Europe – 2012

Europe Report #1 – Departure Day
September 28, 2012

Well, here we go again … today we head back to Europe for  a three-week drive through France, Switzerland, Italy and a few days in Malta, followed by a Transatlantic cruise back to North America with stops in Spain and Portugal.  On this journey I’m travelling with my parents, Joan and Rick, and my sister — usually referred to as The Kid or The Other One.  Mom and Dad have just celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary; this trip was originally planned as a celebration of their 60th anniversary, but last year just wasn’t a good year for us to travel.
As with past holidays, I’ve planned our trip from start to finish.  We’ll be staying in rental apartments and cottages for the most part.  We’ve reserved a mini-van through Renault’s buy-back plan.  Our first challenge will be to pick up the van at the airport in Paris (CDG) and drive to our accommodation — a small apartment only two blocks from the Eiffel Tower.  This will require driving through the infamous traffic circle at the Arc de Triomphe.  I know, I know — driving in Paris is never recommended in the guide books.  I was looking forward to this experience with some trepidation, until I remembered how well we drove in Jerusalem!  Paris should be a piece of cake — as in “let them eat.”

We’ve been packing for weeks — it’s quite a challenge to pack for three weeks of casual clothing on the road and for two weeks of cruise wear on the ship. I’m so embarrassed. Don’t tell Rick Steves, but we’re all taking 28-inch suitcases. Arghhhhh…

We so appreciate the many expressions of bon voyage our friends and family have given us.  We are especially blessed by the many promises of prayer support during our travels.  Amen!

We hope to begin reporting on our adventures within a day or two of our arrival.  Until then … God bless you all!

Europe Report #2 – To the Top of Paris
October 3, 2010

What is it that makes Europe so fascinating to North Americans?
Is it the personal history many of us recognize?  Those of us who are descendants of Europeans often feel a hunger for the European roots we lost when our ancestors crossed the Atlantic to settle in North America, whether that was 20 years ago or 200 years ago.

Perhaps it is the deeper European history that isn’t so noticeable in places like Toronto.  Yes, we may know about Muddy York and even about Carrying Place, but there are no cathedrals there that pre-date John Cabot or Samuel Champlain.
Or, maybe it’s that famous je ne sais quoi that Europe has.  Fashion.  Culture.  Architecture.  Cool cars.  Elegant restaurants on every curb.
No, I think I’ve figured it out.  It’s the bakeries!  There’s nothing that says Europe to me more than walking into a local bakery and asking for a warm, crusty loaf of bread for my next meal!  And the cheese!  Don’t get me started…
Our apartment was just a couple blocks
from the Eiffel Tower.

Arriving in Paris and Driving into Town

We reached Paris safely on Saturday at about noon.  It took quite a while to make our way through the police check/customs and then longer to wait for our suitcases to finally arrive.  In the meantime, the fact that the Kid had left her Obus Form on the plane caused us a bit of panic.  The very kind baggage service people in the terminal did a wonderful job cajoling the staff in or near the plane to look for it and they returned it to the Kid much sooner than I’d hoped.

We were soon picked up by the Renault people and driven to our car.  It took about five minutes for us to sign for the new van we had reserved through their buy-back program.  We had a quick lesson on the intricacies of our vehicle, we loaded her up and off we went to our apartment in downtown Paris.
Our on-board GPS unit took us there flawlessly.  A very cultured English voice told us when and where to turn, leading us along the highways from the airport to the city, then through the manic Place d’Etoile (the unbelievable traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe) and down leafy residential streets, across the Seine River just beside the Victory Flame that has become a de facto memorial to Princess Diana, then three blocks south and — voila! — there we are.

Getting Settled

We knew there would be no parking spaces, so Dad pulled up in a pedestrian crossing at the end of the street while I went inside and figured out how to access the apartment.  A few moments later I appeared, triumphantly holding the apartment key, and we began to off load our luggage.  Dad unloaded the car, Mom held the building door, I maneuvered the luggage into the tiny elevator (only big enough to hold two very friendly people) and sent them up to the Kid who took them out of the elevator before sending it down to me for another load, and dragged them into the small, fourth floor apartment.

Once everything had been sent upstairs (including Mom), Dad and I drove the car to the nearby underground garage.  It cost us about 90 Euros to park for five days — pricey, but we won’t have to think about driving through crazy Paris traffic or looking in vain for parking spots.  We don’t plan to use the car again until Wednesday morning when we head out of the city.
Dad and I also collected a few groceries from the stores in a nearby shopping street — cereal, cream, cheese, milk, yoghurt, butter, some fresh veggies, cooked chicken and, believe it or not, a box of matzah (Dad’s choice).  We also picked up bread (yeah!) and fruit tarts at a wonderful bakery.  This food will see us through several meals over the next few days.  But for our first meal in Paris, Dad and I ordered crêpes from the crêperie next to our building door.  The charming owner cooked our crêpes to order and we had a fine feast.

Gospel Dream Concert

Then Mom and the Kid rested, but Dad and I headed back across the Seine and up avenue Georges V to the American Cathedral in Paris for a concert. An ensemble called Gospel Dream sang spirituals and black Gospel music (from Africa and North America).  It was wonderful!  The cathedral was surprisingly full — I heard more French speakers than English.  There were Swedish-speakers standing in line behind us.  The music was amazing!  There was no sound system and the only instrumental accompaniment was a little sax and a little keyboard.  About 12 vocalists and the leader (who also sang) performed with energy and spirit.  Wow, what an evening.  Our sense was that most, if not all, of the performers were believers and sang with conviction.  One of the songs we enjoyed went, “I’m heading for heaven and I’m walking on the King’s highway”  They ended with, “Oh happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away.”  Even though Dad and I were struggling to overcome our jet lag when we reached the church, we left entirely energized and hummed all the way home.

The Eiffel Tower

The next morning we all slept in, had a lazy breakfast and then headed out to the Eiffel Tower which is only a couple of blocks away.  The breeze off the river was cool enough that we wore our jackets, but the sky was a perfect blue dome.  The Eiffel Tower was truly amazing, even for my second time.  After standing in line nearly an hour, we purchased our tickets and headed for the elevator up to the first view level.  How breathtaking it is to see the city spread out before you.  After admiring the view, we headed up the central elevator to the very top.  Wow!  It’s almost too much to take in.  I knew what I was looking at because of my visit here with Megan almost ten years ago, but it was harder for the others.  I was able to point out different buildings and monuments to them, but I know they didn’t have the same understanding of what they were viewing.

We had hoped to go to the Louvre after the Eiffel Tower, but we were just too worn out.  We toddled back to our apartment, had a nice chicken supper after a challenging few moments figuring out how to use the combo oven/grill/microwave.  After dinner, Dad and I headed out to another concert at another nearby church, the American Church in Paris.  (The American Cathedral is part of the Anglican tradition; the American Church appears to be Presbyterian.  During much of the year, the ACP provides free Sunday evening concerts.  Contact them to get on their email list.)  This concert was very enjoyable — an organ recital — but we both struggled to say awake.  There was no toe tapping here.  No shouting of “Hallelujah!” or “Amen!”

L’Orangerie, the Tuilleries and the Louvre

Monday morning we energetically headed out to try the Paris Metro.  Mom and the Kid thought they could manage a few stairs here and there, so we bought our carnet (about 10 tickets) and passed through the turnstiles.  Our first stop was the Place de la Concorde, a huge square full of speeding cars, statues, ornate lamp stands, fountains and an Egyptian obelisk — all surrounded by classical buildings.  It was in this square that so many people, including Louis and Marie-Antoinette (the king and queen of France), lost their heads in the guillotine.

Just off this square is a museum I had really wanted to visit – L’Orangerie.  When I was here with Megan some years ago it was closed for renovations.  Today it was open!  Claude Monet’s famous water lily paintings hang here in two rooms designed to show off these gigantic canvases.  Dad and I pushed Mom and the Kid in museum wheelchairs into these rooms and we just drank in the extravagant size and colour of these works.  Wonderful!  Downstairs we saw many other works by Renoir, Picasso, Sisley and others.  It’s a small museum, but was a wonderful start to the day.
A very bright and beautiful day.
Afterward, we walked slowly through the Tuileries Gardens that separate L’Orangerie from the Musee du Louvre.  The closer we came to the Louvre, the more crowded it was.  Because we had purchased museum passes in advance, we were able to enter the museum immediately and didn’t have to line up for tickets — a great bonus because half of Paris was here.  We decided to borrow a couple of wheelchairs again and looking for the correct elevators we headed off through clumps of dazed tourists.  The Louvre has been very modernized in the last 20 or 30 years — the glass pyramid entrance over a beautiful marble lobby is very impressive.  However, the elevators still must contend with a series of buildings that were created for foot traffic and are full of marble stairs with a half-flight here and a demi-flight there.  We spent a lot of our time trying figure out how to maneuver in and out of elevators only big enough for one wheelchair at a time and managing to get separated and entirely lost in our search for the Mona Lisa.  But, we did finally make it!
The Kid admires The Wedding at Cana.

The Mona Lisa, a surprising small picture, is behind glass and a wooden railing.  About five feet beyond that is another wooden railing.  All the tourists and their cameras are pressing against that barrier.  However, wheelchair visitors get to wheel slowly between the two railings, so we got an extra close, though brief, glimpse of Lisa.  We took another hour to view a few other paintings (the wedding at Cana and Napoleon crowning Josephine were our favourites) and then started looking for the exit.  That took at least another 45 minutes. Whew!  In the process, Dad foiled a pickpocket.  (We’ve had at least four encounters with pickpockets and scam artists.  We’ve won all our battles!)

After a lunch in one of the museum cafes, we took the Metro home again.  We almost had to carry Mom and the Kid through the last few blocks.  Mom has been counting the stairs she’s gone up and down; I think she came up with 139 steps.  Dad said it was pretty good because, not only could she count them, she could still add each section up!

After supper, Dad and I walked down to the bridge over the Seine at the bottom of our street.  From there we watched the Eiffel Tower’s lights start flashing as they do on the hour. It was beautiful, but I thought it could have a used a little music.

Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle

The well-known front view of Notre Dame.

Tuesday morning, the Kid stayed home to rest while Mom, Dad and I took a cab to Notre Dame.  When I was here with Megan, we climbed the towers (painful – no elevator – think Hunchback of Notre Dame), but did not actually go into the church.  This time, we walked slowly around the interior of the cathedral, admiring the architecture and artwork — such as we could see in the dim light.  It was very crowded with tourists, but they weren’t as manic as the ones at the Louvre.  Mom and Dad enjoyed seeing the stained glass, but I was looking forward to showing them  Sainte-Chapelle a few blocks away.

