A Travellerspoint blog

Switzerland, Northern Italy, France and Spain

bumping our way back home -- bear with us it's a long one!

sunny 38 °C

The drive to Switzerland from Prague was very long, but also quite interesting. From the Czech Republic, back into Germany (hello to GPS and thank you very much!) for a majority of the drive, then into a tip of Austria (are those the Alps???) and then into Switzerland (Yes, those ARE the Alps!!!) and finally to our couchsurf host in Sargans. Hot, tired and thirsty and welcomed in with a wonderful pasta meal, cold water and wine. AHHH...

Our couchsurf host told us that we´d have one hot and sunny day before the weather was going to change and suggested we take a hike in the ¨Heidi village¨, officially known as Maienfeld to visit the home and area of Heidi, a very famous children´s story character.

Maienfeld – Heidi's World...Maienfeld in the distinctive Bündner Herrschaft region of Graubünden inspired the poetess Johanna Spyri to write her novel Heidi. In the Heidi village, the story of this cheerful, nature-loving little orphan girl comes to life...

At the tourist information center, it was äll things Heidi¨and very, very, very expensive. Well, everything in Switzerland is expensive. The money in Switzerland (swiss francs) is perhaps the most beautiful money we´ve ever seen

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It´s actually more of a tyvek than paper consistency and is possibly has the most anti-counterfeit measures of all currency. Those Swiss are so well organized and ready for everything.

The hike up to the Heidi village was lovely. It was hot, but every few hundred meters there was a tap with cold spring water and a beautiful concrete basin-pool. The girls practically went swimming in them..

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We marvelled at the abundance of clean, fresh water along the way. What a beautiful hike! What a beautiful place! It made us all want to yodel....or dunk our heads!

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On the way back to Sargans, we popped into Leichenstein, as the girls wanted to say they visited yet another European country. After a delightful day, we returned to Sargans and prepared a typical Spanish omelette for the family. What an amazing kitchen. The German-Swiss German engineering is remarkable in its functionality, design and aesthetic appeal. Dream on Shari, dream on!

The following day we drove to Zurich. With all those mountains come a lot of mountain tunnels and waterways. Zurich is located on the western edge of Lake Zurich. Lake Zurich is an expansive lake that spans a distance of about 25 miles. It is simply inviting. We parked the car in the Hyatt hotel (the ¨cheapest¨parking lot in the center at 23 swiss francs (about 23 dollars) for 5 hours. What a bargain!. We spent the day sightseeing.

We were in Zurich on Saturday, lucky for us, as Saturday is flea market day. We walked ourselves right into the middle of this enormous flea market and were ecstatic to be able to browse for relatively inexpensive items. Marleigh walked away with a pikachu and Andy a t-shirt. We didn´t buy much else, with the exception of a simple lunch at a local Starbucks for well over 30 swiss francs. We found Zurich to be a clean, tranquil and very picturesque city.

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After our outing, we had planned to go grocery shopping, but by 6:00 pm, all the shops...ALL THE SHOPS...were closed. Fortunately for us, our couchsurf host had pizza dough at the ready and we had an amazing DIY pizza party.

On Sunday our host took us on a walk of the old part of Sargans and up to the castle. She told us about a well-being (health) tradition of immersing our arms (first) following by our legs into cold, spring water, so of course we had to try it.

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she also told us about the extensive underground tunnels built into the mountains that were excavated during WW II. The Swiss were not invaded by Germany (Hitler had said that he would first conquer the big stuff, then come back for the small and the war ended before he ever got to Switzerland), but were prepared to hide in the hills.

For lunch we had raclett, a melted cheese, slow food experience...fenomenal! We finally managed to connect with a friend from Oregon who now lives in a village not far from Sargans (how serendipitous!). We met up in the town of Rapperswil and had a great time chatting about Swiss culture and cultural differences. Thanks Hania for taking time from you busy life to spend time with us!

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After four nights and three days in Switzerland, we moved on to our next destination, northern Italy!! We left Sargans and spend the next few hours driving through the Italian speaking canton of Switzerland. Once again, we learned something new..that in Switzerland not only is there the French speaking part and the German speaking part, but there is one canton in the south that borders Italy where the people speak Italian. The flavor and essence of this area feels very different and transitional toward Italy. It was an absolutely spectacular drive through tunnels and windy mountain roads. We stopped in the Swiss-Italian town of San Bernadino and tried to spend the remaining Swiss Francs, but most everything was closed up. So onward to Bellizona for lunch and a stroll. It´s a very pretty town and the prices of everything are more on par with the rest of western Europe. We said arrivederci to Switzerland and ciao to Italy.

NORTHERN ITALY

Our stop for the first two nights was a bed and breakfast in the wine producing region in the north. We had wanted to stay in the coastal city of Genoa, but it was too expensive. So, we found this lovely and tranquil place, located in the village of Incisa Scapaccino, near the village of Nizza. It was hot and muggy, but we were very happy to find a restaurant in Nizza that served fresh and yummy home made pasta!

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On our second day, we took an excursion to the Mediterranean coast, to a small coastal town (Varazze). Most of the beaches are private and it costs a small fortune to sit un an umbrella...as we were only there for a few hours, we opted to find a tiny section of public beach. The girls found beautiful pebbles on the beach and got themselves wet. We drove along the coastal road, ate gelatto and did our best to stay out of the heat.

