pleading his case to the ticket agent, as we boarded our train. Inges and her mother departed at Denzano on Largo Gardea while I continued on to Venice; I mean Venezia.
When I stepped out of the train station, Venice took my breath away; the station is situated directly on the majestic Grand Canal.
I was greeted by a friend of Mike and Helen’s, Erla, and she walked with me to Ponte Chiodo, http://www.pontechiodo.it/en/index.asp, my hotel. It was sandwiched between Fondamente di S. Felice and Calle dalle Racchetta. It was so nice to have help navigating the complicated maze that is Venice. Erla is developing a service to assist tourist during their visit to Venice and I was thankful for her company and guidance.
I checked into an adorable, Venetian-blue room overlooking a tiny quintessential Venetian canal. Along both sides of the canal brightly colored flowers drape from every window and the many balconies. The lovely floral colors punctuate the time mellowed hues of the buildings rising up from the water, where the scene reflected back is reminiscent of an impressionists painting. The setting is simply enchanting. After depositing my backpack, I set out to discover Venice, with Erla as my guide.
Wandering leisurely through Venice, Erla shared her extensive knowledge of her adopted City, and talked about her life as an expat and her, “My Leno”, the handsome, Italian love of her life. Eventually we stopped at a canal side eatery where we were warmly greeted and seated at a table overlooking the canal. As Erla’s companion, I dined, not as the tourist that I am, but as a Venetian. We were not even shown menus, our meals were chef’s inspirited – calamari, mussels, cuttlefish, and a tiny shrimp like thing, something the likes of which I have never seen before and of course vino – and all delicious. As we dined, dusk settled on the city washing the whole scene in the colors of sunset. It seemed to me that the soft glow cast by the street lights illuminated not only the cobblestones streets, but the very heart of Venice herself.
By the time we made our way back to Ponte Chiodo, the throngs of day tourist had gone and families were out for their passeggio or evening stroll. On the bridge spanning the canal below the window of my hotel, we struck up a conversation with an elderly woman; well actually Erla struck up a conversation. She told us that she had been there when Kathryn Hepburn had floated under that very bridge in the 1955 movie “Summer-time” with Rossano Brazzi.
Day 6 May 21
Mosaici di classe
It turns out, as I found out on my first day of class, that I am the only non mosaic professional in the workshop and the only one that did not come prepared with a planned, scaled, pattern for my project. Once I realized this I quickly sketched out what I could remember of the view from my Venetian blue room on the back of the directions to the Orsoni. There were six of us in the class, Sug (short for Sugar) from Texas and as sweet as her nickname would imply and a very accomplished portrait artist. She will be teaching a mosaic portrait class at SAMA, Society of American Mosaic Artists, in Chicago in July. There is Mireille from Belgium, who also teaches mosaic and promises a box of Belgian chocolate to share each day. Arlene, from the states, Chicago I think, but married to Antonio and living near Parma (I think), she is a riot. Jenny is a sarcastic, vino loving Oakie, and finally there is quite, thoughtful Julie, Sug’s business partner.
Day 7 May 22
Mia vita Veneziana
Early each morning I step into the daily flow of Venetian life alongside the children parading beneath my window on their way to school, and the adults heading off to wherever they spend their day. By 7:00 am boat traffic buzzes along the canals as fisherman and merchants set up along side them; but by 8:00 the streets are once again turned over to the tourists and Venice fades into the shadows of its Disney-esk alter ego.
The workshop is in Cannaregio, a fifteen min walk down the crowed Strada Nova to Fondamente di Cannaregio, where I stop for my daily un cafe macchiato and brioche chocolate -standing at the bar -like an Italian and watch a fish vender setting up for the day. Finally I take a left into Sottoportego dei Videi; a fondamente is a street which has water alongside it and a Sottoportego is a covered calle, which itself is a waterless street.
At the historic Orsoni glass foundry I ring the buzzer at a set of ancient wooden doors with beautiful iron hardware. I wait for the return buzz and the click that unlocks the doors. Pushing them open, I walk into a scene from “The Secret Garden”. One of the workmen briefly appears waves a greeting before disappearing back into the furnace rooms. I climb stairs whose rails have been given over to vines draped in flowers. At the top of the stairs is the studio where I spend my days working, with windows opened to views over red clay rooftops and the sounds of the workers singing, off key but in belle Italiano.
Mosaics are hard work and my project is progressing slowly. We’re working with smalti, thick, irregular pieces of glass measuring about 1/2 inch by 1 inch in size – tiny. Antonella teaches while Mirta, and often Arlene, interpret. We learn to break the smalti the traditional way, with hammer and hardy. The hammer is curved with double heads and chiseled ends. The hardy is a metal wedge mounted to a large squared log about 3 ft high. For every one I brake correctly, I shatter many more. Even more discouraging I frequently have to remove tiles that do meet with Antonella’s approval. But slowly my master piece is taking shape; but there are long days and late nights ahead if I am to complete it on time.