The two houses of worship have fascinating histories.  Notre Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris) venerates Mary the Mother of Jesus.  It is spectacular in that dark, solemn Gothic way.  It was started in the 12th century and took almost 200 years to build (1163-1345).  During the French Revolution (1790s), it was looted and desecrated by the people of Paris who were revolting against the king, the aristocracy and the church; I believe it was actually used as a granary for a while, before being restored in the following century.
The interior of Sainte Chapelle.

Sainte Chapelle (the Holy Chapel), on the other hand, was built by Louis IX (a devout man who later was canonized) to act as a giant reliquary for the Crown of Thorns.  The purported actual crown of thorns worn by Jesus during His crucifixion and a few other relics were purchased by Louis from Constantinople in 1239 for 135,000 livres.  Louis then spent another 100,000 livres to commission a special silver chest for the relics.  The chapel he built to hold the relics in the silver chest was a bargain at only 40,000 livres!  AND it was built in less than 10 years!

I had been told of Sainte Chapelle but, when I visited it with Megan, I was simply stunned by the glory of the interior.  Although built in the same period as Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle has none of the gloomy Gothic atmosphere.  Instead, the walls are made entirely of stained glass.  Even on a cloudy day, the interior is bright and colourful.  The overall effect is one of joy and delight.

I was looking forward to Mom’s and Dad’s reactions to Sainte Chapelle; I wasn’t disappointed.  They were both overwhelmed by the glory of this small building – even though Mom had to climb up 40 stone steps in a narrow staircase winding around a pillar to get there and then another 40 steps down to leave.

Canauxrama, a Cruise along Canal Saint Martin

We returned to our apartment for lunch and, in the afternoon, Dad, the Kid and I headed out again for a boat cruise on the Canal Saint Martin.  We started in the Port d’Arsenal near the Bastille.  This downtown Paris marina is filled with live-aboard barges — something the Kid and I have been admiring and dreaming about for years.  We had a wonderful half hour drooling over these wonderful, quirky vessels before our cruise began.  The cruise went slowly north (canal speed isn’t more than about 6 km/hr).  We went through about four sets of locks and enjoyed watching the people along the canal who were watching us.  The entire cruise took about 2 1/2 hours and headed in only one direction.

When we disembarked, we were in a new part of town and it took us a while to locate a taxi.  (Taxis in Paris are not easy to flag down.  They have taxi stands scattered about the city and, if you’re in luck, you’ll find a cab there waiting for a customer.  You can telephone for a cab, but they’ll start to charge you from THEIR departure point, not yours.)  After walking a few blocks, we finally found a taxi, but not at a taxi stand.  The woman driver seemed to be just starting her evening shift and was saying goodbye to her young son on the street.  It took us a bit to persuade her to drive us home, but she eventually took pity on us.  She spoke French that was very plain to me and we were able to communicate quite a bit.  But she never stopped!  Our ride home was quite lengthy, but she never ran out of something to say.  She told me about her two marriages, her seven children, her oldest single daughters who work and have money and therefore think they need neither husbands nor children.  She was impressed that we had a car and were planning to drive all the way to Rome.  She asked me who was going to drive the car.

“Mon père,” I said, nodding toward Dad in the front seat.

“Oh, là,” she said, looking him up and down.

When we reached our apartment, she got out of the car and politely shook hands with each of us.  “Bonne chance (Good luck),” she said to the Kid and me.

“Bon courage (Have courage),” she said to Dad.  I’m not sure what she was referring to — the evil Paris traffic we’d encounter as we left the city, the long drive, or being cooped up in a car with three women!

I’ve asked the others what they enjoyed or noted most about Paris.  Dad has really enjoyed seeing the ornate doors and gates on the buildings we’ve walked past.  Mom noted the scary motorcyclists who only take traffic rules as a suggestion; she also said, “Oh, the stained glass windows [at Sainte-Chapelle], they were absolutely beautiful, especially the ones that had been recently cleaned [restoration work was in progress].  The Kid especially enjoyed Monet’s water lilies.  “The colours,” she said.
So, all in all, we’ve had a great start to our trip.  Tomorrow we leave for Verdun where we’ll stay one night on our way to Alsace.
Thanks for reading!

A Few More Photos

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The Eiffel Tower before the light show.
The Eiffel Tower during the light show.
Enjoying the views from the top of the Eiffel Tower.
We laughingly say this is Fred (my grandfather) but, no, it’s just …
… Dad, looking more and more like his father!
The views from the top of the Eiffel tower are amazing.
This is looking west along the Seine.
Looking north east.
Looking north.
Looking south.
Looking east.  Notice the red-roofed building in the foreground …
Our apartment is directly left across the street
of the far end of the red-roofed building.
Very close to the Eiffel Tower!
This very cool office building near the Eiffel Tower
is covered with thick and varied greenery.
Gardens in the Tuilleries.
A tired tourist.
Two tired tourists!
A peaceful allée in the Tuilleries.
Statuary at the Place de la Concorde.
A wing of the Louvre.
The Kid approaches the Louvre.
The rather gloomy interior of Notre Dame de Paris.
A detail of one of Notre Dame’s main doors.
Detail of one of the columns of stained glass in Sainte Chapelle.
The bottom half of the image shows Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers.

Europe Report #3 – No Tea for You!
October 4, 2012

Paris to Verdun

Early Wednesday morning, we left Paris in our car which had been safely parked during our time in the City of Light. We carefully programmed our on-board GPS for our next destination — Verdun — and headed out through the city. We were surprised at how easily we were guided through the rush-hour traffic. On the eastern edge of the city, the GPS unit (or, as we call her, Hazel) took us off the main highways and through the countryside on lesser roads. We later realized we’d mistakenly told her to avoid toll roads.

It was a blustery, sometimes rainy day. At one point we stopped at the side of the road to put some lunch together (cheese & crackers, etc) and were nearly blown off our feet. Eventually, we drove by the last of the wet farm fields and over darkening hills down into the valley that harbours the small town of Verdun.
I had originally thought it might be fun to stay one night in the town of Verdun, France — because Dad was born and raised in Verdun, Quebec. Then I discovered that Verdun, Quebec was actually named after another town of the same name in the south of France, not the north. Nevertheless, this Verdun was in just the right place for us to break our drive across France. Verdun is also the site of one of the most horrible battles of World War I.

Dinner à la France

Our hotel for this one night was a small, fairly modern (i.e., not more than 50 years old!), although basic, place that seems to cater primarily to French travelling salespeople. We were tired and still adjusting to this time zone so we decided to have dinner in the hotel restaurant. (Almost every hotel in France — even the smallest — has an in-house restaurant that at least tries to be elegant.)

We were the first diners to enter when the restaurant opened for dinner at 7:00 pm. We chose our table and began making our way through the French menu. The dinner special we all chose, consisted of Salade Meuse (we guess a salad specialty of the area), pork medallions with vegetables and cooked cherries, a cheese plate and an ice cream dessert with more cooked cherries and chocolate slivers. All this for only 18 Euros each (about $22). It was wonderful. The salad could have been the whole meal — potatoes, lettuce, dressing and other good things — all topped with a poached egg! The cheese course consisted of a second basket of wonderful slices of baguette (we’d already devoured a first basket of bread) with a LARGE wedge of Brie on a plate. If I’d bought just one of those wedges in a Toronto store, I would probably have paid $4 or $5.

One thing I found quite interesting was the quietness of the restaurant. I’m always complaining about incessant, unpleasant music and general noise in restaurants at home. This restaurant was entirely the opposite. Not only was there no music, nobody said a word except we four! All the other guests were clearly travelling business men and women. One pair of men dined together, but they never spoke, just texted on their phones. All the others were dining alone. There was no conversation. There was no banter between servers and guests. Nothing. Very peaceful!

The second thing we all enjoyed was our server’s reaction when I asked for tea. It was when he was serving the cheese course.

“Nous voulons du thé pour trois,” I said. (We’d like three cups of tea.)

“Non,” he said to me quite firmly and continued speaking briefly.

I wasn’t quite sure he understood what I was requesting, so I said again,“Nous voulons du thé pour trois.”

“Non,” he said again very firmly. Then I understood the rest of his statement. No tea could be served before the dessert! Apparently, tea before dessert simply is not the done thing here.

Needless to say, we’ve been informing each other on numerous occasions since, “No tea for you!”

Verdun Battlefield Memorial

This morning, after breakfast at the hotel (also a quiet affair), we drove into the nearby hills to visit the Verdun Battlefield Memorial. Watching an English video presentation really helped us understand the horrible events of those battles. As I recall, about 200,000 French and German men died in a ghastly, months-long battle. It was very saddening. The accompanying museum was very interesting because of Mom’s grandfather who fought at Vimy (several hundred kilometers away). We saw the kinds of uniforms and equipment used in those days and came away amazed that anyone survived at all.

Of course, this being France, the museum closed for lunch. They pushed us out into the rain and we turned the car toward Alsace (the far northeast corner of France) from which Mom’s grandfather Caple’s grandparents (Philippe and Barbary Koebel) left for the New World in 1836.

Thanks for reading.

Europe Report #4 – Coos, Sauerkraut and Roots
October 6, 2012

Our Cottage in Schwindratzheim, France

We’ve seen a variety of crops in the fields as we’ve crossed France in the last few days.  There have been fields of corn left drying on the stalk, lines of cabbages and, very interestingly, piles of potatoes.  The fields look different from those at home.  For one thing, you seldom see a farmhouse standing nearby.  Instead, farmers live together in local villages and go out to work their fields each day or when the fields need attention.  How different from a southern Ontario landscape where you see solitary farmhouses in the midst of the fields.  Another difference we noticed was the way the fields and crops are more defined.  Our fields tend to be outlined by fence lines, straight lines of rocks and stones and towering trees.  Here the crops were more circumscribed by cuttings in the crop between sections.  It made for very neat looking fields.

By Thursday afternoon, we had found the small Alsatian village we were to stay in for the next few days.  Schwindratzheim is about 30 minutes north west of Strasbourg and just off a main highway.  I chose it because it is well connected to the rest of the region and we planned to visit some fairly far-flung locations.

Alsatian villages are very neat and covered with flowers, even at this time of year.  Alsace has a strong Germanic influence, so it looks quite different from most of the rest of France.  In the villages, the houses are largely closed off from the narrow streets.  The ancient farmhouses (remember the farmers live in the villages) tend to be U-shaped — a house plus a barn and other outbuildings surrounding a small courtyard or barnyard.  The open end of the U faces the street, but is likely closed off by a wooden gate and wall.  The cottage we had rented was just one of these houses.  Bruno, the owner told us it dated from 1800.  We thought this was interesting in light of the fact that Mom’s ancestors left the region in 1836 and identified themselves as farmers.  Perhaps they lived in just such a farmhouse.