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We only stayed in Incisa Scapaccino for two nights. From there, we headed west to a couchsurfing host in the village of Demonte. As we had the entire day and not much distance to cover, we spent a good part of the day in the town of Cuneo...doing laundry...Howeer, at a cost of 1 euro for 5 minutes of drying time meant that after 15-20 minutes (and the clothes were still very damp!), we opted to wait and hang dry our clothes.

Every single Couchsurf has been so different and each one is full of lovely surprises. Our Couchsurf family in Demonte was so charming. A young couple with a 9 month old bambino (or is that bambina?), named Lorenza. Dario made us feel at home in his house and insisted on feeding us the entire time we were there. He told us about amazing hikes we needed to take and things to do in his community. The thing is...if you try to find information on little towns like Demonte, or even Cuneo, these are not typical turistic towns and so it's difficult to find out information. This is what we love about couchsurfing. We often end up in very small villages, where the people welcome us into their homes and tell us about great places to see and things to do.

For example, Dario told us that just past the next little village of Vinadio was the highest ermita (small church) called St. Anna. Another thing we learned is that the people in this region, and also in parts of France and Spain speak dialect called Occitania, which is a cross between Italian, Spanish and French. Who knew?

We drove up and up and up and for 15 kilometers up an incredibly windy and narrow road to this church. We walked around and admired it all. Absolutely fantastic!

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We returned back for a pizza dinner, but this was a one pizza pan per person pizza. Mamma mia!!

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Italy is similar to Spain where extended family members join together. A six-year old cousin, Alicia, came over to the house and quickly warmed up to the girls. Altough she spoke only Italian and the girls English/Spanish, they played all sorts of games and had such a great time together. We stayed with this family for only 2-nights, but had such a nice time.

Before leaving, we stopped by the shop where Stefania worked, then went on an amazing tour of the St. Anna spring water bottling plant. Dario is an engineer there and showed us around is state-of-the-art, very small, yet extraordinarily productive plant. As impressed as we were by the mechanization of the systems, we could not help but think about all that plastic being utilized for all those bottles of water.

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FROM ITALY BACK INTO FRANCE

We left northwestern Italy and in short time were back into France. Our next destination, a couchsurf host who lived in the village of Trets. She had told us that there was a medievil festival going on and that we could find her dressed in period costume in the town. After a long and hot drive, we arrived in Trets, parked the car and quickly found ourselves in the medievil period. We found our host, along with her hens and her rabbits.

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We hadn't eaten, so she gave the freshly laid eggs (from her chickens) to her friend who had a restaurant and in no time at all we had an amazing meal waiting for us.

It was very, very hot in Trets and the house we were staying used to be a shop for bonsai plants. The owner was in the process, for 8 years, of doing restauration work and it indeed was a work in progress. We shared the space with her dog, cat, newly hatched chicks and unfortunately lots of flies. The girls opted to sleep outside and awoke one morning to a rooster cock-a-doodle-do'ing in their face! The heat prevented us from feeling like doing much, so aside from touring the medievil festival, we lounged and tried our best to stay cool.

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After two nights in Trets, we drove back into Spain.

TRETS TO SPAIN

Rather than stay longer in France, we opted to push ahead and get back into northeastern Spain. We used the website 'airbnb' to find a nice apartment in the village of Castelló d'Empúries, located not far from the coast. The apartment was new, new, new, but...within 30-minutes of checking in and showering, we found ourselves in the midst of an owner's worst nightmare. The drain pipe was clogged up and all of a sudden there was grey water backflowing everywhere in the apartment. Only, it wasn't limited to just the apartment. It was flooding into the basement and into every other apartment in the building. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday evening and there was not a plumber to be found. So -- we had ourselves a private swimming pool (YUCK),

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but all was resolved by the next morning and the owners felt so bad that they refunded our money for the first night.

Our first full day there was spent exploring the village (and touring a medievil prison!) while the plumbers were fixing the situation. In the afternoon, we drove to the coastal town of L'Escala. There, the girls quickly noticed the loose dress code of the Spanish women and decided to count the number of women sans bikini tops. I don't remember the number, but needless to say it was significant! The beach and town was just delightful!

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The next day, from Castelló d'Empúriesto we headed further south in Catalunya and to a couchsurfer who lives in a neighborhood just outside of Barcelona, Tiana. As we had the entire day to explore, we set out for the picturesque village of Cadaques. To the north, in Porlligat, is the home of Salvador Dali. We were unable to get a tour of his former home, but walked around the outside of his former estate.

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We we stayed (Tiana) for three nights and well....we only managed to get into Barcelona for the first day. We were not used the heat and after walking all around the city for a day...the heat just about knocked us out. We did manage to see many of Gaudi's works, but unfortunately did not get to La Sagrada Familia.

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We stayed with a woman who is a piano teacher and not only does she have three pianos, but she also has a harpischord. But, more importantly for the girls, she had a kitten/cat (named Bruno).

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We learned a bit more about the Catalan struggle within the empire of Spain. In all of Catalunya, the mother tongue is not Spanish, but Catalan. While most people speak Spanish, they kind of....prefer...not...to. It seems to me that their biggest dream is to be free and independent and so they can identify more with the country of Portugal rather than being Spanish.

From Tiana, we were invited to stay with friends of friends....folks that we never met, but are dear friends of ours in Oregon. They live in Vilafranca de Penedes which is perhaps 20 km southwest of Barcelona. You know when you have dear friends and then you meet their friends you make an immediate connection. When we met with Regina and Luis, it was as if we'd known them all our life ...and it felt a bit like the alter universe of our friends in Bend, Oregon.