A short time into the class I learned that Orsoni, the only remaining glass foundry on the main island of Venice, is famous for their gold and silver tiles. My fellow classmates, who were in the know, had come prepared with designs for pieces utilizing as much of these precious tiles as possible; my design, which as you know was hastily sketched minutes before class began, did not. Someone suggested I add a boarder using the beautiful tiles. When I asked Antonella if I could incorporate them into my design, “ma certo!” but of course, was her response. They are so accommodating. I made the adjustment to Venice at My Window.
Day 8 May 23
On the third day I finally got the chance to explore the Venice beyond my limited daily routine, as the class took a field trip to Piazza San Marco. It was a totally different Venice; it was the Venice of tourists. In route we cruised down the Grand Cannel, under the Rialto Bridge and past the Guggenheim. The mosaics in the Basilica were amazing. We had an art historian with us whose knowledge and expertise greatly enriched the experience.
Later some of us decided to take the vaporetto, or water bus, over to the Island of Murano. The vaporetto was jammed with visitors and a handful of locals. In route we stopped at a small walled island where a lone elderly woman prepared to depart the water bus. It was Isola di San Michele, a cemetery island. We decided to jump off and explore the quite, un-crowed islet.
It was a rare glimpse of Venice seldom seen by the hurried daily visitors. We wondered through the magnificent, fifteenth century, Renaissance church, San Michele in Isola, dedicated to Saint Michaels. The island was criss-crossed with serene paths lined with, elaborately carved and movingly simple, head stones. Some of the markers were decorated with golden mosaics, likely created in the Orsoni foundry. We came upon a beautiful mausoleum, the doors were slightly ajar and the roof a pile of rubble on the floor below. Sunlight streamed in and fell upon a statue of such anguish that I could feel its grief. A lovely mosaic of Christ adorning the wall above offered comfort over the scene.
We continued onto Murano where we wondered about marveling at all manner of beautiful glass objects. Then we followed ringing bells that lead us to the Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato etian. From the outside the Byzantine church looked deceptively plain.
But while the facade was stark and unassuming, inside the mosaics, although smaller in scale, rivaled those of St Marks. Before long locals began to file in and take their seats for mass, I sat for just a moment absorbing the scene then respectfully exited before the serve began. Our day’s excursion had taken us along most of the Grand Cannel, circumventing the island via the Grande Canal was a great way to see the City of Canals.
Day 10 May 25
My time in Venice has been wonderfully exhausting, the mosaic workshop a challenge, the characters fascinating. But now my feet are sore and swollen. It has gotten so bad I stopped into una farmagia, a pharmacy, to seek help. They were very helpful and genuinely concerned when they saw my swollen feet. Even though their English was limited and my Italian even more so, the problem was obvious and they soon presented me with a treatment; a new pair of “special shoes” and by special I mean ugly. But my feet are much better.
Its’ finished, my mosaic masterpiece, and with about an hour to spare before the official graduation.
Everybody acted impressed with my finished project but honestly I think they were mostly impressed that I finished; but I am very pleased with the results. After celebrating our accomplishments with biscotti and champagne, my classmates and I dinned together for the last time, alongside a busy canal, with water spilling over the wall and onto are feet with each passing boat. We toasted our new friendship with a bottle of Amarone and exchanged email addresses. It had been a very good week.
Day 11 May 26
Ciao Belle Venizie,
My time in Venice has been an incredible experience; I have learned a lot and made new friends. It was a bitter sweet time when I walked through the courtyard and closed those beautiful wooden doors behind me. I spent much of my time in Venice cloistered in the Orsoni workshop, but in doing, so for a short time I had the privilege of becoming part of this amazing city’s rhythm, part of its daily life. I found my favorite pasticceria where each day I stopped for spremuta d’arancia, a frothy freshly squeezed orange juice, and an espresso each afternoon. The locals that had passed by me on that first day, as if we existed in different dimensions, nodded a greeting to me as we passed on graduation day.
I had not been sure what to expect from Venice. While planning my trip she had been described as charming, as a grand dame, as the most beautiful city in the world as well as touristy, dirty and smelly, a crumbling relic. I found Venice, at times to be all of the above, but mostly, she is a beautiful city with an unmatched heritage, struggling to share her treasures with a world loving her to death. On the day I arrived Venice took my breath, on the day of my departure, she also had my heart.
Day 12 May 27 Ciao Frenzia
The trip between Venice and Florence is short and inexpensive so I decided not to waste a full day of my pass, opting instead to purchase a point-to-point ticket at the station; which I did the day before my departure. My train to Florence didn’t depart until 12:30, so I had the morning to wander through Venice for a relaxed good-bye
Then I made my way to the station. Even though I arrived at the train station early I still nearly missed my train. As I waited for the train to Firenze to appear on the schedule board, the departure time grew uncomfortably close. Growing more and more concerned I finally found someone to inquiry about the status of my train; it was then, with only minutes till departure, I discover that Frenzia was not listed on the schedule board because the train, my train, terminated in Roma! While my ticket was to Florence, and had Frenzia written on it, I was actually taking the train to Rome, but only as far as Florence. Therefore the electronic board wouldn’t display Florence but Rome; and the train to Roma was already boarding on binari, seven!