We asked Bruno many questions of the cottage we had reserved.  In his broken English, he told us it used to have coos.  I was puzzled at first, but thought he was talking about a chicken coop.

“No,” he said.  “Coos.  How do you say it in English?”

Then it dawned on us.  Cows.  Our cottage used to be a cow barn.

And a beautiful cow barn it was.  Completely renovated, it was a spacious two-floor, three-bedroom, two-bath home.  The ground floor had a complete kitchen with a dining area, a large foyer, a full bathroom and a very large living room.  The second floor had a bathroom, laundry room/closet, a large open sitting area at the top of the stairs, two very large bedrooms and one smaller bedroom.  The windows showed that the walls were about two feet thick.

Outside the cottage were mounds of late season flowers and grass throughout.  One morning I was in the yard taking photos of the flowers when I saw a creature flitting from blossom to blossom.  My first impression was that it was a very big moth, but then I noted its flying pattern — it was just like a hummingbird.  About a third the size of one of our ruby throated hummingbirds, I watched it closely and just couldn’t decide what kind of creature it was.  I looked it up later on and discovered that it is known here as a hummingbird moth — a moth that acts very much like a hummingbird.  Fascinating!

Strasbourg & Baden-Baden

Friday morning we headed to Strasbourg, hoping to take a boat tour of the canals.  Unfortunately, the lift operators were on strike.  We opted instead to tour a nearby museum on Alsatian life.  It was very interesting, especially the photos of farmsteads like the one in which we’re staying.

After a nice Alsatian lunch, we headed about an hour north to Baden-Baden, Germany.  Our goal was the Caracalla Spa, a pool complex built on the ancient hot springs there.  We had a wonderful, wonderful time!  In fact, we had such an enjoyable time, we came back again the next afternoon!  I highly recommend it.

Chateau Haut-Koenigsbourg

Saturday morning, we headed a little south of Strasbourg to Chateau Haut-Koenigsbourg, a castle build on the top of a looming mountain (a small mountain – we’re not in the Alps yet) overlooking the Rhine valley.  Unfortunately, we discovered the castle tour had over 300 steps.  Mom and Krista would not be able to manage those and I really wasn’t anxious to try them myself!  However, the castle management had really tried to make alternate arrangements for those with mobility issues.  We were able to see a film about the castle without having to step up a single stair.  And it was free!  Some of us even managed to stay awake during the movie.

Auberge Saint-Alexis

Our next goal was a remote forest inn (As I read this to the others, Mom said definitively, “Now that was a day!”) that serves remarkable meals every day to hikers and anyone else who can find them.  I read about Auberge Saint-Alexis online and thought it sounded like just the place Dad and I enjoy looking for.  (Mom and Krista not so much!)

We drove from the mountain-top chateau back down to the vineyard covered valley.  Several picturesque villages later, we came across the road I thought might be the correct route.  Up we went, first between old stone walls and then for about 10 kilometers through deep forests, up hill and down on a narrow, winding, single lane (but two-way) road.

Many hairpin turns later, we finally reached a tiny sign that indicated the turn-off for the auberge.  At this point the road changed from narrow and paved, to a steep, narrow and rutted, rocky, muddy track.  About 200 meters later, we rolled out of the forest into an open field area.  In the centre was  a small church and an ancient farmhouse covered with vines and surrounded by fabulous flowers.  We’d found it!

We went into what we thought was the right door and were shown into a very small dining room with only four or five tables.  Our table was right against the tile stove that kept us warm throughout the dinner.  We later found out that the main dining room next door was filled with a bus tour group.

In the foreground is a chapel that has been in the location
for centuries; it was closed to visitors.
The Auberge is the smaller building in the background.

We proceeded to have the best meal of our trip so far.  We started out with a large bottle of locally made apple juice, a tureen of wonderful homemade vegetable soup and a basket of bread.  Then we had an omelet with ham and sauerkraut and vegetables and then a farm chicken dinner. This was so much food, we couldn’t begin to finish it!  Finally, we had freshly made fruit tart.  All this for less than 18 Euros each.  We could hardly make our way to the car!

Alsace has been a wonderful place to visit and I’d really like to come back here.  We haven’t tried to do any serious genealogical research here.  I was primarily interested in having Mom see where her ancestors had come from and I wanted to get a feel for the land and culture myself.

Now that we’ve had our second visit to the Caracalla Spa, we’re all very clean and ready for bed!  Tomorrow we head southeast to the Swiss Alps.

Listen for our yodelling!

More Photos

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Just around the corner from our Schwindratzheim accommodation
was this street:  Street of the Jews.  From medieval times
there was a considerable Jewish population in Alsace.
I would guess that this particular street held the homes and/or shops
of some Schwindratzheim’s Jewish community — at least until World War II.
Dad is exiting the door of our accommodation.
Two of our bedrooms opened onto the balcony.
Another view of the barn past the windows of our accommodation.
Notice the wagon in the open area.
If you look closely at the board used to close off the end of this wagon or cart,
you’ll see that it dates from World War II.  Interesting!
Our cottage, looking toward the wooden wall and gate
that closed off the courtyard from the street.
More shots of the hummingbird moth …
A square in Strasbourg.  Notice the very old, ornate buildings.
Lots of great souvenir shopping.  Did I buy anything?
No.  Too many options.  I guess I’ll have to go back!
The beautiful Strasbourg cathedral.
Inside the cathedral.
A friendly face.
Inside the Alsacian Museum.
In the Alsatian Museum, this bench was part of the exhibit on the Jewish community.
As I recall, it was originally used by a mohel.
One of Strasbourg’s famous canals.
Even in autumn, flower boxes were everywhere.
A statue of Gutenberg who worked on his printing press here.
Haut Koenigsbourg is on the top of a small mountain
overlooking the fertile Rhine valley which is sprinkled with
cute-as-a-button villages and vineyards.
The hills are covered with mature forests.
They made me think of the fairy tales that talk about woodcutters
and travellers hounded by wolves.
The castle itself is made of the most beautiful red stone.
Mom, Dad and the Kid rest a bit while I make arrangements
for us to view a film about the castle.
Yes, that’s a windmill on top of the buildings making up
a wing of the castle.
The vine-covered Auberge Saint-Alexis.
You can see from this picture how large the leaves on the vines were
— much bigger than Mom’s fist.
The Auberge’s main dining room.
The garden outside the Auberge.

Europe Report #5 – If It’s Sunday, It Must Be Switzerland
October 11, 2012

Driving into Switzerland

We left Schwindratzheim in the Alsace on a rainy morning, sad to leave our lovely coo barn.  The rain followed us down the Rhine Valley and into the beautiful country of Switzerland.  Our specific destination was the Lauterbrunnen Valley in the Berner Oberland — a region Heidi could have lived in.  Mom, Dad and I had been here on our previous trip to Switzerland, but wanted the Kid to see it as we had.  Unfortunately, the rain just kept coming down.

Switzerland has an interesting system for funding their highways.  In France (like many other countries), there are elaborate tollways along the major highways.  We paid many small tolls as we travelled across that country, most amounting to less than 2 euros (about $2.60).  However, Switzerland levies a single toll of 40 Swiss Francs (about $40) when you enter the country.  That’s it.  It struck us as far more efficient and easier on the visitor. And, given the extreme nature of Swiss highways (in beautiful condition, faced with winter snows, major tunnels through the mountains, etc.), we thought it was very reasonable.
A typical Swiss home.

After entering the country at Basel, we drove through the beautiful rolling hills of the area known as Emmenthal, presumably where they make Emmental cheese.  Even in the rain it was gorgeous.  Green hills, narrow winding roads, cute-as-a-button chalets, happy cows and goats, trains that are always on time and stacks and stacks of firewood for winter heating.  Why this area?  Some time ago, I’d come across some online research that suggested Mom’s family originially (before Alsace) came from this region.  Although I am deeply sceptical of any genealogical research I can’t document myself, I was eager to drive through this area while we were here.

We returned to the highway and continued toward Interlaken.  I’d love to take time to explore this region more one day.  Interlaken – between the lakes — is on a narrow strip of land that divides two long, narrow lakes.  The highway follows the south edge of the lakes and, between tunnels, offers tantalizing glimpses of villas, marinas, ferries, and farmhouses, all squeezed into the narrow strip of land between the lakes and the Alps — which have suddenly appeared through the clouds.  This is the start of the extreme mountain region for which Switzerland is so famous.

The Lauterbrunnen Valley & the Schilthorn

What makes the Lauterbrunnen Valley so special?  It is stunningly beautiful — alpen views in excess.  It is very accessible — only a few kilometers away from Interlaken on a good road and with excellent public transit (trains) available.  A real bonus in my opinion is that it is a dead-end valley, resulting in no through traffic.  It isn’t somewhere you just look at as you drive by.  It is a singular destination.  It has all kinds of accommodation — hotels and inns, campgrounds, bed and breakfasts, vacation rentals.  Also, you can find accommodation on the floor of the valley (as we did) or take ski lifts up to the villages on the mountainsides and stay there (as we did last time).  It has a million things to do — from sitting at your window admiring the view to jumping off the cliffs and para-gliding to the valley floor.

One of our main goals here was to take the Kid up the lift cars to the the Piz Gloria restaurant perilously topping the Schilthorn.  What would this be like in the rain?  Not very good, we thought.  We prayed earnestly for some sunshine when we went to bed the first night.  How delighted we were when we woke the next morning to a fairly clear break in the weather.  Mom, Dad and the Kid put on their warmest clothes and headed to the lift station at 7:00 am in order to make it to the top in time for the breakfast buffet.  I didn’t go because I’d come down with a terrible cold; I stayed home and admired the view from our chalet windows.  I can still hear Mom frantically asking as they drove off in the early morning mist:  “Rick, do you know where we’re going?  Janice, does he know how to find the lift?”

The good weather lasted until early afternoon.  After that the clouds began to close in again, dragging themselves through the valley in straggles.  Rain came and went.  We were so grateful the Lord allowed that morning of sunshine for the Kid.

Much of our three days in Switzerland we used as rest time.  We’ve been going non-stop since we arrived in Europe last week.  And I’ve come down with a horrible head cold — thus staying in the valley while the others had breakfast on the mountaintop.  We’ve just rested, read, watched a little BBC and CNN.  Then, Mom came down with the same cold a day after me.

On our second day, we went into town to do laundry.  Mom was thrilled when she saw one of the hummingbird moths in the potted plants along the road as we strolled down Lauterbrunnen’s main street.  This was really pleasing — not just to see the moth, but because of Mom’s failing eyesight.
The Kid also spent time today getting to know the chickens and geese kept by the owners of our chalet.  There was one funny moment when she was taking pictures of them, but was called away by one of us at the chalet.  As she walked back to the chalet, the geese just kept talking to her, telling her off for leaving them.