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What a great time we had relaxing in Vilafranca, meeting their friends, having a phenomenal wine tour and more. What a fantastic way to more-or-less wrap up our two month travel journey.

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We are so happy we got to meet Regina and Luis and look forward to seeing the entire family during the Christmas holidays in Oregon.

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Although we could have made the drive from Vilafranca to Madrid in one day, we opted split the drive in half. So, we stopped at the mid-way point in the tiny village of Sabinan. We spent the night in an apartment and once again met an amazing family. The husband, Titus Crijnen makes harpsichords. We had a relaxing evening and next day there; the girls decided to do some hair styling
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-- and then off to Barajas...

We spent a night in a hostel just 1 km from the airport. After a hot and restless sleep, we got our niece off to the airport, for her flight back to Philadelphia, PA. "We miss you already...Come back for Christmas, if not sooner!"

We drove back to Plasencia and have just a few days to organize our belongings before heading back home to Oregon. Although we have a bit more time in Spain, we have an immense amount of work to do and so -- with that I'll be ending up the travel blog.

Thanks everyone for reading and staying with us. This entire year has been so incredible. We've made friendships and hope that we can maintain connections. We have lots and lots of things to do when we get back to Oregon, one of which is to settle back into the community and start earning an income. We hope to continue with our Spanish and also hope to either teach or volunteer teaching English.

Hace casi dos meses que no hemos hablado Espanol -- pero quiero decir que esperamos que podemos mantener contacto con nuestros amigos no solo en Espana sino en todos partes.

Abrazos, abrazos, abrazos muy fuerte - Shari y familia

Posted by farmgirl 09:28 Archived in Spain Tagged france italy switzerland couchsurf Comments (0)

Berlin (Dresden) - Prague (Czech Republic) - Switzerland

Let's not forget Liechtenstein or Austria!

sunny 34 °C

From Hildesheim, Germany we headed east toward Berlin. We took a small break in Brandenburg, then arrived at our next Couchsurf host, located in a very lovely neighborhood outside the center of Berlin (Falkensee). Lots of solar panels, bicycle paths, trees, narrow, cobblestone streets. It was hard to believe we were within a 30-minute train ride of 'downtown' Berlin.

We stayed with another wonderful host family with two children (ages 17 and 12) along with an exchange student/friend from Canada. We took over the third floor and remarked that if felt a bit like a "souped up" version of Harold's place outside of Canterbury, England. We joined the family for home cooked meals and our host was so helpful in telling us where we should begin with our 2-day sightseeing tour of Berlin. Of course 2-days is hardly adequate to see the sights of Berlin, but that's all we had.

It is truly amazing how little we all know about Berlin, or Germany, except for the very small bits we learned in our world history books. We bought a group train ticket and worked our way into the center. First stop: Potsdamer Platz and the Sony Center. Then, we walked to the Brandenberg Gate, which symbolizes the unity of peace of not only the former east/west Berlin, east/west Germany, but of all peoples. We first entered the 'room of silence and tolerance', then watched street perfomers and soaked in the positive energy.

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On the way to the Gate we noticed a monument and memoral dedicated to homosexual persecution in Berlin and Germany during the Nazi Regime. I've never seen anything quite like it.

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There is also a museum in Berlin dedicated to the persecution of homosexuals, but unfortunately we did not have a chance to see it. To me Berlin feels like a place of reconciliation and healing. When one hears a certain name of a city (for example Dachau) it's very difficult to not associate it with war atrocities. It feels to me like the city of Berlin feels a deep responsibility - an obligation - to have memorials, museums and monuments, as well as being a beacon of human rights. From the Brandenberg gate we walked back through the Holocaust Memorial. There are two parts to the memorial, the steely gray concrete blocks (that are meant to depict barren, despair and confusion and emptiness amist closeness).

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The bottom part is a museum with stories, photographs and video. As the sign said "not recommended for under 14", we decided not to go in. One has to have knowledge of that horrific past and be ready to bear witness to the atrocities committed before entering and seeing it all. There is plenty of time for Marleigh to learn about this dark and disturbing time in history.

We went back to Potsdamer Platz and headed to another historic monument - a small section of the Berlin wall with an interpretive section.

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We quickly realized there was a narrow set of bricks on the ground outlining where the former wall used to be. We followed it all around, until it took us to a longer section of the wall, and now a monument), called "the topography of terror". This is a substantial section of the Berlin wall (perhaps 200 meters) with lots of 'pick marks'. On the other side are remnants of the former S.S. headquarters - Hitler's headquarters. The site is now a memorial, monument and museum and provides an overview of the entrance of the Nazi party into the German government, it's dominance, expansion, oppression and repression, the war, holocaust and aftermath, and the cold war and division of Berlin.

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From there we walked a short distance up to see the remains of "Checkpoint Charlie" and now all the tourism that has ensured. I have to say that for all the historical significance of Checkpoint Charlie during the cold war, I was disappointed with its' current presentation. There is too much tourism and selling of "pieces of the wall" and former Soviet Union and Russian chachkas, instead of presenting this important portion of the wall with more historical context.

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We stopped in for a glance at the Trabi musuem which contains a collection of Trabant cars. The cars work and are ready for a tourist sight-seeing adventure.