To avoid this mistake again I’ll be checking the schedule posters at every station. Schedule posters display the routes and timetables of the trains that arrive and depart. They are usually white for arrivals and yellow for departures and are mounted at floor level, for close examination, and conveniently positioned near the platforms. They list regularly scheduled trains, their times, routes, final destination and intermediate stops. To find out how my train will appear on the schedule board, I’ll simply check to see where it terminates. In theory, that information, including intermediate stops should be displayed on the side of the train car, near the doors. However, my trains have not always been adequately marked, so I ask people around me on the platform about the train’s destination, and now, I’ll be taking a quick look at the schedule posters.
The three hour ride between Venice and Florence was pleasant. In Florence I waited in line for my turn to get a taxi then gave the driver the address of my house exchange, that’s when I discovered that I didn’t have a complete address, all I had was the Street name and the nearest cross street. So I found myself standing alone on a street in the Oltrarno neighborhood, my taxi pulling away. As I looked up and down the street, amazingly I had only a momentary thought of concern, but not panic. Chiara, the woman with whom I had arranged the house exchange, and the daughter of the apartment’s owner, Roberto, had instructed me to “ring Durazzani”. So I walked up and down the two streets with my backpack looking for a door bell marked Duranzzani. After about 30 minutes of doing this, an older gentleman approached me, it was Roberto, and he had spotted me from his window and had come to retrieve me. He escorted me Through the large brown door, up the twisting stairs to the apartment. A bowl of fruit and a bottle of wine sat on the table as a welcome. He gave me a tour of the apartment and generously offered to take me on a driving tour of Florence during my stay. My Florence apt is larger, but not quite as lovely, as either the Paris apartment or my room at Ponte Chiodo, in Venice; Oh I still miss my lovely blue room and canal view. This apartment is located in the gritty, artsy district of Olantro.
After settling in I was off to explore Freniza on foot.
I finally talked to Kate today. She has totally fallen in LOVE with Positano. Pasquale and Roberto’s family have been great to her, especially Alberto. She said she may actually love the beautiful Amalfi town more than Seville. She is supposed to meet me here in Florence tomorrow, we’ll see.
I have experienced so many new things in the past weeks, including internet cafes. I have found a nice one just down the street from my Florence apartment which is where I am posting from right now, so many new experiences for this farm girl. I do not have a plug adapter so I am using one of their desktop computers and it’s rather pricy so my time is short; so with that, ciao for now.
Day 12 May 27
Ciao a tutti da Firenze,
It was sad to depart Venice, but I have been looking forward to exploring Florence, which in huge contrast to sunny Venice, is cold and rainy. This morning I walked over to the Duomo, to the sounds of its bells calling worshipers to mass. The interior was closed to visitors so I walked around the huge structure and came upon the entrance through which they were admitting church goers so I went inside all that was asked of me was to stay for the entire service, to which I readily agreed. I am not Catholic but it was non-the-less amazing to sit there, in that magnificent cathedral, and listen to the sounds of worship; yet another unforgettable experience of this trip.
.Day 13 May 28
Ciao Bella Kate
Kate did leave warm, sunny Positano to join me here and I think the minute the train pulled away from the station she was regretting her decision. She has come down with a nasty sore throat and the cold wet rain just makes her feel worse. She also had a horrible experience on the train ride. With no seats available she had had to sit on the floor; but to make matters even worse a creepy guy bothered her most of the trip. She had eventually able to lose him by working her way to the compartment between cars where she stood, with a crowd of fellow seat-less travelers, all the way to cold and rainy Florence. I insisted she take a cab to the apartment.
Day14 May 29
Un nuovo giorno
I had hoped things would be brighter this morning; they’re not. It’s even colder and rainier today than yesterday, but Kate is determined to make the best of her first time in Florence, so we headed off to see the duomo. It was pouring down the rain so we stopped and bought umbrellas. Even under the umbrellas our shoes were quickly soaked and our jeans heavy from being wet to the knees. The wind was blowing hard so we had to be careful not to turn away from the wind to prevent the umbrellas from turning inside out but despite our best efforts it wasn’t long before a gust turned Kate’s inside out and we tossed our flimsy street umbrellas and just shouldered into the wind and rain. As we walked across the Ponte Veccio, it actually flurried.
Woefully underdressed we headed for one of the many Florentine cashmere shops and walked out considerable more comfortable in our pashmina and our cashmere scarf’s. Next we stop – a salon. With all the humidly I have endured during this trip, I finally had enough of my wild frizzy hair. Down a side street we found a tiny boutique salon. Inside a young man, looking exactly like I would have imagined a young Italian hairdresser to look, struggled to understand my request. I left hoping that when I returned in a few days he would have a European flat iron waiting for.
After a short walk we reached the Duomo, it’s white and pink facade filling the piazza, the golden dome protruding up from behind. The impressive sight picked up our spirits. We decided to climb to the top of the bell tower rather than the Dome so we could view the dome. There was no line; our luck was turning. We climbed the many, many, many steps that twirled their way to the top, and stepped out at the top to the most amazing view over the red roofs of Florence on to the surrounding hills, wild clouds swirled above them; and an in your face view of the dome of the Duomo.