Chocolates and Cheese

Our third day in Switzerland, we ventured out again, driving through the valleys further southwest toward Lake Geneva.  After driving up and over the Jaun Pass (a beautiful winding road), we stopped at a famous chocolate factory where we watched them making the most amazing candies.  Our favourite part was the tasting room  They set out an extensive selection of their chocolates (milk, dark, chocolates with caramel, truffles — is your mouth watering?) on trays and we had the freedom to taste as many as we liked.  I had a few of the dark chocolates, but Dad claims he enjoyed at least 15 chocolates.  “A conservative number,” he said.  This amazed us because he has the “bread gene” as I do.  We don’t generally suffer from the chronic condition known as a sweet tooth.  After this over indulgence, we absolutely had to sit down and have a cup of coffee.

Only a few miles away was another factory we wanted to visit — a cheese factory.  This is more my style!  We didn’t have the exact address, so I entered the town, Gruyeres, on the GPS and choose the first street that came up.  Hazel, our GPS unit, took us on a beautiful, beautiful winding, one-lane road through fields and wood lots, right into the barnyard of a farm!  Nope, this is not the place.  We turned around and headed out again, eventually finding the Gruyères Fromagerie.  We walked slowly through the factory tour, learning all about making cheese.  We were fascinated by the robot machines that turn the 7000 huge 35 kg rounds of cheese that are aging in the storage room.  Afterward we stopped in their restaurant for a wonderful lunch of soup and a sandwich — both featuring cheese, of course.

After lunch we drove on to the nearby city of Vevey on the shores of Lake Geneva.  We were hoping to visit a family friend who lives there, but weren’t able to connect with her.

Although we were very disappointed with the almost constant rain, our three days in Switzerland were a good break, giving us a much needed rest.  Our next destination, Malta, will see us in full touring mode again.
Thanks for reading.

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The chalet neighbouring the one where we stayed.
Like this, most of the following photos
were taken from our chalet’s windows.

Europe Report #6 – We’re Supposed To Be at What Airport?!?!?!
October 16, 2012

The Steiner Pass

We left Switzerland with regret and under a heavily overcast sky.  Dad and I had decided we would stick to the main roads so that Mom and the Kid weren’t too traumatized.  I had found one wonderful route over the Steiner Pass, but we felt this would be just too narrow and frightening for our back seat drivers.  Instead, we gave Hazel, our GPS unit, her head and let her choose.  She took us out of the Lauterbrunnen Valley and further east along the second of the Interlaken lakes.  After a few tunnels and with the road getting progressively smaller, I began to realize that Hazel had chosen the Steiner Pass road!  Panic set in, but we were too far to head back.

The Steiner Pass road heads up a narrow, forrested valley past a few villages and then just keeps going higher and higher.  The road winds and bends back upon itself in crazy hairpin turns, but is always two lanes (narrow, but two).  It was always paved and we passed a number of workmen repairing parts of the road.  We also passed a spot where part of the lane we were in had fallen away into the crevasse beside us; I didn’t draw Mom’s attention to this!

Eventually we surpassed the treeline and had the most spectacular views.  I would have pictures to show you, if I hadn’t been too busy digging my fingernails into the dashboard at the time.  The summit of the pass was more than 2,200 meters above sea level.  The Shilthorn where the others had breakfast on the mountain top above Lauterbrunnen is less than 2,800 meters as I recall — not that much higher.  This was a high pass with unbelievable vistas.  Finally, we were on the downward side and, when we had regained civilization, stopped at a restaurant to restore our sanity with a cup of coffee and a croissant.  Whew, that was a traumatic way to start the day.

Menaggio, Lake Como

The rest of our route that morning took us through the Gotthard Pass (about 17 km of tunnel) and down into Italy.  We wound around the hillside roads that line the Italian lakes and over the mountain (more of a large hill) to Lake Como.  We stopped in Menaggio on the lakeside and sat on the promenade with a picnic lunch.  I had really hoped we could spend time here, but lunch on the lakeside was the best I could squeeze into this trip.  The Italian Lakes are beyond beautiful.  Long, narrow strips of water hemmed in by mountains, with the snow covered Alps in the distance.  It is definitely a place to return to.

After lunch, the Kid and I walked along the promenade to the main square.  I had read that this area was known for their silk production and I was hoping to find a shop selling silk scarves.   Well, we did find such a shop, but in true European fashion, it was closed for lunch!  So, no silk scarves for you!  To console ourselves, the Kid and I backtracked to the nearest gelateria where we purchased cups of tiramisu gelato (Italian ice cream) for ourselves and Mom and Dad back at the car.  Can you picture me hustling back along the promenade with three cups of gelato in my hands, hoping to get them to the car without falling on my face and before they all melted and dribbled through my fingers?  Mission accomplished!

Milan Airports and Malta Air

Less than two hours from Menaggio, we found our hotel next to the Linate Airport on the southeast side of Milan.  I had booked our Air Malta flight from Linate to Malta about six months earlier.  This hotel was perfect for a one-night stay.  Very comfy beds, a nice restaurant.  It was great.  We made our plans to rise at about 6:00 am the next morning and be out by 7:00 to be unloaded and at the airport next door by 8:00.  No problem!

The Kid didn’t sleep well all night.  She kept waking up and looking at me.  Finally, at about 3:00 am, the Kid woke me up.  She said later I was making strange noises and she thought I was sick.  I wasn’t, but then I couldn’t get back to sleep.  She believes the Lord was urging her to wake me up.

Finally, at about 3:30 I sat up and pulled out my tablet.  I thought I would check to see if our flight was expected to leave on time.  I looked at the Linate Airport website and nearly died of shock.  There were no Air Malta flights scheduled.

I looked at the Air Malta website.  It didn’t offer any information on the day’s flights at all.  I looked at the hard copy I’d printed from my email confirmation before leaving home.  It said we were to fly from Linate.  I looked at other emails I’d received from Air Malta.  The last was sent to me after we’d left Toronto; I don’t think I’d noticed it.  Looking at it now, I saw that our flight had been changed from Linate to Malpensa, another airport on the opposite side of Milan.  I looked at the Malpensa website and there was our flight!  I couldn’t believe this had happened.  I never received any notification from Air Malta about the airport change.  This was awful!  Malpensa was about 45 minutes away — assuming there was no traffic.

I realized we would need to leave earlier than we’d planned.  At about 5:00 am, I went out to knock at Mom and Dad’s door.  After a few knocks, Dad blearily opened the door and listened as I expained the problem.  We were all ready and loading the car by 6:00 am – record time!  Forty-five minutes later we were looking for a parking spot at Malpensa Airport.  However, I didn’t start to relax until we actually checked in.  Until then, I had visions of the Air Malta staff telling us, no, we had to go to yet another airport!

Birgu, Malta

Malta is an extraordinary group of islands.  Located in the Mediterranean about 60 miles south of Sicily, it is very, very small — something like 30 miles long and 8 miles wide with a population of only 400,000.  I studied the island roads in advance as much as possible and hunted down the best road map I could find (we wouldn’t have access to GPS), but we ended up ill-equipped to drive our rental car there.  More on that later.

The view from our terrace.

The place I had reserved for us was a modern three-bedroom condo facing part of the Grand Harbour of the main city of Valletta in the ancient village of Birgu (also known as Vittoriosa).  Located on the ground floor, it was about 10 feet from the water.  Although we didn’t try swimming in the harbour, we saw others who did.  From our small deck, we watched all kinds of boats come and go — from fishing boats to cruise ships.   The apartment itself was very spacious, narrow and long.  The master bedroom was at the end of the hallway and was so far away, Mom said she needed to pack a suitcase every time she left for the livingroom.

Our first morning, Dad and I took the rental car and braved the urban area surrounding Valletta and Birgu.  Driving on the left side of the road for the first time, Dad did very well.  However, we were completely unable to navigate successfully.  The streets have little or no signage.  We were looking for a large supermarket I’d found online.  We drove around for more than an hour, completely unable to locate it, even though I knew exactly where it was on the map.  How frustrating this was!  Dad and I are both competent drivers and navigators, but we could not find it at all.  We drove on big roads and little roads, on one-way streets and on two-way streets with only one lane.  Finally,  I said, “I give up!  Let’s go back to Birgu, walk into the village and see if we can find any food to buy.”  As I said this, we pulled up to an intersection, planning to turn left.  I glanced right and was astounded to see the supermarket we’d been looking for.  Success — even though we found it by accident!

After parking on the floor of the store parking garage, Dad and I spent another hour slowly shopping our way up and down the aisles.  I always enjoy browsing through foreign grocery stores.  There are so many interesting food items to be found.  In this case, we found some Maltese items — all new to us — and many British items — sometimes familiar to us.

Afterward, we fairly easily found our way home, although I was pretty sure we wouldn’t be able to find our way back to the supermarket.  Mom and the Kid were really pleased to see us; they’d come to the conclusion that we’d driven off the island into the sea.

Malta Air Museum

The Malta Air Museum is on the left.

During the afternoon, we headed away from the city toward the Malta Air Museum.  We made it to the general area of the museum near Rabat; as we drove through the countryside, I could see the light stands at the stadium located next to the museum.  But how did we get there from here?

We left the main road and started driving through fields across the countryside.  Not much seemed to growing in the fields, but each little patch of dirt was fenced in with the most amazing stonework.  Malta has very little arable land.  It’s basically a rock in the Mediterranean.  Almost everything has to be imported to this little country.  We saw a few olive trees and a couple of distant greenhouses, but not much else.  I’m sure there’s more to see earlier in the year.

As we drove on unnamed side roads — paved, but spotted with many potholes — we grew more and more frustrated.  In fact, Dad was struggling so much, trying to see where the Air Museum might be, that he forgot twice to drive on the left side of the road.  Oops!  We almost caused an accident!

Once again, we found the Malta Air Museum at the last minute. We parked and Dad went in the office, hoping to find someone in charge.  Before long, he came out with Mr. Ray Polidano, Director General of the Museum Foundation, who had been advised by Malta’s consular staff in Toronto that we would be visiting.  Ray proved to be a gracious and charming host.  He took us into the new hangar that houses the spitfire he has personally worked on restoring.  For a long time, Ray and his coworkers did the restoration work in his garage.  The hangar features World War II items and was erected in the last few years.

Dad and Ray stand with their backs to the camera.
The young volunteers are gathered around
listening to stories about Uncle George.

Ray showed us around the hangar and then stood talking with Dad for a long time.  They were joined by the young volunteers who also work on the planes at the museum.  I so enjoyed watching Dad tell stories about Uncle George with such a rapt audience.