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We found our S-bahn stop and took the S-bahn back to Falkansee to the CouchSurf host for the evening. The next day we returned to the center of Berlin and started with a walk along the eastside Berlin wall gallery. A 1200 meter section of the wall (the largest remaining intact section) which has been converted into a mural art gallery. Local artists and artists from around the world came to leave their everlasting impressions.

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As it was the first day of warmth and sunshine we'd experienced in several weeks, we spent the majority of the day walking around the center, peeking into shops and exhibits, watching amazing street musicians and enjoying the atmosphere.

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One thing we all commented on is the vibrant nature of Berlin. It is a mix of old and new and there are construction projects everywhere. There is modern and bold architecture mixed in with classic and historic. It is also remarkably clean. As I commented before and I wsill frankly state it again, I (we) know surprisingly little (okay, I'll just say it - I (we are) am ignorant of the rich history and culture of Berlin, Germany and every place we have visited (or plan to visit). We left Berlin zentrum at 5:00 pm and returned to a family bbq at the CS host family. They had purchased vegetarian bratwurst (is that ever an oxymoron!) for us. We met family members and friends and learned much more about life in Berlin and Germany during WW II and the cold war.

On July 23rd we bade farewell to Berlin and headed off for another grand adventure - Prague, Czech Republic. Our CS host suggested we stop in Dresden. All we knew about Dresden is that it was bombed heavily in WW II. A bit of advice (perhaps this is lesson #4 in Couchsurfing): when a local makes a suggestion about a place to visit, take them up on their suggestion. First we went to the neustadt (new city) and walked around. Then we saw a postcard of the river and saw some incredible buildings. We were told that was the altstadt (old city). We drove over a bridged, parked the car and walked around for just over an hour. It was absolutely fantastic and we made a mental note that Dresden deserves much more than an hour+ to explore.

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GERMANY TO THE CZECH REPUBLIC

As we neared the Czech Republic border, the GPS unit started freaking out. Fortunately we were somewhat prepared as we had tried to put in the address of the pension in Prague the night before and the GPS didn't recognize it. Although the GPS unit is supposed to work worldwide, I don't think the Eastern Europe maps were ever loaded up. So, we used our old fashioned road atlas Europe and a paper copy of Google map directions to make our way...but they failed us miserably as we entered into the Czech Republic. We missed an exit and got hopelessly lost in a small town, where no body spoke English. As we were unable to comprehend one single workd in Czech, we resorted to pointing frantically at the map.

We finally found ourselves in the northern sector of Prague (Praha 8), but could not find our way to our hotel. Fortunately we found a gas station, bought a wonderfully detailed map/atlas of Prague and within moments navigated our way to the Pension Sparta. Earlier on we had arrangements with a Couchsurf host, but for a number of reasons needed to change our plans. The Pension Sparta was a fantastic find; we had two rooms (one for Andy and I, and one for the girls), included was a full breakfast for a total of 81 euros/night. Equally our dinner, metro tickets and general merchandise was considerably cheaper than what we've experienced in the western European countries we've visited.

On July 24th, after an amazing breakfast of eggs, bread, cheese, jam, chocolate, tea, coffee, juice, we walked first to a grocery store, then to the tram station (the day before when we were hopeless lost, we purchased some snacks with euros and received Czech koruna (25 Kč = 1 euro) which we needed for our tram tickets. Although the manager of Pension Sparta more or less told us which tram station to take to get to the center of Prague, it really was 'all Greek" (okay, all Czech) to us. It is a very odd feeling to have people speaking and have absolutely NO clue what they are saying...not a single word...nada...zippo...zilch. Nonetheless, we got off in the Centrum and wandered the streets of Prague. First stop - an ATM machine where we received a wad of Kč (which really wasn't much money).

As we walked the streets, the girls "mall radar" kicked in and they spotted the Palladium, a very large indoor mall that is situated over the remains of
foundations of 12th-century structures. The medieval structures and walls have been incorporated into the architecture of the mall. We promised the girls we would return after we did a bit of sightseeing of Prague. We went to the Old Town Square and walked up the the Old Town Hall Tower & Astronomical Clock. From there we had a fantastic view of all of Prague.

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As it was quite hot (we just weren't used to the heat and sun), we ducked in and out of souvenir shops. By mid-afternoon it was time to head back to the Palladium mall and find some food. Shortly there after we took a tram back to Praha 8 and relaxed in our pension.

For our second day (and last) day in Prague, we started our adventure in a slightly different location. We crossed the infamous Charles Bridge (it took quite a long time as there were artists, vendors, musicians and a lot of people crossing the bridge).

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We wandered the streets and walked our way toward the Prague Castle. On the way, we wandered into a cathedral called St. Nicholas, built in a baroque style. WOW! Perhaps the most ornate and impressive cathedral we've ever seen!

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We didn't pay to enter the grounds but walked all around. Marleigh had her eyes on a little mole character (in Czech originally called Krtek, or Krteček (little mole)) which was a popular TV cartoon character. Unfortunately this little mole was kind of expensive.

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We obviously didn't spend enough time in Prague and I think this is the kind of city where going with a guided tour, or tour bus could be very, very useful. So, we'll add this city to the growing list of cities to return to.

We left Prague on July 26th and had a very long drive ahead of us. We actually left our pension fairly early, but got terribly lost leaving Prague. When we finally left Prague and were on the highway toward Germany - Austria - Switzerland, it was nearly noon. This was a day of driving..quick stops...driving...quick stops, etc. Finally, at about 7:00 pm we arrived at our next couchsurfing destination in Sargans, Switzerland.