We lingered for as long as we could stand the cold then started back down. That’s when our luck flipped on us once again when Kate slipped on the wet steep steps of the tower. She was behind me and as she began her fall, all she could imagine was sliding into me, knocking me down and me tumbling all the way to the bottom; so she made a heroic effort to stop herself short of my legs; which she did. I could hear the commotion behind me and I turned to see hers stretched out on her back, spread over several steps, one leg twisted under her. She was lucky not to have really been hurt, but she didn’t come out unscathed; her elbow was bruised and bleeding. We headed back to the apt to lick our wounds and attempt to get the blood out of her sweatshirt, the only warm garment in her possession.
On the way home I took Kate by a gelato shop where a cute young man had served me earlier. I wanted to pick up some cheese, wine, prosciutto and hopefully Kate’s spirits. While gelato boy was very charming and made every effort to engage Kate, she was not in the mood, but she did agree we would return for dinner the next night.
Day 15 May 30
After a day of museums, the Galleriea Dell’Academia with Michelangelo’s master piece, David, the incredible Renaissance collection of the Uffizi and picking up my new flat iron, we finished the day with dinner at Gustapaino; Kate still not in the mood. We departed a disappointed gelato boy, but with the gift of a beautiful bottle of their personal vino roso in hand. Tomorrow I’m taking Kate back to sunny Positano.
Day 16 May 31
We left the Florence apt by taxi to the train station, because Kate was still feeling a little under the weather, which was still cold and rainy, and her elbow, badly bruised from her tumble was still aching. The highlight of Florence for Kate was the David at the Galleriea Dell’Academia and the cute gelato boy at the corner restaurant. However her views of the beautiful Renaissance town had been exclusively seen through a cold drizzle. The only silver lining in the cold Florence rain clouds came from the beautiful Florentine cashmere scarfs snuggled around our necks.
The train left for Napoli, via Roma around 10 am. It was a very pleasant ride through the Tuscan countryside, with picturesque hill towns dotting the horizon.
When my ticket was checked, in route, by the train porter I was informed that I was required to have had my Rail pass stamped in Paris before I boarded the first train of the trip, which of course I hadn’t. But he was very nice about it and suggested I plead ignorance when I returned to Florence and see if they would stamp it with the date I needed, which was now going on two weeks ago. Kate was in a different car as I had a reserved first class seat through my railpass. Thankfully this time she didn’t have any creepy guys staring at her; but she did meet a nice Canadian boy (oh to be young and beautiful). After Rome the train was more empty and we sat together. The closer we got to the coast, the more the weather, along with Kate’s mood improved.
From Naples we took a subway style train to Sorrento, then a bus on to Positano. When Kate talked me into going with her back to Positano for a few days, I wondered if my memory of the iconic town, which I had visited several years earlier, had embellished its beauty and grandeur- it had not. We hired a taxi up to Alberto’s house in Montepertuso where Alberto was waiting for us when we drove up, having already been informed of our arrival in Positano. His home is lovely, perched on the very edge of the mountain with forever views up and down the Amalfi coast. He then drove us to Le Ghiande our B&B.
Day 17 June 1
We loved Le Ghiande (www.leghiande.com)! It’s located a short way up the mountain from Montepertuso, toward Nocelle, just past the Montepertuso church and piazza. It was 152 twisting steps through terraced olive trees, grape arbors, and gardens, to the entrance gate. Views everywhere, Salvatore, the young owner has been working for the past year to create his vision of a beautiful retreat in the mountains, and his vision is truly inspired.
For a couple of days Kate and I wondered through the narrow bougainvillea shaded alleys of Positano and Montepertuso, Kate pausing to say ciao to new friends. We spent a day at the beach, dinned in lovely restaurants where we were always offered drinks and meals on the house.
Our favorite was Salvatore and Paolo’s Il Ritrovo, www.drpositano.com, in Montepertuso and Le Tre Sorrella, www.ristoranteletresorelle.it, on the beach and the hidden pizzeria, Guarracino, http://www.loguarracino.net/#_=, perched along the path to the hidden beach. All over the city we are treated more like familia than guests.., in Montepertuso, where we visited with Pasquale who was visiting his family in town; but we also loved Donna Rosa,
I took some time on my own to explore Positano while Kate visited with Roberto, before joining them at the beach.
Just past the north side of the dock there is a path that, if you are not aware of, you would not know existed. The path leads along the cliff and down the steps of America to a hidden gem of a beach. Filled mostly with locals and tucked into a scenic cove it was a delightful find.
Our last night in Positano, we went to Music on the Rocks, a disco where Alberto tends bar.