These young men are well aware of the extraordinary history of their small island.  Malta was the most bombed place on the earth during World War 2.  The people of Malta showed such bravery against the onslaught of the Nazis — never giving up, even in the face of certain starvation and destruction — that they were awarded the George Cross.  The brave RAF fighter pilots, of whom Uncle George was one, countered the Nazi attack during what has come to be known as the Siege of Malta.  When the first supply ships broke through the Nazi cordon, the Maltese people had something like two weeks of starvation rations left.  Uncle George was there at the height of the siege and was the best of the fighter pilots.  When he returned home afterward, he was extremely thin and sick.  Dad remembers him saying the only time he felt well in Malta was when he was breathing bottled oxygen during his flights.

Ray mentioned to us that many Israelis come to the Air Museum when they holiday on Malta and inquire about Uncle George.  We were very touched to hear this.

Mom, the Kid and I watched a video about the war, sitting in a corner of the hangar while Dad and the others swapped stories.  It was late afternoon and for the longest time we were inundated with an immense storm.  Thunder.  Lightening.  High winds.  Heavy rain.  The rain blew about 20 feet through the open hangar door.  When the storm finally lightened up a bit, Dad backed the car into the hangar so we could get in without getting wet.  Then, Ray drove his car through the confusing roads and led us out to a main road.  We successfully made it home.

Compared to many of the yachts we saw
in the Malta marinas, these sailboats are on par
with simple row boats!

Because we’d had such a hard time finding groceries, we decided we’d eat our main meals out while in Malta.  Our condo was located in a newly renovated, upscale area alongside a marina with multi-million dollar yachts.  We had a fine time walking along the harbour wall admiring each ship.  We found one restaurant along the marina walk that was very happy to let us order from the menu and then send it home with us as take out.  It would have been nice to eat there by the marina, but Mom was still feeling rather under the weather and we opted to eat more informally in our apartment.  But we did have the most delicious take out.  We found the staff at the restaurant — and, in fact, the Maltese people everywhere we went — to be the most charming and friendly people we’ve ever met.  Bar none.  It was simply extraordinary.  We can’t say enough nice things about them.

The next day in Malta was sunny and warm.  We had a variety of things we had planned and decided we just didn’t want to face getting miserably lost and wasting time looking for places, so we booked a cab to take us everywhere.  Francis was a charming man and helped get us to each place we needed to go that day.  It was much less stressful!

Malta Museums and the Malta Military Tattoo

We started off heading to the point of the Valletta peninsula to visit the National War Museum located in Fort Saint Elmo.  We knew that Uncle George’s RAF jacket had been given to one of the museums on Malta and we were hoping to find it.  And it did turn out to be in this museum.  Very interestingly laid out, the War Museum takes you through the two world wars, year by year.  We finally came to a display with a portrait of Uncle George and a manikin dressed in his jacket.  After a long chat with the curator in charge (it was a Sunday), we headed a few blocks away to the Malta Experience, an audiovisual overview of the history of Malta.  As someone else had told us, you learn there in an hour what it would take 20 hours to read about.

In the afternoon, Francis picked us up again and took us the very short distance to another museum called Malta at War.  This small museum is designed to help you understand what the people experienced during the siege and the extended war period.  We met with a Mario Farrugia, Chairman of the Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna, a group that oversees several museums, including this one, and then had a private, guided tour of the museum.  It is so hard to comprehend the devastation the people of Malta experienced.  We were amazed at their resilience, especially after descending into one of the actual subterranean bunkers that protected of them during the bombing.

One of the troops participating
in the Malta Military Tattoo
was this group from a town in Italy
where they throw flags.

Afterward, Francis picked us up again and drove us back to the stadium next to the Air Museum.  We had tickets for that evening’s presentation of the Malta Military Tattoo.  I’ve never been to a tattoo before and, let me tell you, it was LOUD!  We really enjoyed it, but left during intermission.  It was late and we’d had a full day.  We were rather casually dressed due to the heat and tramping around we’d been doing in un-air conditioned museums all day, but the Maltese people treated this as a special dress-up affair.  They were wearing their best clothes — sometimes outfits you’d expect to see at a cocktail party.  It was clearly a very social event.  Very interesting!

Francis very promptly picked us up once last time and we headed home for a late supper and bed.

Birgu at Sunrise

Early the next morning the Kid and I rose at sunrise and went out to explore the village of Birgu.  We walked up and down narrow streets and staircases, coming across the remains of the ancient buildings where the Knights of Malta stayed in the early days.  We were charmed by the way the residents have potted plants standing outside their doors and on the steps of the street.  Most of the streets are just walkways, and this greenery softens the harshness of the stonework.  I was amazed that the plants obtained enough sunlight in the narrow, dark spaces.

One thing we hoped to find was a bakery.  There weren’t any in sight, but we did go into one cafe, the Kid bravely passing the phalanx of elderly Maltese men sipping their cups of espresso at the tables around the door.  Inside, the woman at the counter offered us pasticis, a favourite Maltese treat.  It is a light, flaky pastry wrapped around either riccotta cheese or mushy peas.  We opted for cheese and took four home for breakfast.  They were delicious.  And cheap!  Those four, hot from the oven, cost only E1.20.  (We bought four more at the airport the next day for four times that price.)

A Day with Ray

Later that morning, Ray picked up Dad, the Kid and me in his car and took us back to the Air Museum.  He had arranged for us to meet one of the authors of a fairly new book about Uncle George (Screwball Beurling, Malta’s Top Scoring Fighter Ace).  We had a lovely time talking with Frederick Galea and his wife.  While Dad and Frederick swapped stories, Ray made some of his famous cups of tea for us all.  We sat in the old Quonset hut that has been remodeled into the museum cafe and savoured every drop!

The Kid and I were anxious to visit the museum gift shop today (we hadn’t had a chance on our first day), so we headed there while Dad and the others chatted.  The gift shop is very small, but has a good selection of books.  We wanted to purchase additional copies of Frederick’s book.  We found one on display and showed it to the man at the counter, asking if he had more copies.  He said he was just filling in and we should wait until his coworker returned.  A few minutes later, a woman returned to the counter.  We showed her the book we wanted.  I smiled and said, “It’s about our uncle.”

She laughed and said, “It’s okay.  We know who you are.”

This response caught us completely off guard.  Then we realized that we were speaking with Ray’s wife, Mary Rose!

With purchases in hand, we returned to the main hangar area.  Ray showed me other parts of the museum, including the small chapel they’ve built out of another quonset hut.  It is a lovely, quiet spot and a good place to remember all those who lost their lives over Malta.  Later, the Kid had an interesting experience in the chapel.  Ray had brought her there to see the building.  As they stood in the quiet room, a man entered and spoke to Ray from behind the Kid.

“Can you tell me anything about George Beurling,” he asked.  The Kid said she didn’t turn around, but just looked at Ray with great surprise.

“As a matter of fact,”  said Ray, “This is one of his nieces and his brother is visiting today as well.”

As it turned out, this gentleman had recently watched a documentary in England about Uncle George and was interested in learning more.  He certainly didn’t expect to meet George’s family in Malta!  We had a good laugh over this coincidental timing.

Mdina, Malta

Soon after, we made our goodbyes and Ray drove us to the nearby town of Medina where the RAF pilots were billetted during the war.  The 15-minute drive would have been the same one they took twisting through stone-lined fields and up the steep hill to the town gate.

Medina is a walled medieval town and an amazing place.  The streets are not quite the warren of pathways we found in Birgu, but very beautiful,  Traditionally, the aristocracy of Malta lived in this location, so the streets are lined with fine buildings.

One location Ray took us was the door to the house where Uncle George himself lived during his stay in Malta.  In a bit of a cul de sac, the blue door was framed with beautiful plants.  Spots like this have really helped us imagine Uncle George during his days on Malta.

We next stopped on the town wall, overlooking the valley to the north where the RAF field was located during the war and where the Air Museum is today.  What a fine view!  We could see across Malta and out over the ocean.  We walked a little further until Ray stopped at a hotel door.  During the war the officers’ club was located here.  The hotel staff permitted us to go up to the upper floor where the pilots sat on the wall and watched bombing raids.  It is so hard to really get a handle on those days where such violence was on every hand.

Finally, Ray drove us home and we said good-bye with regret.  Ray and the other Maltese we met during this short visit have given us an truly memorable time.  We are very grateful for their kindnesses!  There is so much we didn’t have time to see in Malta:  the sea cliffs and grottos, the beaches, the famed archaeological sites, the cart ruts, many other museums, Valletta and other villages … I think we must come back!

We had a last take-out dinner from our favourite restaurant.  We planned to actually sit and eat on the restaurant patio, but a huge thunder storm was starting so we just took our meal as take-out again.  We really enjoyed the meals here.  They were Mediterranean-style without being too exotic for us.  Mom said she’d had so much food prepared with olive oil in recent days that her fork was just slipping off her lips!  As Krista and I waited on the patio for our order to be readied, we watched the lightening flash across the sky, illuminating the harbour.  The restaurant manager came by and asked if we had everything we needed.  We said we were fine and just waiting for our last order to be filled.

“We’ve really enjoyed the food at this restaurant, but we’re leaving tomorrow,” I explained.

“Your last order,” the manager exclaimed.  “Did you order our special of the day?  It’s pasta with squid ink.”

Krista very politely said, “No, but I’m sure it’s delicious.”

When we finally collected our bags of food, all the staff stood at the door and waved good-bye to us. Where else would that happen?

Actually, I’ve been thinking about the cheerful, helpful, kind attitudes we found everywhere in Malta.  I think this hasn’t changed for at least 2,000 years.  Did you know that Malta is mentioned in Scripture?  It was this tiny island where the Apostle Paul and his fellow travellers were shipwrecked en route to Rome.  Luke, who penned this portion of the Bible (the Book of Acts), described their time in Malta and said at one point, “The natives showed us extraordinary kindness” [Acts 28:1-10].

The Maltese are still showing great kindness to their guests!

Later on our last night in Malta, we packed and prepared for our early morning flight back to Milan.  This time we knew which airport we needed to find!  Although we left Malta under rainy skies, our landing in Milan an hour and a half later was under sparkling, clear skies framed by snow-covered Alps to the north.

Thanks for reading!

More Photos

Click a photo for a bigger view, then use the thumbnail photos at the bottom of the page to view all photos from this entry.  Escape button to return.