SWITZERLAND, LIECHTENSTEIN, ITALY AND BEYOND -- and for the next blog entry

While we still have plenty of adventure left, we are also coming to the end of our European travels and life abroad. Travel is exhilerating; travel expands the mind; but travel is also exhausting. We are all winding down and looking forward to settling in back home and not living out of a suitcase and not having to wear the same semi-stinky clothes each day. For us, we'll get a chance to re-collect ourselves back in Plasencia, Spain and hopefully connect once again with all the friends we've made this past year. We'll be coming into Plasencia on August 14th (late afternoon) and will be there until August 19th (early afternoon). We'll have lots to do, but also want to spend time socializing and catching up.

Until the next entry...
Abrazos, Shari and family

Posted by farmgirl 14:46 Archived in Switzerland Tagged prague austria germany dresden berlin czech switzerland republic couchsurf Comments (0)

Netherlands and Beyond

...well, at least to Germany!

overcast 19 °C

We were not able to find a couchsurfing host in or near Amsterdam, so after a lot of searching came up with a small apartment in a nearby suburb called Almere-Haven. This community is built on a sector of land was was once underwater. It seems that the Dutch people are very good at making waterways and building land. The Dutch people also use bicycles in a way that we, in the USA, need to take lessons on. Bicyclists have the right of way, there are incredible bicycle paths and bicycles are truly seen and used as a means of transport.

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We were able to drive our car to the northern side of Amsterdam, then catch a little ferry boat that took a 2-minute ride across the large canal. On our first day in Amsterdam, the morning started off very cold and rainy. We went for tourist shop to tourist shop. Ansley and Eden purchased winter hats with AMSTERDAM written on them and at every shop we were amazed at the variety and kinds of merchandise available. Perhaps I'll leave it to all of your imagination as to what kinds of merchandise is available...but once you recall that Amsterdam is famous for it's liberal views on hemp and 'red-lights' you can imagine what you can find. And many of the cafes sell way more than coffee! And of course Amsterdam is known for it's over 100 canals, house boats, boat tours, bicycles (wow!!!) and many historic monuments.

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Needless to say the aroma of Amsterdam is distinctive and full of 'second-hand smoke' of a particular kind.

In the afternoon of our first day, we "queued up" in a very long line and waited a good 45-minutes to visit the Anne Frank house. This was the house the Frank family hid in for 2-years to escape persecution by the Nazi regime. Of course we know how this horrific story ends, but what an honor to pay hommage to Anne Frank, her family, the others who hid with her...and to all the people whose lives were impacted by the holocaust.

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While Amsterdam has a rich history and is filled with wonderful museums, cathedrals and other attractions, the older girls were very curious about the infamous red light district. Marleigh had NO interest and kept asking if had entered or exited the zone. She kept asking us:"Why is it called the red light district?" and the girls told her: "Because there are lots of red lights." It was kind of difficult to really know whether we were in the district or not, as on every street and street corner are signs and shops with overt displays of things relating to sex. However, somehow we did manage to stumble across a street that really was quite "red light" and as the girls took a quick glance down the street they noticed very scantily clad women standing in the window waiting for a customer, and then curtains closing behind them. As this is something we are not accustomed to seeing (and it isn't like we really saw anything), it was difficult to imagine and comprehend it being so opened. The girls were truly shocked and asked and really interesting introspective question: "How do the woman feel about what they are doing?" "How do they feel about themselves?"

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The next day we decided to try a 1-hr canal/boat tour. The canals are used as a means of transport, recreation and living quarters and of course form the unique history and shape of this fascinating city. Two days just isn't enough time to see much of anything in Amsterdam, only enough time to take in the ambience.

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From Amsterdam we headed to another couchsurf host in the village of Soest, just 1/2 hour south. This was a "last minute request" as some of our tentative couchsurf host plans changed (last minute) and we were left scrambling. We are learning a lot of lessons about couchsurfing as we 'surf' our way through portions of Europe. Here are a few key points we are learning:

1) remain flexible - with couchsuring one never knows what one will find when arriving. Sleeping arrangements, host expectations, meals and customs all vary from place to place. Being flexible is key.

2) remain open to new things -- this is pretty much the same as #1 with the exception of trying new things and places and just taking in the experience.

3) People's (hosts) plans can change - be ready for it. As people are inviting others into their homes, they can also uninvite others into their homes. Family emergencies, changes in plans, changes in one's mind can and do happen.

Couchsurfing is awesome, but it is also nice to have private (family) time. Every Couchsurf host has been different. All have opened up their homes and lives to us and each time we have been welcomed. Couchsurfing is a testament to the goodness in us all and we are very happy to participate in this person-to-person social networking experience.

From Holland we headed off to Germany (northern) and with that another language and another couchsurfing host. People say that Dutch is related to German, but we can't see it. We could not make any sense of the Dutch words we saw. We can make a little sense of some German words.