Day 19 June 2
Ciao Belle Positano
This morning Alberto and Kate drove me to the train station in Sorrento, waiting with me like nervous parents, to wave from the binario (platform) as the train pulled away. In Rome I transfered to the train to Florence. But when it came time to board I found my way blocked by a group of older tourist who were woefully ignorant of train travel etiquette. With the entrance steps choked with their luggage, they wasted precious boarding time bantering about where to store their stuff. Then last call to board was announced. Now, I have learned two important things to remember when traveling by Euro train; one – skip the dining car and pack a picnic – some bread, cheese, olives or anti pasta and a bottle of vino; and two – trains wait for no one. So standing on the platform, my way blocked by unattended luggage, doors preparing to close I took action; grabbing my backpack I tossed it in on top of the pile and quit literally dove in as the doors closed behind me. The group of tourist watched with dropped mouths, as I climbed up and over their things then calming walked past them to my seat. A few hours later I was back in Florence. Before leaving the station, I politely pleaded ignorance to the ticket agent about my unstamped Railpass. The agent pulled a changeable date stamp from a drawer, rolled back time and stamped my pass with the appropriate date.
I left the train station in a drizzling rain. I was cold once again; and I was tired of being cold. Then I passed a leather shop, one of the many that line the streets of Florence, but this on had a beautiful green jacket calling to me from the window. I opened the door, walked in and a few minutes later I walked back out again, wearing that beautiful jacket and my cashmere scarf – I would be cold no more.
I walked passed the restaurant Gustapaino, on the way to my apartment and gelato boy hurried out, calling after me; he invited me to join him in a drink. Over a nice bottle of wine he asked me to dinner; I declined with a lie that I was meeting Roberto, the elderly apartment owner. With exaggerated disappointment, Gelato boy grabbed his chest exclaiming, “Roberto, you break my heart!”- I love Italy.
Day 20 June 3
I woke to sunny skies on my last day in Florence, but no time to linger for tonight I will sleep in an ancient stone house, in an idyllic hamlet in the heart of Chianti; that is, of course, I’m actually on the right bus. Once again my ticket is marked – to Greve in Chianti, my destination – and the ticket guy in the Florence station pointed me to this bus, but all other indicators are marked – to Pranzano. I have learned that the final destination on a route is how transportation is marked, but this time there is no schedule map for me to check and it makes me nervous. But the guy at the station sent me to bus number two, so I guess I’m going where ever bus number two takes me. I had been instructed my Chianti host, to request that the bus driver drop me off at Piazza Trento in Greve in Chianti. As it turns out the drive spoke no English, yet believe or not (I almost don’t), I was able to ask if I were indeed on the bus to Greve in Chianti, and I was indeed. Then I asked to be dropped off at the Trento Piazza and would he please tell me when we had reached the stop. It was an amazing when he actually understood my requests.
The bus was so full that for the first time I decided to place my backpack into the storage space provided under the bus; but I kept my computer in my purse and with me. I was lucky and got a window seat but the bus was soon filled to standing room only. We drove through the streets of Florence stopping occasionally to pick up even more passengers. However, once we left town and rolled into the countryside people began to excite at each stop.
At one particular stop a tour group exited, leaving the bus almost empty. I watched through the window as they chaotically scrambled about the bus’s storage compartment for their luggage. Feeling a little uneasy about my backpack I watched to see if it was removed from the storage compartment, but it was fine. Finally about an hour outside of Florence, with the bus now all but empty, the driver indicated to me that it was my stop. But when I went to retrieve my backpack, to my dismay, it was gone! The driver stared into the empty compartment while I cried “niente niente!” nothing.
My taxi, Michele, arrived but he also spoke no English. For the first time I really needed my limited Italian not to fail me now. In time the three of us managed to guess what had probably happened. Not knowing that the luggage compartment opened from both sides of the bus, my backpack was likely mistakenly taken from the side I had not monitored as the large group collected their luggage. We were attempting to communicate a plan of action when a car pulled up and out jumped Francesco, the leader of the suspected tour group. He had discovered that an extra backpack had mistakenly been taken, so he had hopped into his car and chased down the bus.
With my backpack in hand, Michele and I drove for nearly an hour, passing through the quintessential hill towns of Pranzano, Lucarele, Radda, and Gaiole to Poggio. Poggio is an idyllic hamlet where I would be instructed by my hosts Paula and Simonete in the art of “Rustica cucina Italiana”, rustic Italian cooking. They are sisters and together they give cooking and language lessons as well as tours of the region.
Paula’s husband speaks no English and looks like he could reside back on the ridge in KY. He and Paula have two little girls that make me think of own daughters when they were still my little girls. Paula and Simonete’s Father also lives with them and he too speaks no English. The hamlet consists of three very old stone structures with huge ancient beams, all in very good condition and surrounding a small piazza. Paula and Simonete’s home was once a watch tower raising several stories high, but the upper stories had been ordered removed when the region came under control of Florence, nearly 500 years ago. Only the two stories that the family now occupy remain. There are flowers and trees and vines adoring the houses and nearby grounds – and beyond, rows and rows of vines rising and falling in concert with the land.
We dined at a long communal table in the family kitchen, under ancient beams. We feasted on delicious pasta and white bean soup, a large assortment of unbelievable cheeses, fresh picked tomatoes, a ricotta cake, and of course a great Chianti Classico. During dinner the family received word that they had won the town raffle and they were to receive a new car. The conversation flipped back and forth between Italian and English, with everyone excited and talking at once, the youngest girl couldn’t eat because she was busy drawing pictures of the car, which in her vision would surely be yellow. I think all 1050 residents of Radda called to talk about the news, it was too much fun.