Menaggio is a beautiful little town
on the shores of Lake Como, Italy.
Picnicking on Menaggio’s promenade.
A very typical view in Malta — in this case,
one we could see from our apartment terrace.
This wall is part of Fort Saint Angelo, where the Knights of Malta
were based during the Great Siege in 1565.
This little harbour is part of the original moat.
Our apartment building is immediately to the left, just off camera.
Fort Saint Angelo is the light coloured building in the distance.
At the Malta Air Museum, the section devoted to
the WW II Siege of Malta is housed in this new hangar.
This small Quonset hut houses the Museum’s café.
A Spitfire restored by the staff of the Museum.
Dad chats with Ray Polidano (r) and volunteer (“Bob”) Ezekiel.
A street in Valletta, the capital of Malta.
As we walked along in Valletta, a bike race came whizzing by.
The National War Museum is housed in Fort Saint Elmo,
a fort virtually destroyed by the Ottoman attackers
(later rebuilt) during the Great Siege of 1565.
This is a photo of the moat that still surrounds the fort.
The exhibit of Uncle George’s flight jacket
at the National War Museum.
Nearby sights.
Our apartment building across the harbour from Valletta.
Walking up to the location of
the Malta at War Museum in Birgu.

On our last morning, the Kid and I explored Birgu as the sun rose.
Our apartment is in the background.
The Kid chatted with a local fisherman about his catch.
Most of Birgu is pedestrianized.
Many alleys are lined with planted pots of shrubs and small trees.
Some of the oldest buildings have signs indicating
how the buildings were originally used by the early Knights of Malta.
These colourful enclosed balconies are
typical Maltese architecture, seldom found elsewhere.
Back at the Malta Air Museum, Dad posed with
Mr. & Mrs. Frederick Galea.  Frederick recently wrote a book
about Uncle George.
We saw many interesting vehicles at the Air Museum.
Dad and Frederick Galea had a great time talking about
Uncle George and the the Siege of Malta.
A workshop at the Air Museum.
The memorial garden at the Air Museum.
Inside the new Air Museum chapel.
Frederick Galea posed beside his car.
His license plate — SQN 249 — stands for Squadron 249,
Uncle George’s squadron.
We entered Mdina through this huge wall and gate.
Ray Polidano’s research indicates that this door
is to the residence where Uncle George was billeted
during  part of his time in Malta.
Dad and the Kid with Ray Polidano.
Mdina is traditionally the place where the aristocracy
of Malta lived.  Consequently, the buildings are very elegant
with many beautiful doors and windows.
The entrance to the hotel where the RAF officers club was located.
Ray was able to obtain permission for us to see the original club room.
This is where the officers watched bombs falling on Ta’Qali.
Views from the officers’ club in Mdina.

Europe Report #7 – Lace, Glass and Vaporetti
October 19, 2012

Early morning on the Grand Canal of Venice

Reaching Venice

When we returned to our car at the Malpensa Airport in Milan, we were grateful to find everything intact.  We had left most of our things in the car, taking to Malta only what we really needed in our carry-ons and in one suitcase.  The first thing we did on reaching the parked car was haul all the suitcases out and switch dirty for clean clothes and warm weather things for cool weather things.  What a sight we must have been — suitcases and carry-ons spread over several neighbouring parking spots with clothes and shoes stacked in various piles.  Why were we doing this?  We were heading next to Venice where we’d need to leave the car in another parking garage and carry only what we needed into that extraordinary city.

Venice was only a few hours away and the weather was beautiful.  We had wonderful views of the nearby mountains on the north and fruitful farms on either side.  We reached Venice in good time and left the car in a secured parking spot in the Tronchetto parking garage.  After a short walk, we found the new Venice People Mover (a very short light rail transit system).  It delivered us to the edge of the Piazzale Roma – the main entrance to Venice.  After a few fall starts, I was able to transform my online vaporetto passes into hard copy tickets and then I started to contact our apartment host.

The alley leading from the Ca D’Oro
vaporetto stop to the main street
where we were to meet Alessandra,
lined with raised walkways in case of flooding.

The apartment I’d reserved was located a couple of blocks from the Ca d’Oro vaporetto stop and seemed perfect for us in terms of location and facilities offered.  Renting vacation rentals directly from the owner is always a bit risky.  Who knows who that person really is?  Are the great apartment reviews from real guests or just the imaginative writing of the owner or a scam artist?  I’m always a little apprehensive just before we make actual face-to-face contact with our landlords and this time was no different.

Alessandra had asked me to phone her just before we boarded the vaporetto (the boat system in Venice that serves as public transit instead of busses or a subway).  I’m not a dedicated cell phone user (anyone who knows me can testify to this), but I do have a special cell phone and cell phone plan that I use for travel.  But foreign numbers are always a bit of challenge and this day was no different.  I called Alessandra from the vaporetto stop in Piazzale Roma.  It took me a few tries to enter the correct pesky foreign number.  Someone answered, but it sounded like a man.  The sound broke up, and disappeared.  I didn’t hear any words I could recognize at all.  I tried calling again in a quieter corner of the square; no better luck, but I identified myself and said we were coming NOW.

Alessandra’s last email to me had told me where to meet her – at a shop at the corner of the vaporetto lane at Ca D’Oro and the main street.  So that’s where we headed.  After another couple of false starts, we found the right vaporetto line (not all vaporetti stop at Ca d’Oro) and climbed aboard.  We soon stumbled off at the right place and walked down the narrow alley toward a bigger street.  The first person who greeted us as we emerged into the daylight was a one-legged beggar on the corner.

Now, you must remember that I’d been warning my family for months that we needed to be alert to thieves and pickpockets.  We all carefully wore money belts under our clothing.  Mom, the Kid and I carried security purses and none of us carried more money than we needed for that day in our wallets.  I don’t obsess about the prospect of theft, but I did want us to be prepared and street smart.  Our experiences in Paris taught us of the realities of pickpockets.  So, the Kid especially was not impressed when I asked them to wait on the corner next to the beggar while I tried to locate Alessandra.

I entered the dress shop Alessandra had mentioned in her note, expecting to find her working there.  To my surprise, the staff person I encountered said she didn’t know any Alessandra.  I realized then that the front of the shop was just a meeting point.  I went out to the others to report and say that I would try calling Alessandra again.

What I didn’t learn until later is that, while I was in the shop, a woman kept approaching Mom, Dad and the Kid.  They immediately came to the conclusion that she was asking them for money.

“No!  Go away,” the Kid kept telling her quite firmly.  The woman would walk away and then circle around and come back to them.  They all told her to leave them alone.  When I came out of the store, she had stepped away from them.

I entered the doorway of the shop where it was a little quieter and tried calling Alessandra again.  The phone started ringing and I waited hopefully for Alessandra to answer it.  In the street, the Kid was warily watching the woman she kept shooing away.  As the woman’s phone rang and she began to answer it, a very large light bulb came on in the Kid’s mind.

“Oh, no!  Janice!  This is the lady who’s looking for us!”  I looked into the street and saw a small woman speaking on her phone.  She saw me and came toward me with a frightened look on her face.

“Alessandra,” I asked hopefully.

“Janice,” she asked with trepidation.

Our street in Venice.

As we were going through this dance, the others began speaking excitedly.  The woman they thought was begging them for money was Alessandra’s sister, Nicoletta.  Alessandra was unable to meet us, but had arranged for Nicoletta to take her place.

The biggest problem was language;  Nicoletta really didn’t speak much English at all and neither Mom, Dad nor the Kid had understood her greetings.  But with much laughter and embarrassment, we made our introductions and then followed tiny Nicoletta down a couple of short lanes where she showed us a beautiful second floor apartment with a gorgeous kitchen we just loved.  This was the neatest apartment we have ever seen and the most fully equipped.  It was amazing.

Once we were settled, we decided we really needed to find some supper.  Heading back to the main street near our apartment (complete with one-legged beggar), we took the easiest option open to us:  McDonalds!  I think this McDonalds was the only North American fast food we have had during our entire trip.  It wasn’t too bad and solved our food needs for the evening.

Early the next morning, Dad and I ventured out to see if we could find some basic food supplies  — bread, yoghurt, etc.  We did find a tiny grocery store, whose open door was screened with strings of beads like something from the 60s.  The proprietor spoke no English at all, but we found enough food to keep us going during our visit to Venice.

Burano and Lace-Making

Alessandro talks to us
about life in the Venice Lagoon.

By 8:00 am, we were all on the vaporetto, heading toward the most tourist-visited part of town, the quay outside Saint-Mark’s Square.  We were to meet a guide, Alessandro (note:  not AlessandrA our landlady, but AlessandrO) who would be taking a group of English-speaking visitors on a tour of the Venice Lagoon, including the lace-making facilities of Burano Island and the glass-making facilities of Murano Island.  Alessandro turned out to be a well-informed guide who spoke with us at length in a very informal fashion.  He didn’t have a guide-spiel that he spouted incessantly.  He just answered our questions in an entertaining fashion and showed us things we might not have discovered on our own.  I had selected this tour because it involved fairly extensive travel to the neighbouring islands by vaporetto and relatively little or slow walking.

Crossing the Venice Lagoon

As we boated across the lagoon, the weather was rather drizzly, but improved once we landed at Burano.  This island proved to be the highlight of our morning.  Originally a base for local fisherman, it is known for the lacemaking of the village women and the spectacularly coloured homes.

The lacemaking, as in other parts of the world, is slowly disappearing, although Alessandro took us to one shop where they gave us a demonstration of the lacemaking technique.  Those are projects that are not for anyone with bad eyesight — tiny, tiny stitches, all by hand.  As an embroiderer myself, I was fascinated to see the work these women do.  Needless to say, their projects (table linens, scarves, clothing, etc.) were very expensive.


The other aspect of Burano that we found fascinating was the coloured buildings.  Gradually, this island town (and it is all town) has acquired the custom of painting its homes in brilliant reds, oranges, blues, yellows, purples…. every bright colour you can think of.  It looks all jumbled and random, but the owners of the houses must choose from a narrow palette of colours when they repaint.  The overall effect is enchanting.  At times it felt a little Disneyesque.

Alessandro told us there are only a small number of people still living on the island; we saw a number of houses for sale.  As is so common in other small, out-of-the-way places, there isn’t enough work and the quiet life just doesn’t suit most modern people.  The ongoing flooding issues in the Venice lagoon are also a growing problem.

Murano and Glass-Making

This man was playing his accordion
in one of Murano’s squares.
The coloured swirls in the foreground
are part of a huge glass sculpture
placed in the middle of the square.
There were a number of similar sculptures
scattered across the island.

Our next stop was Murano, a slightly larger island and town, famous for its Murano glass.  Hundreds of years ago, glass makers in Venice were the best.  In order to keep their glassmaking secrets safe and to keep the city of Venice itself safe from the accompanying fire risk, the authorities moved all the glass makers to the separate island of Murano — where they have  been ever since.  Murano is a somewhat busier, though less colourful, town.  Murano glass is famous around the world and we enjoyed seeing samples of the artistic glass work on display in squares along our route.  After walking along her canals, we watched a glassmaking demonstration in one of the factories and then walked back through town to the vaporetto stop where we eventually caught a boat to take us back to Venice herself.