Our first couchsurf host in Germany lived in the lovely town of Bramsche. When she asked us why we picked her, interestingly enough one of the things that attracted us to her profile was her profile picture of her cat! What a wonderful stay we had in Bramsche. Here we were treated to wonderful meals. We explored Osnabruck (home of an amazing museum that houses the art work of Felix Nussbaum, an artist who unfortunately was captured by the Nazis while hiding in a secret studio. He was taken to Auschwitz with his wife and killed just one month before the end of the war. The museum was designed by Daniel Libeskind is an interesting, disturbing and bizarre space. It was intentionally designed that way to align with the life and death of Felix Nussbaum. Osnabruck is deemed the 'city of peace'. We enjoyed it immensely. We also spent a short time touring Bramsche with our couchsurf host. We had no idea that Bramsche had a huge textile industry and supplied the red uniforms to the confederate tribes during the US Civil war. I am continually amazed about the interconnectedness of everything, even in the annuls of history.

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From Bramsche we headed to Hildesheim, another small town in northern Germany. Again we couchsurfed and had a lovely experience. As we were growing a mound of dirty laundry, we needed to work on travel logistics for the rest of our trip and the girls were feeling tired, we actually had a day of doing much needed chores while the girls spent 1/2 a day hanging out in a shopping mall (in a book store). We did manage to head to the main square of Hildesheim and were impressed by the historic timbered buildings. We also visited St Michael's Church which is quite famous for the painted wooden ceiling and architecture.

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After a short stay in Hildesheim, we headed toward Berlin and our next couchsurfing experience. Berlin has an important place in history and we are taking a bit of time to see both the new and the old. From Berlin it's off to Prague, Czech Republic. And with that, I'll end this blog entry and will start the next with our travels and impressions of Berlin.

Posted by farmgirl 13:24 Archived in Germany Tagged amsterdam germany couchsurf bramsche osnabruck Comments (0)

From southern France to...

the wine country, Paris, Calais, England, Belgium and beyond

overcast 19 °C

We left our new friends in Bordas (Vergt) on June 28th (that seems like a life time ago). After another long day of driving, we landed at our next couchsurf just outside of Decize. Once again the cities and villages we passed through were picturesquely perfect -- just like one would imagine.

What can I say -- each family we stay with is so open and giving and sharing. The family we stayed at outside of Decize has three children, but one was away. Marleigh made friends with the 10-year old boy by trading out Pokeman cards...Spanish and English for French cards! Not only did this family host make the most delicious meals for us, but on our first morning we were treated to a huge pick garden, where we collected fresh veg and fruit for an afternoon picnic on the riverbank. We had fresh bread and an assortment of French cheeses. Once again we shared ideas and cultural differences and they helped me learn a few more words in French. Voila!

Formal education in France is apparently even more difficult and rigorous than education in Spain. Students attend school for 10-months (Sept. to early July) and the school day goes from 8:00 to 5:00; however there is a 1.5 hr lunch/meal break. As well, formal education begins at a very early age - at the age of 3-years old the children start their formal education with morning school and are already being taught educational skill set. I do think that the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have a more "playful" approach to education in the lower grades and a more practical approach in the high school years. I do wonder how each country's educational framework, including the methodology and philosophy, shapes the students' way of thinking the the citizenry that come through the system. In our time in France, although very short, we have noticed a distinct difference in how the children behave...and of course how they behave is very different than the youth in Spain. Of course these are also cultural differences, but cultural differences are also imbedded in the education.

DRUY-PARIGNY -- As I mentioned our short stay outside of Decize was incredible. On our first day the hosts prepared this incredible breakfast and then we went off picking in this amazing garden:

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The picnic alongside the riverbank in Decize was so typically French and so wonderful:

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Our hosts also drove us to a beautiful small city called Moulins, where there are two, nearly identical (but not) cathedrals. Moulins was where the famous dress designer and fashion leader Coco Chanel went to school as an orphan.

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The following day with our hosts, we were told about local summer festival. After a morning of making jewelry with FIMO clay, we walked into town. We tried our luck at archery (not!), IMG_9000.jpg

wandered around the garage sale area, where we found some amazing bargains! and experienced country dance, French style!

And after a wonderful "pancake-party" dinner, we tried our hands at "apples-to-apples", USA against France. It was a close match and in the end the USA pulled out the extra point. Every couchsurfing experience we have had has been really good, very good, wonderful....but the experience we had with this family was absolutely memorable and we hope that our paths will cross again in the future.

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ONWARD TO PARIS!

After three wonderful days, we bid farewell to our new friends and drove north toward Paris and to our next couchsurf hosts in Saint Leu la Foret, a suburb on the outskirts of Paris. The GPS took us on a tour of Paris to get to our next destination...so we caught glimpses of the Eiffel Tower and had a taste of the INSANE traffic. After getting ourselves a bit lost, we found our next hosts.

This is family with three children - and what we have been finding is that our vacation and couchsurfing in France has been conciding with two different rhythms. We're on vacation, touring around and families are still in the school mode/end of year/study for exams/grading papers, etc. Again, with this family we shared homemade meals, and an exceptional night with cheese fondue (yes Marleigh the alcohol in the white wine did evaporate in the fondue bowl!) and of course three amazing days in Paris. Here is a brief highlight:

Day 1:

Louvre Museum (well, first we hopped on the wrong train and went to the town of Louvres, outside of Paris!)
Eiffel Tower (walked up the 600+ steps to the second level as one of the lifts to the top was out of order and the line for the other was over 3-hours wait)

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Day 2:

Notre Dame de Paris
Jardin du Luxemberg

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Day 3:
Montmartre, Basilica (Sacre Coeur), watching the artists paint
D'orsay museum
L' Arc de Triomphe

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The girls had been so excited to spend time in Paris and while our time there was very short, it did not disappoint. Marleigh ranks it her favorite city, perhaps after London. Ansley and Eden were so excited to find a clothing sale and to buy something in a shop along the Champs Elysees -- and just a few photographs were taken of our time there.