Day 21 June 4
Today I learned to cook gnocchi in a tomato and cream sauce, green beans in lemon and wine, bruscetta with cheese spread and a rice and almond cake. The family shared my dishes for lunch and all seemed to enjoy my efforts, I know I did. I had so much fun, rolling out the gnocchi with the wooden paddle; Simonete has promised to take me into Radda later so I can purchase a gnocchi paddle for myself. While I waited for Simonete, I decided to take a stroll along the winding back roads. The day was sunny, wild flowers blooming along the roadside scented the air, the rows of vines undulated up and over with the gentle roll of the hills, hop-skipping tiny hamlets and rustic villas; it was a peaceful and intimate view of this enchanting region.
Later Simonete took me to the delightful walled towns of Vertina and Radda, stopping to take pictures of the vineyards and many small hamlets of the area, and as promised, to purchase the gnocchi paddle and a mezzaluna – a half moon shaped blade used for chopping, it has two handles which is rocked back and forth to chop and dice. Everywhere we went Simonete was greeted with congratulations and questions about the car. I watched and listened as she told and retold the story, as much with her hands as her words.
In the evening before dinner I walked again, this time down a grassy road not much more that a path, even so, a car did go bouncing by. The path led me through the grape fields and on to another little hamlet in the valley, about the same size of Poggio.
By dinner three more guests had arrived; a mother, daughter and aunt from Canada, and they were a very lively group. Dinner was again set on the long kitchen table, covered in colorful tablecloth, I thought of my mom and how she would love this rural setting. We had a mix of local specialties, prosciutto and melon, wild boar sausage, fennel salad, olives, bruschetta and zucchini.
Day 22 June 5
Vado a Bellagio
Today I left the lovely region of Chianti, making my way to Bellagio on spectacular Lake Como. Michelle picked me up at Possa Rosa di Poggio at 8:30 and I was on the bus to Florence by 9:15 then on the train to Milano at 11:15. All went well until I arrived fifteen minutes late in Milan, the only close connection I have had and the only time I’ve had a train not arrive on schedule. I had two hours in Milano Central before the 16:15 train to Varenna. I took the time as an opportunity to wander around the station, filled beautiful mosaic murals and floors. Once I make it to Varenna, I have a short ferry ride across the lake to Bellagio, if all goes well I will be relaxing on my balcony by 7:00 PM.
I made it! I am sitting on a lovely balcony overlooking Lake Como, or rather a huge terrace directly on Lake Como. After disembarking from the train from Milano, I made my way down the tiny streets of Verrana toward the water and the last leg of my journey to Bellagio. The ferry was comfortably utilitarian but the lake it navigates, the idyllic villages perched on its banks and the dramatic mountains rising up from its shores are stunning. On our approach in to Bellagio a beautiful building directly on the lake with bright red geraniums cascading from its windows, caught my attention. I hoped to myself that it would be where I was staying. As the ferry drew near the large vertical sign announced it to be Metropole Bellagio, my hotel!
The Metropole grandly flanks one end of the villages’ main promenade running along the lake shore. My corner room, #112, has a set of double French doors that open onto a large flowered terrace and spectacular lake views. From a second set of French doors on another wall, my view is over the promenade. When I arrived they were filming a beer commercial along the promenade and I had front row seats to watch the action.
Day 23 June 6
It has more or less rained since I arrived in Bellagio (Europe for that matter). Last night there was a lightning storm over the lake, It was beautiful to watch as I dined at my lakeside table, but I must say, am starting to grow weary of cold rainy days, even wrapped snuggly in my lovely green jacket. Unlike the Florence rain, so far it hasn’t been a driving rain, but light showers scattered throughout the day so I have been able to wonder about the quaint town and it is simply magical.
Bellagio sits on the shore of Lake Como and rises up toward the mountains. The few drive-able roads are very narrow and very restricted. They run parallel with the lake, while veins of steep cobblestone steps climb up through town. Of course they are lined with little shops offering the finest Como silk, Italian jewelry and ceramics; most boasting that George Clooney had shopped there. Near the top of the village sits a wonderful old church, circa 1050 I believe, Romanesque, different from all the others I have seen so far, very interesting. Ferry boats of different styles, passenger, car, hydrofoil and taxi, ply the waters all day, yet the lake is always amazingly quiet, but that might have something to do with the weather, but I fear I may not get the chance to compare a sunny day’s traffic.
Day 24 June 7
I woke this morning to a dramatic battle between sun and cloud. As I set off across the lake to tour one of the beautiful villas along its shore, heavy clouds draped the surrounding mountains and for most of the morning it was unclear which would prevail, until finely the sky released its heavy burden in a relentless downpour. Fortunately I had completed my tour of the lake and the magnificent Villa del Balbianello – the location where James Bond recovered from his rather delicate injuries on one of the lovely terraces; and a Star War’s wedding of galactic proportions in the Attack of the Clones took place. Unfortunately, the rain fell without mercy as we motored back across the lake in our lovely vintage teak, open, boat.