Saint-Mark’s Square

A spectacular wall of the Doge’s Palace.

The next morning we rose early to start our sight-seeing at Saint Mark’s Square.  Our first stop was the Doge’s Palace.  This extraordinary building was a highlight of our previous visit in 2001 and we looked forward to showing it to the Kid.  As we walked into the Palace courtyard, she rewarded us with an awed, “Wow.”

For centuries, the doges ruled Venice which was interested, first and foremost, in the business of making money.  At the height of the city’s power, Venice has a greater GNP than the entire country of France.  The palace was where the doge and his advisors received official visitors and conducted business.  It was designed to impress and impress it does.

A view of the interior of
Saint Mark’s Basilica
from the second floor balcony.

Our next stop was the Basilica of Saint Mark, an extraordinary church building next to the palace.  It is impossibly ornate and covered from top to bottom in mosaics.  After walking through the ground level on the flood-damaged floors that make you feel as if you’re walking on waves, Mom and the Kid waited outside while Dad and I climbed a steep staircase to the upper level.  There we found a better view of the interior from the interior balcony and also climbed out onto the exterior balcony overlooking the huge square and nearly underneath the prancing hooves of the famous four horses of Saint Mark’s (the original statues are perhaps 2000 years old – these were replicas).

After some rewarding shopping along the arcade that lines the square, we headed back to our apartment for a short rest and then some delicious lunch at a nearby sidewalk cafe.

Venice’s Jewish Ghetto

A memorial wall in the Jewish Ghetto.

Our last outing in Venice was a visit to the Jewish Ghetto.  Although we were not in time to take a tour of the synagogues, but we did walk about and browse through the shops.  The Jewish community in Venice has been there for centuries.  At first they lived throughout the city, but the doge and his advisors eventually decided to confine the Jewish residents in one small location — Europe’s first Jewish ghetto.  Of course, most of the city’s Jewish population was deported during World War II, but a small number do live in the city today.

Our visit to Venice was far too short.  I would love to spend a couple of weeks there, taking time to explore all the streets and canals before Venice disappears beneath the sea.  The prospect of Venice sinking is not that far-fetched.  As reported in the news every year, high tides flood the city streets each winter.

When we were still in Malta, we saw a news report that the floods had already started this year.  I was hoping to miss them during our visit and we wondered what we would find when we arrived; I suspect the footage shown in the news report was archival (from a past flood).

In fact, throughout the city we saw raised walkways stacked, ready to use.  The lane that led from our apartment to the Ca d’Oro vaporetto stop was especially narrow because of the raised walkway taking up half of the alley.  In Saint Mark’s Square, walkways were already laid out around the basilica.  We were shocked to see that the puddles in existence before we entered the church had grown significantly by the time we were leaving the square.  In fact, we were amazed to see water actively bubbling up out of the drains in the middle of the square.

Today’s Venice is a damp shadow of her former glory, but fascinating and memorable nonetheless.

Thanks for reading!

More Photos

Click a photo for a bigger view, then use the thumbnail photos at the bottom of the page to view all photos from this entry.  Escape button to return.

Birds flocking over the Venice Lagoon.
On our arrival on the island of Burano,
we were greeted by someone’s laundry hanging in the public park.
Burano is known for its lace;
notice the samples hanging outside these shops.
More laundry.
Burano is also known for its brightly coloured homes.
Through the centuries, many commercial fishermen have left
the Burano canals while their wives stayed home and made lace.
An interesting sign.
Doesn’t it make you wonder WHY this quay bore this name?

The church tower of Burano

may be as tilted as the Tower of Pisa!

A small market in Burano.
Waiting for the next vaporetto.
Our next stop, the island of Murano is larger and more prosperous,
but not nearly as colourful.
Murano is also known as the place where
the uber-famous Venetian glass is made.
Scattered around the island were
amazing glass sculptures like this one.
Early morning on the busy Grand Canal.
These men seem to be loading up animal carcasses onto their boat,
probably for delivery to the Rialto market or some butchers’ shops.
This young man was cleaning up his gondola
for a day of cruising the canals with tourists.
The Ca D’Oro Palace/Museum at our vaporetto stop.
Heading down the Grand Canal toward Saint Mark’s Square.
A surprising bit of greenery along the canal — there’s very little around.
The famous Rialto Bridge with a vaporetto and a gondola passing beneath.
The Campanile (clock tower) in Saint Mark’s Square.
Looking toward the mouth of the Grand Canal from the Doge’s Palace.
Scenes from the Doge’s Palace.
An antique gondola on display at the Doge’s Palace.
I’m not sure if the black colour is age or paint!
The Doge’s Palace is on the right, Saint Mark’s Basilica just behind.
Notice that this part of Saint Mark’s Square is piled high with risers
— for walking on when the floods arrive.
Looking across the lagoon at the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore.
A curious carving group outside the Doge’s Palace.
The interior of Saint Mark’s Basilica.
Saint Mark’s is covered with mosaics from top to bottom.
Although there were no official floods during our visit to Venice,
puddles were visible growing in a number of locations.
Here, water was rapidly bubbling up out of the round grate.
Three weeks later is was waist deep.
Here you can see that the Lagoon has already risen
above the edge of the quay.
Saint Mark’s Basilica from across the Square.
Napoleon said Saint Mark’s Square was
the greatest drawing room in Europe.
Dad and I had great views from the exterior balcony of Saint Mark’s Cathedral
— although it did feel a bit unsafe to us.
After leaving Saint Mark’s Square with all its marvels,
we headed to the opposite end of Venice to visit the Jewish Ghetto.
Heading into the Jewish Ghetto.
The centre of the Jewish Ghetto
A memorial wall in the Jewish Ghetto.

Europe Report #8 – Surprised by Tuscany
October 22, 2012

Autumn in San Gimignano, Tuscany

It is early morning — well, half-past eight.  I’m sitting on our patio in Tuscany, watching the sunshine edge up over the fields of grape vines, olive groves and forested hills.  Periodically, I hear gunshots in the distance and sometimes closer, followed by the sound of tracking dogs barking frantically. This surprised me at first, but I suppose it is October.  They must have autumn hunting here as we do at home.  The only real difference is the temperature.  Sitting in the shade here, I’m wearing a light sweater; at home, I’d be bundled up in woolens.

Our accommodation is
in a renovated barn/farmhouse.

We were only able to squeeze two nights and one full day of Tuscany into our schedule and it is turning out to be a wonderful place to visit.  We have just been knocked out by the beauty of this place.  Everyone talks about Tuscany in superlative terms and they don’t exaggerate.  The rolling hills are dotted with fertile fields and rustic farmhouses.  Various hilltops are dotted with walled medieval villages like San Gimignano which is is within sight of our cottage.

We wish we could explore this region for a much longer time.

We are staying in what was once a farm.  The current owners bought the farmhouse and farm buildings in the 1970s.  They remodelled everything from sheds to barn to create a group of apartments for visitors.  One of the largest units, our two-bedroom apartment is in what was once the ground-level barn under the farmhouse.  The grounds are beautifully landscaped and, sitting on the brow of a hill, the entire property has the most beautiful views of the surrounding fields, homes and San Gimignano itself.

San Gimignano was clearly visible from our accommodation.

San Gimignano was once a bustling hilltop town, filled with wealthy merchants and travellers on their way to and from Rome.  The walls protected it from intermittent attacks and regional wars.  In its heyday — about 1300 — the 72 towers it was known for were a symbol of the power and authority of the family groups that built and owned them.  Today there are just a handful of towers left, but they create a most distinctive silhouette on the horizon.

Our one day in this region was dedicated to relaxing, laundry at the farm and a few hours of shopping in San Gimignano.  Too short by far, but so pleasant!

On Sunday, we left early and started heading south again toward Civitavecchia where we were to pick up our cruise back across the Atlantic.  Driving along winding roads, around hills and through forests, we marvelled again at the beauty of this region.  There was mist hanging in some of the valleys.  Sometimes we saw distant plumes of smoke from an autumn fire.  Other times we’d have a glimpse of a hilltop village in the distance; sometimes eventually driving through the village after a long, twisting route.

Many of the hills are heavily wooded.  We started noticing the occasional car parked at the sides of the road.  At first we assumed they belonged to hikers or hunters, but as the next two hours wore on, we estimated seeing more than 200 parked cars.  They couldn’t all be shooting up the forest!  Eventually, we also saw some of the drivers and passengers coming and going with baskets and bags.  Mushrooms!  They were all picking mushrooms!


The ground was warm.

Tuscany is a volcanic region, but rather than suffer from the destructive power of volcanoes, it is spotted with thermal vents or fumaroles   These don’t occur in our part of the world, so I wanted us to stop and see some of these up close.

We were heading for Parco della Fumaroles near Sasso Pisano, halfway to Civitavecchia.  As we drove through the beautiful hills and valleys, we caught a glimpse of what looked like a pair of nuclear reactors — those gigantic eyesores that provide our modern world with so much power.  We thought it was such a shame to have these things cluttering up the beautiful Tuscan landscape.  As we drew closer, I began to remember some of my research on Tuscany.  These weren’t nuclear reactors.  They were collecting thermal energy from this volcanic region!  Then we realized we hadn’t been seeing smoke from autumn fires in the valleys.  The smoke was really steam escaping from harnessed and unharnessed thermal vents in the earth!

We soon drove through the sleepy village of Sasso Pisano and up the hill behind town.  We pulled into a small parking area with a sign marked Fumaroles   There was a huge pile of barren earth beyond a small fence; it looked like it was a bit of landslide that had recently come down the hillside.  No plants grew on it and the colour of the rocks was different from the surrounding area.  As we approached, we could see tendrils of steam floating up from the ground into the morning air.  It was amazing.  It was hard to see exactly where the steam came out of the earth; it just seemed to be there above the rocks.  We felt the rocks themselves and found them quite warm, but not hot.

We drove about a kilometre further into the valley and walked into another park area.  It was closed off to visitors (it was still early on a Sunday morning), but we could see through the fencing that this was an even more active area.  There was hot, steaming water running through the valley with large plumes of steam rising in several places.  Hot, bubbling mud was also clearly visible.  Quite fascinating!  I wish we could have had a guided tour of the area.

Rome’s Port – Civitavecchia

Port of Civitavecchia

We continued to head south and, driving along the coast, reached our hotel in the port city of Civitavecchia by early afternoon.  We unloaded all our luggage and left Mom and the Kid enjoying the sunshine on the hotel patio.  Dad and I still needed to drive another hour south to the Rome airport (Fiumicino) where we would leave our car.