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The words are getting briefer and briefer as we are traveling around and seeing so much that this blog could easily turn itself into a book (hah!). So, we hope that the pictures do indeed tell a thousand words.

PARIS TO CALAIS

We left Paris on July 5th; for our nation's day of independence we caught a glimpse of an Independence Day celebration at the base of the Arc de Triumphe. I think it's the first time we've missed the Bend Pet Parade and evening fireworks off Pilot Butte... From Paris we headed north and west toward Calais. We had a couchsurf host set up, but last minute plans forced us to come up with a hotel. We chose the F1, which is a series of inexpensive hotels throughout Europe...it's a cross between a hostel and the sense of sleeping on a boat. It was interesting enough, but unfortunately the room was a smoking room and the ventilation in the room and hotel was not. Even with windows opened I think I consumed a couple packs of cigarettes that night and developed a really bad sore throat.

The next morning we drove to the dock, were slightly interrogated at the customs office for the U.K. (they wondered if we had received explicit permission from Eden's parents to take her to England - "but of course!") and onward to the P&O ferry we went. The crossing over to Dover, UK was very pleasant, and we did get to see the infamous "White Cliffs of Dover".

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Once we disembarked from the ferry, we re-engaged our brains to remember that in England one drives on the left. We drove to our next couchsurf host, located 1/2 way between Dover and Canterbury. Actually we had the GPS take us there (just to find it) and then headed into the historic city of Canterbury. Canterbury has an incredible history and is a tourist destination. As we wandered around the (charity) shops and streets, we bumped into loads of tourists groups, many of them students from Spain on 1-2 week language study programs.

On our first afternoon in Canterbury, we wandered the streets a bit, popped into charity shops and took lots of photographs.

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We then headed back to our couchsurfing place and I'm not sure how best to describe this place we stayed at. The host has some land, more-or-less in the woods and there are dwellings there that are quite rustic. The building we stayed in was perhaps a barn at one time. We stayed upstairs in the loft and throughout the dwelling was any and everything imaginable that one might want and need. In fact the girls decided that this place should be dubbed the "room of requirement" after the Harry Potter books as just about everything they wanted or needed seemed to appear. Two pianos, guitars, internet (in the middle of the woods), interesting posters, maps and odds-and-ends tacked to the walls and loads and loads and loads of books. The weather was damp and chilly. While the middle and east coast of the USA was baking in unbearable heat, we were huddled around the refurbished air tank to woodstove, trying to stay warm and dry.

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The next day we headed back to Canterbury to explore the city in more depth. We received a wonderful tip about visiting the cathedral. The cathedral in Canterbury is one of the most impressive cathedrals we've visited, including that of Notre Dame of Paris.

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We were all charmed by this absolutely charming city and once again wish we had more time...hopefully next time...whenever that is!

After three damp nights outside Canterbury, we headed back to Dover, crossed the English channel, and got ourselves back on the right side of the road. From Calais we drove slightly north, then east and then -- bonjour to Belgium!

BELGIUM - IEPER/YPRES - TOURNAI

Belgium was such a pleasant surprise for us. We didn't know what to expect and didn't (and still don't) know much about this small country. We took a short detour and visited the village of Ieper/Ypres, which is in the Flanders (Flemish) region. We were only there for an hour or two, but it made such an impression on us. Very typical Belgium architecture, a fascinating WWI memorial (that looks like a miniature Arc de Triumphe) and an undescribable charm.

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From there we headed to our next couchsurf host in southern Belgium, in the city of Tournai. We stayed with another amazing family; a woman who has seven children and has fostered over 30 youth over the years. Her house is on the edge of town and people come and go; some stay; some rent and some move on. With so many people in the house, they somehow manage with one toilet and one shower. Not only is this unheard of in the US, I can't imagine that a human service agency in the US would allow the fostering of so many youth in a house with the one toilet and one shower.

We spent the following day in Brugge, which is a tourist destination - and we can see why. It has narrow, cobblestone streets, canals, typical Belgium architecture, lots of charm and beauty. We went to the chocolate museum/demonstration and of course Belgium chocolate was offered at the entrance and exit. Yum!

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The last full day we spent exploring Tournai, which while typically Belgium is more working class. The big tourist draw is climbing the belfry tower. What a spectacular view we had from the top of the tower! We all commented that we could envision scenes from various Harry Potter movies as we looked all around the top of the town.

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From Tournai, we neaded north toward Antwerp, but on the way spent a couple of hours in Gent, or Ghent or Gand (depending on where you are from). What a hidden treasure of a city! While it looks a bit like Brugge, it has a much more 'Bohemian' feel to it. It is a university city and the city was preparing for a huge jazz festival. We spent just one evening in Antwerp and stay with an expat couple (USA/Scotland). We all went out to see a live outdoor theatre performance...you've all heard of spaghetti westerns...well this was a mystic French 'escargot' western. While the dialogue was all in French, even if I was fluent in French the play wouldn't have made much sense. In general it was about the US west during the gold rush era, but it had singing and dancing and slap stick humor and sexual inuendo (well not so much on the inuendo) and incredible sets.