During one of my soggy strolls through Bellagio, the rain began in earnest so I ducked into a little wine shop. Inside there was only a couple from Germany and the young woman that was working the store. There were wine bottles attached to dispensers lining the walls. The Germany couple had wine glasses and they were tasting wine, but how? I was trying to figure out the process when the couple offered me some instruction. I purchased a card which got me a glass. I could put any amount of money on the card that I then used at the dispensing machines. I could taste any of the wine, in amounts as little as one oz up to a full glass, and the cost would be deducted from my prepaid card – what fun!
While it poured rain outside, the three of us tasted wines from every region of Italy. But my favorite wine was poured by the elderly gentleman who eventually joined our tiny group, as it turns out he was the winemaker and the owner of the wine shop. We eventually moved on to lemoncello and finally grappa. I understood only a little of what he said but his passion for wine was obvious. Before I left he gave me a bottle of his personal wine which I drank on my patio overlooking the lake, with some cheese, olives and bread; travel gets no better than this.
Late this afternoon the hotel asked if I would be willing to relocate to another room. Since I was a little concerned about my next day connection being too tight I offered to give up my room if they would book me a room in Lugano, the first leg of my next day’s journey; which they did. So I packed up and headed to the ferry. The challenging connection to Lugano was complicated even further by the heavy rain. But a soggy ferry ride, 15 minute hike through flooded streets (thank goodness for the backpack option on my luggage), and an hour long bus ride later, I was checking into the Hotel Lugano Dante, http://www.hotel-luganodante.com/en/hotel, in lovely Lugano Switzerland. The Italy segment of my trip was now behind me. It was bittersweet to have finally realized my long held dream of traveling around Italy on my own terms, that dream now replaced by the memories of this amazing journey and a new dream to some day return.
Day 25 June 8
At 7:00 AM the sun was finally shinning, but I had not yet escaped the soggy conditions that plagued my travels. During the night there was a water pipe leak in the ceiling of my room, my suitcase and most of my clothes were soaked by morning, can you believe it! I ran to the front desk and explained the situation – most of my clothes were wet and my train left at 10:55. They promised to have my things washed and dried by 10:00, until then I had to wear the only dry things I had left, the sweat pants and tee I had slept in.
First, I enjoyed the best restaurant breakfast of this trip, it was beautiful, it was delicious and it was included. After breakfast I headed out to explore Lugano, and what an unexpected delight. An old church sat just above the hotel, the interior was dark with faded fresco but the space was serene and spiritual. There were colorful indoor/outdoor markets and shops set up everywhere; beautiful displays of flower, meat, cheese, chocolate, bread and vegetables. Lugano sits on Largo di Lugano, in the region of Switzerland that is more Italian than Swiss, they even speak Italian. Eventually I purchased some rustic bread, beautiful cheese and fresh tomatoes then made my way back to the Dante. True to their word, my clothes were folded neatly on my bed. I quickly packed and checked out; they discounted my room.
Right outside the lobby a cable car runs every 5 minutes up the steep hill to the train station, for two Euros I stepped on board and a few minutes later I was entering the station.
At 10:45, standing on platform 2 waiting for the10:55 train to Luzern; I suddenly realize my beautiful green, leather jacket from Florence is missing! I had to make an instant decision, jacket or train. It was then I realized something else was missing, panic. In fact I even felt a hint of adventure springing out from my self confidence. A confidence had been steadily growing throughout my journey. In that spirit I took off in a sprint, retracing my steps. Amazingly I found my jacket, folded neatly over a handrail near the station entrance, hallelujah!
Moments later the scenic train departed for Luzern. As it snaked its way through spectacular alpine scenery rising and falling in jagged thrust, I safely stored my green jacket and settled into my seat, feeling invigorated both from making the train with jacket in hand and from my new found, or perhaps simply uncovered, courage.
The trip from Lugano to Lurzern was filled with spectacular scenery, alpine lakes of such color they looked like enhanced photos, Swiss chalets clustered into villages and pastoral meadows. Lurzern is friendly, manageable in size, lovely and quaint but bustling. I only had a few hours to explore so I stored my backpack in a train station locker and set out to explore. I walked around the old town, crossing the famous wood covered bridge that spans the river. I toured the Sammlung Rosengart Luzern museum to view Picasso and Klee, Monet, Renoir and Seurat, just to name a few. After just a little taste of beautiful Luzern, at 5:30 I was on aboard the scenic train heading toward Interlaken via the Burnina pass. By the time I had checked into my room at the Goldley Hotel on the banks of the beautiful Aar river with the majestic Jungfraubahnen rising up behind its glacial gray green waters, I was exhausted; and suffering from visual over stimulation.
Day 26 June 9
Guten Morgen from Switzerland,
The second to last day of my trip I woke from a restful sleep at the Goldey Hotel in Interlaken Switzerland to, surprise-surprise, cloudy skies. The clouds obstructed the view of the Jungfraujoch, which was my destination for the day. The hotel had a live feed from the peak so guest could view the conditions when trying to decide whether or not to make the 2 hour journey. It was cloudy there as well, but I had already decided rain or shine, I was going to the top. So I bought my ticket and boarded the first of three trains for the journey to the top via the small village of Grindelwald. The trains were very scenic and timed so I would exit one and almost immediately board the next. The last two were on a cog system to traverse the steepest terrain. As the train clicked higher and higher, so did the clouds, allowing for wonderful views of the valleys below but limited views of the peaks above. By the time we boarded our final train the clouds were only surrounding the very top of the mountain, of course that was our destination.