When we arrived at the remote drop-off point at a very distant airport parking area, Dad and I again marvelled at the ease of the Renault Buy-Back program.  It took us less than five minutes (including chit-chat) to enter the Renault parking lot, park the car, sign a paper, turn over the keys and board the shuttle back to the airport.  They didn’t ask us one question about the car and never looked at it themselves.  A great system!

The shuttle took us to the area of the airport where a train station is also located.  We purchased train tickets for Civitavecchia and immediately caught the train.  We travelled toward Rome for about eight stops, then changed trains.  It was a little confusing; I wasn’t completely sure which platform we needed, but we followed some signs and other travellers also trying to reach Civitavecchia.  We thought that, if we were lost, we’d be lost together!  The second train arrived within a couple of minutes; that ride lasted about 45 minutes and did, in fact, stop in Civitavecchia.  Whew!  Our connections were perfect and far faster than I’d anticipated.  We didn’t see any cabs heading toward our hotel, so Dad and I began walking.  Our hotel wasn’t more than two kilometres away; we made it in record time, but were very hot and tired.

Tomorrow we board our ship and start heading west.  Thanks for reading!

Europe # 9 – Pass Me Another Gravol, Please!

November 6, 2012

As I write this chapter, the sun is coming up on the calm sea that stretches from my window to beyond the horizon.  These two weeks on board Holland America’s Noordam have been a fascinating experience.  This is my first cruise and has provided a little of everything!

Alicante, Malaga, Cadiz and Funchal

Alicante Promenade

Our first week was spent travelling through the Mediterranean and out to Madeira Island in the Atlantic.  Alicante (Spain) was the first port of call.  We all trooped out of the ship and took the port bus to where the port meets the town.  Like many Mediterranean cities, Alicante has a gorgeous promenade along the shoreline.  We found it just delightful.  Paved in a a wavy pattern of tiles and lined with mature palms trees and hedges, it is an oasis of beauty surrounded by all the typical trappings of a busy city — wild traffic, shops, restaurants, hustle and bustle.  We strolled a few blocks along the promenade and then walked a couple of streets into the city before heading back.  Although we would love to have explored further, we were actually pretty tired from our three weeks of sightseeing and just didn’t have the energy to do any more walking.  We did come across a small museum I’d read about – the Museum of the Nativity.  It was a collection of nativity sets from around the world.  We found it enchanting.  We ended our visit to Alicante with a gelato stop on the promenade and watched the world go by for a few minutes.

The next day, we stopped in Malaga (Spain).  Unfortunately, it was pouring rain all day, so we just enjoyed the peace and quiet of the ship.  That night we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar.  I would love to have seen this in the daytime, but I did wake up as the ship rolled and rocked through the stronger currents of the Atlantic.

Our stop that day was in Cadiz (Spain).  The rain let up for a few hours while Dad, the Kid and I headed out to explore this ancient city.  The ship was docked right at the edge of the oldest part of the town, so we had only a short walk before we were surrounded by tall buildings and walking through a largely pedestrianized area.  Our first goal was to visit the city market.  Quite easy to find, it consists of an area of semi-enclosed buildings.  Two main aisles run the length of the market and are filled with nothing but fish and seafood.  We’ve never seen so much!  There were huge piles of shrimp, octopus and squid, all kinds of fish.  We even saw the head and part of the body of a huge tuna.  Nothing tinned here!  Most of what we saw, we couldn’t identify.  The other aisles of the market had fresh vegetables, meat and cheese.  But, by far, the main product offered was fish and seafood.

After perusing all these food items we couldn’t buy (as if the ship doesn’t have enough sustenance for all), we walked a few blocks to the northern shore of Cadiz.  There we strolled through a beautiful coastline park.  It holds many exotic plants, representing the flora found by Spanish explorers during their world voyages.  The park was pretty damp because of the rain of the last few days, but it was a beautiful walk.  We followed the park almost back to the ship where we joined Mom on board for lunch.

Two days later we reached Madeira Island (Portugal) well into the Atlantic Ocean.  The  ship docked before we were up so we were greeted by the beautiful sight of the town of Funchal, climbing up the mountainsides.  I had been looking forward to visiting the hilltop parks above Funchal, but the shipboard staff had warned us that recent weather in Madeira had fostered an increase in mosquitoes that carried the Dengue Fever virus.  None of us cared to risk catching such a disease, so we stayed on board again and watched the rain and clouds close in on the town.  Oh, well.  We’ll just have to come back for another visit.

Our sunset departure was the beginning of nearly four days of severe weather.  Argh.  We passed through a strong gale that just didn’t quit.  Our poor ship rocked and rolled, dipped and wallowed through the waves.  We passed through short periods of rain, but most of the time it was just high winds and waves.  During this time, we watched Hurricane Sandy on television.  It was very strange to see the storm on the screen and then to look out our windows at the wild seas we were in ourselves.  During a couple of these storm days, I spent most of my time just lying on my bed.  Although I never became seriously seasick (a steady dose of gravol helped!), I usually felt woozy from the constant rocking.

We were so grateful to see the gales finally subside, although we continued to go through some heavy swells that the Captain said were part of the Sandy storm system.  When we first boarded, I had noticed the handrails in every corridor and room.  “How nice,” I thought.  “They really look after all the seniors on board!”  Silly me.  By the time rough weather hit us, we ALL needed those wonderful railings!

Life on Board the Noordam

Since this is my first cruise, I don’t have much to compare it to.  Mom and Dad felt this facilities and dining experience was excellent, compared to their previous very short cruise experience.  We enjoyed amazing care from all the staff.  Krista had a great time schmoozing with the staff and guests.  She got to know all the shop staff very well!

The dining was unfailingly excellent.  We took breakfast and lunch in the Pinnacle Grill.  This buffet dining room filled a good part of the Lido deck.  The varied food stations offered a great selection, sometimes with dishes cooked to order.  We always enjoyed the gorgeous orchids sitting on each table.  Every time I see an orchid now, I think about our cruise.

We enjoyed dinners in the Main Dining Room.  When I had booked the cruise, our travel agent assumed we would want a table for four.  “Oh, no,” I said.  “Dad and the Kid need people to talk to.  The more the better!”  So, we were assigned a table for eight.  We wondered what these people would be like.  We were very surprised to find that all our co-diners were Canadian!  I would have enjoyed meeting people from other places, but this offered us a unique opportunity to visit with people from other parts of Canada.  Carole and John were from the Niagara Peninsula.  Earl and Jan were from New Brunswick.  They were all delightful and we thoroughly enjoyed their company.

The dinners in the Dining Room were fabulous.  Mom and I particularly enjoyed the cold fruit soups that were offered each day and the many fish dishes that were on the menu.

What did we do all day?  It was really very relaxing.  We snoozed.  We watched TV.  We watched those nasty swells outside the window.  We took in a few afternoon movies and evening shows.  We read.  We snoozed some more.  We attended the daily Bible study.  We shopped.  We explored.  Dad went to a variety of computer classes.  I came to the conclusion that life on board ship is really a matter of putting in time between meals.

With all the rain we had,
we were also blessed
with many, many rainbows.

Finally, after two weeks of gravol, we entered Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  We had booked a hotel for the night and weren’t flying home until the next day, so we weren’t under any pressure to leave the ship quickly.  Once on the dock, we were really happy to find a porter who was able to help us through the handicapped service line and get us on a taxi right away.  That was a huge relief.

The End of Another Great Trip

The next morning we headed home to Toronto.  It’s always good to get home after a long trip.  Even a wonderful trip like this one.  In the following days, everyone I saw mentioned how rested I looked; I think the cruise was responsible for that!

We’ve had a wonderful time driving through Europe and then paddling across the Atlantic.  Our brief stops in Spain have encouraged me to look at visiting that beautiful country in more depth on another trip.  We were able to manage every challenge that came along (mixing up airports in Milan and getting lost in Malta spring to mind).  We didn’t have any major health issues (Thank you, Lord!).  None of our reservations proved to be unreliable or inappropriate.

We discovered that Malta is an absolutely extraordinary place and we’d love to go back.  Our taste for Tuscany has only been whetted; we must go back there!  Even in the rain, Switzerland is spectacular.  And the Atlantic?  Well, yes, it’s full of water!

Until next time (no, we don’t have anything planned at this point) — thanks for reading!

More Photos

Alicante, Spain

Bird of Paradise blossom in Alicante.
Alicante shoreline – notice the clear water.
There’s a castle ruin on top of the hill, looming over Alicante.
I’d love to go back and tour it.
Dad and the Kid on the promenade at Alicante.
A close-up of the Alicante promenade.

Leaving Alicante at the end of the day.

Cadiz, Spain

The Noordam docked at Cadiz.

What did we do all day?  It was really very relaxing.  We snoozed.  We watched TV.  We watched those nasty swells outside the window.  We took in a few afternoon movies and evening shows.  We read.  We snoozed some more.  We attended the daily Bible study.  We shopped.  We explored.  Dad went to a variety of computer classes.  I came to the conclusion that life on board ship is really a matter of putting in time between meals.

With all the rain we had,
we were also blessed
with many, many rainbows.

Finally, after two weeks of gravol, we entered Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  We had booked a hotel for the night and weren’t flying home until the next day, so we weren’t under any pressure to leave the ship quickly.  Once on the dock, we were really happy to find a porter who was able to help us through the handicapped service line and get us on a taxi right away.  That was a huge relief.

The End of Another Great Trip

The next morning we headed home to Toronto.  It’s always good to get home after a long trip.  Even a wonderful trip like this one.  In the following days, everyone I saw mentioned how rested I looked; I think the cruise was responsible for that!

We’ve had a wonderful time driving through Europe and then paddling across the Atlantic.  Our brief stops in Spain have encouraged me to look at visiting that beautiful country in more depth on another trip.  We were able to manage every challenge that came along (mixing up airports in Milan and getting lost in Malta spring to mind).  We didn’t have any major health issues (Thank you, Lord!).  None of our reservations proved to be unreliable or inappropriate.

We discovered that Malta is an absolutely extraordinary place and we’d love to go back.  Our taste for Tuscany has only been whetted; we must go back there!  Even in the rain, Switzerland is spectacular.  And the Atlantic?  Well, yes, it’s full of water!

Until next time (no, we don’t have anything planned at this point) — thanks for reading!

More Photos

Click a photo for a bigger view, then use the thumbnail photos at the bottom of the page to view all photos from this entry.  Escape button to return.

Alicante, Spain

Bird of Paradise blossom in Alicante.
Alicante shoreline – notice the clear water.
There’s a castle ruin on top of the hill, looming over Alicante.
I’d love to go back and tour it.
Dad and the Kid on the promenade at Alicante.
A close-up of the Alicante promenade.
Leaving Alicante at the end of the day.

Cadiz, Spain

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