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And now -- we have a few days in the Netherlands. We're renting an apartment for 2-nights just outside Amsterdam, as we couldn't find anyone in Amsterdam to host a family with five people. The next blog will start with our Amsterdam experience (all we can say is "very...very...very interesting!") and onward. I know it's long and packed full of photos and information, but as we are so busy I'm finding it difficult to find time to keep it current.

Until the next time -- Shari and family

Posted by farmgirl 15:26 Archived in Netherlands Tagged england france belgium dover calais couchsurf Comments (0)

TRAVELS IN EUROPE

From Spain to France (southern)

sunny 39 °C

We sadly left our friends in Dueñas at 1:00 pm and started our drive north. The drive went from being interesting to absolutely amazing. The drive up through the Picos de Europe was some of the windiest road we’ve ever been on. The fog rolled in, so it was difficult to see the view, but wow!!! ¡¡impresionante!! After driving for a few hours, we arrived to the town/city of Cangis de Onis. We could not find the ‘casa rural’ and the owner came down to greet us. We followed her back to the tiny town of Caño and up a narrow and windy and narrow and windy mountain road for about 2.8 km. The house was really, cute – very rustic with an amazing view. It was very wet and inside a bit cool. Downstairs was a male boar head that the girls named “Wilbur”. Upstairs was a female boar head that Ansley called “Wilma”.

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On June 20th, we drove to a cute coastal village named Llanes. The architecture in the north of Spain is quite different from the south. In the south, the streets are narrow and designed to keep out the heat. In the north, windows face south and have enclosed balconies to capture the limited sun. In Llanes there is a jetty called "cubos de memoria" which consist of large concrete blocks painted in a variety of artistic styles.

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From Llanes we attempted to look for dinosaur tracks in a nearby town, but no luck. On our return trip, we visited the town of Cangis de Onis and walked over the infamous ‘puente romano’.

On June 21st we headed off for another coastal village called Villaviciosa. Well, our GPS decided to take us up through the mountains and we’re happy ‘she’ did, as it was a spectacular drive. From Villaviciosa we went to one of our favorite cities in Spain, Oviedo. I think I could spend a lot more time in this city….

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From the lovely casa rural, we drove to the east, to the city of Santander. We spent the night couchsurfing and enjoyed going to the port of the city. The city itself is not one of the most attractive in the north, but the coast is a marvel. Our couchsurf host told us that the city of Santander had been subjected to two fires and as a result, much of the city is new and lacks historic monuments like much of the rest of Spain. The next morning, we woke up early and went out to the end of Santander, the peninsula, where there is a small zoo and wonderful play park and also one of two summer mansions for the royal family of Spain.

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From Santander we drove…we did not have time to dip into the city of Bilbao, nor visit the Guggenheim museum (I suppose that will have to wait for another time…), but we did decide to take a bit of time to visit the city of San Sebastian (Donastia). I think I could spend a lot more time in this city… San Sebastian has a very different feel to it than any of the other cities we have visited in Spain. It has a more international feel to it "je ne sais pas". It has an exquisite beach/bay with a prommenade and a beautiful carousel and the city feels like what we think the French Riviera would be like. I think I could spend a lot more time in this city...

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From San Sebastian, the French border is a mere 20+ km. We were all getting so excited about entering and I pulled out our passports, thinking we would have to show identification and explain what we were doing. We paid a toll of 2.80 euros, then we saw a sign for: FRANCE. How anticlimactic that was! About 1 hr later, we arrived at our next couchsurf host, in the town of Oloron Sainte Marie. This is a small town situated at the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. Well – as we will be in France for close to two weeks, it’s time to pull out my little notebook and learn some basic French.

Bonjour
S’il vous plait
Merci
Comment Ça va?

My goal…each day learn 3 or 4 or 5 words or expressions in French…as we spend a bit of time in each European country hopefully we’ll learn basic phrases in the language of the country.

On June 24th, after a relaxing morning, our host told us of a nearby village at the base of the Pyrenees. We drove to Lescun and had one of those experiences that seemed surreal. Sitting at the little restaurant, doing our best to order a cup of coffee and some juice and staring out at the mountains and saying nothing more than “Wow! Wow! We’re in France – we’re in the Pyrenees – wow!” We walked through the village, took some short hikes and just soaked it all in. It was an incredible sight and we did our best to soak it all in. We soaked in plenty of sun, and came back to the host’s house very hot and tired.

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From Oloron Sainte Marie, we headed north, to the Dordogne Valley of France. Our destination was a very small village (Borda) outside a small village called Vergt. On the way to our next host, we first stopped in the historic and picturesque village called Bergerac, which is a huge wine producing area.

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We spent three nights with this wonderful family who has three children. The parents speak English, but the children don't. So, it was an interesting time to find ways to communicate. One day we went to Perigueux and absolutely picture perfect French village (I really don't know how else to describe it).

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For our last night with this family, we went to a nearby lake (lac) and had an amazing meal at a family run restaurant. Vegetarian fare - a la frances - with organic produce and wine. It doesn't get much better.

We left Vergt and headed north. As I finish up this blog writing, we are now outside another picturesque village called Decize. We are staying with another incredible family and taking in wonderful sites. We will tell you all more about that in the next edition.

Bonjour, bonsoir, bon nuit et au revoir…La famille Dunning

Posted by farmgirl 09:49 Archived in France Tagged san marie sebastian oviedo santander dordogne couchsurf oloron-sainte vergt Comments (1)

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