The last 20 or 30 minutes of the trip the train traveled inside the mountain through a tunnel carved out by locals, over a hundred years ago, before depositing it’s passengers into a warren of a complex at the top. Navigating the tunnels was a challenge but I managed to see all there was to see, the ice palace with its ice sculptures, the multiple viewing platforms including the sphinx (a tower on the peak with yet another platform atop it), the glacier and, when the clouds would part, the very top of the Jungfraujoch itself, wonderful.
After an hour or so I began to feel the effects of the altitude. I knew I needed to descend quickly so I jumped onto the first train car heading down. It turned out to be a private car, reserved for a special group of travelers and I was not one of them. But I feeling worse by the minute and i needed to descend; besides all they could do was kick me off at the first stop, which is where I planned to exit., but they welcomed me into their fold and assured me they would not out me.
Within a short time I felt much better and decided to take a different route down the mountain, so I could see the villages of Wengen and Lauterbrunen. My plan was to hike between two minor villages, Wengen and Wengwald, but somehow I missed the village of Wengwald all together and found myself on a marathon hike straight down the mountain to Lauterbrunen in the valley. I descended, in a little over an hour from 1300 ft to 750 ft. I knew my knees would remind me of every step the next day but even so the hike was great. Starting off in the lovely little village of Wengen, I descended by way of a series of long moderately slopping switchbacks through farms with grazing sheep and mountain chalets right out of “Hidi”. Then the path narrowed and steepened, the switchbacks shorten as I entered a forest of conifers, passing several minor waterfalls. Then the mountain got serious, the switch backs were constant and steep, steep, steep. My knees were protesting so I found a walking stick to help. As I neared the end of the trail, it began to rain. I boarded the train back to Interlaken, soggy and worn but invigorated by the adventure.
If you are reading this email it probably means you are a close friend or relative, so what I am about to tell you next will be hard for you to believe, but I have pictures as proof. I must have still been on the high form the success of my hike earlier, or still suffering the effects of the thin air of the Jungfrau, because what I did next you will have a hard time believing .I flew way out of my comfort zone, literally, I went paragliding, from a mountaintop, in the Alps in Switzerland! If I didn’t have the pictures I might not even believe it myself; my chest tightens just typing these words. Let me tell you, it was the scariest thing I have ever done. I was scared out of my mind the entire flight. Rubin, my pilot, bless his heart, was a great pilot but an even greater liar. “No you won’t have to jump off a mountain” he promised, “we will just run down a gentle slope and the wind will pick us up”. What a big fat liar! I am not saying I am sorry I did it, but I will never do it again!
Day 27 June 10
My last travel day in Europe I left Interlaken on the famous Golden Panoramic express toward Mountraux, in a club car with swivel chairs and special dome windows for expansive view. Yet another wonderful train ride through amazingly beautiful scenery, especially on the descent into Montreux on Lake Geneva. I had a mere four minutes to catch my train to Lussanne, which being the seasoned travel I have become, I did. The 20 min ride took me along the lake with vineyards and majestic chateaus and castles rising up from its shores, a place worth a return visit. From Lussanne I took a high speed train, crazy fast, to Paris. All went wonderfully, and then.
In Paris I had to try to get from the Gare Lyon train station to the Gare du Nord station via the very, very seedy subway, which I finally did with great difficulty it was the only time I felt threatened during my entire trip. From Gare du Nord I took a low quality train into the country to the small village of Ermenonville. The Chateau d’ Ermenonvill was supposed to provide a peaceful relaxing last night of my adventure. Well the experience was anything but peaceful or relaxing, it took hours and as night fell, I found myself in a vacant parking lot of a closed train stop in the middle of nowhere. Twenty minutes later a car from the Chateau finally pulled up but it was not for me, it was picking up the only other person waiting from my train, a man. The car had only one passenger seat, which the man kindly offered to me but the driver refused to accommodate and they left me there, all alone, at dusk, sitting on the curb, while he made the 40 min round trip drive. Finally I did arrive, safely, at the Chateau d’ Ermenonville; they upgraded my room for the inconvenience. I arranged a pick up for the next day, skipped dinner and went to my room.
Day 28 June 11
I had a few hours the next morning so I wandered around the little village, it was quaint, but my heart just wasn’t in it, perhaps because of yesterdays experience or perhaps because it was my last day, I’m not sure. Then after a pleasant ride back to Paris, I spent my last few hours in Europe in the admiral’s lounge at the Orley airport. After a pleasant flight from to Miami, where I flew to Orlando then back to Miami, thanks to a storm over Orlando and low fuel, we flew back once again to Orlando and I arrived safely home late last night.
Although my trip has come to an end, the journey it inspired has only just begun.