It’s been two months since we returned from our 22-day European adventure. It was a super trip with great memories to document.
Today I finally have our blog site in great shape. It took a long time to go through our 1023 photos and whittle them down to the best of each place. I used a resizer program to reduce the size of each blog photo to 800×600 pixels so they load faster. I added photos to each of the places we visited. I am using wordpress.com for this first blog. Learning how to get what I want has been time consuming too.
There is a list of all recent posts on our home page and each posting, so you can choose what you want to look at. Hope you enjoy our trip posts.
Our return drive to Milan, Italy, started on the morning of June 11th with a walk across the island bridge to the parking lot to fetch our car. We checked out and drove through Lindau towards the Austria border and the town of Breganz. We made another wrong turn near Feldkirch and had to make a several mile correction to get back on a road to the Swiss border. Oh for a good GPS!
As we were driving south, we knew we were on the edge of the tiny country of Liechtenstein, between eastern Switzerland and Austria. When we saw the signs for Liechtenstein, we left the Swiss highway and drove a dozen miles or so east to its border and into the town of Schaan. We then drove a few miles south to the capital, Vaduz.
The few towns in this small country are bordering the Austrian Alps and the views east were great. We drove to the south side of Vaduz, turned west following the signs to Switzerland, and rejoined E43 to head for Chur and San Bernadino. Switzerland has four official languages, French, German, Italian, and Romansh. Road signs were in German until we went through the San Bernadino tunnel. Then the signs were all in Italian. Everywhere you look, it’s a beautiful view of a mountain, an alpine lake, a quaint village, or a mountain meadow. I have always said that, ounce for ounce, Switzerland is the prettiest country in the world. It is very well run, clean, and expensive. It’s worth it though.
After we got to Bellizona, we were back on the highway south through Lugano and Chiasso to the Italian border. We passed Como and headed for the Malpensa Airport, northwest of Milan. Our destination was the Hilton Garden Inn Airport Hotel. What we didn’t know when we booked it is that it’s several kilometers north of the airport through a dizzying array of roundabouts and confusing road signs. Oh, well, that’s life in the old country. We arrived safely and very tired around 6:30 that evening. It was a very nice hotel with a fine restaurant and bar, which we enjoyed before retiring for the night.
Our flight home on June 12th was at 10:15. We left the hotel at 7:00 to make sure we had plenty of time. Hah! When we stopped at two different gas stations to fill up the tank, the pumps would not accept either my Visa debit card or American Express, only Mastercard. Of course my Mastercard was stolen by the pickpocket in Riomaggiore ten days earlier. So we could not fill the tank before returning the car. When we arrived at fhe airport, we were looking for the sign, Car Hire. We circled the large airport three times before we could spot the tiny sign in a array of large signs containing various Italian phrases. Then the car company charged us an extra $50 for not filling the tank, and would not accept the Visa card, but the American Express card worked here.
By this time it was 8:15, but we were still on time, or so we thought. Malpensa is a big, and difficult airport to traverse. There are 24 ticketing areas, and Delta was the last one south of the main entrance, a very long walk with the luggage. After checking in, we found out the boarding gate was a few blocks north of where we came in. We stopped at a McDonalds to fuel up for the long walk and finally made it to our airplane. Lesson for the day: avoid Milan Malpensa if you can find an convenient alternative.
The flight back was ontime and offered enough good movies to keep you entertained for eight hours plus. When we got to JFK in New York at 12:15, going through customs took an hour and fourty-five minutes, somewhat short of the 2 1/2 hours it can take in the summertime. It was another bus trip to the Delta domestic terminal, which was overcrowded, hot, and noisy. Our connecting flight was scheduled for 6:30, which was a long wait. I tried to get us on an earlier flight, but it was full. So we waited and took pictures of the pigeon which was walking around our waiting area.
We were very happy campers when we finally got off the plane in Minneapolis where Keith was waiting to take us home. It was a really great trip. We saw a lot of new countries and territory that we had not seen on other European trips. Traveling with the OU team, staff, and families, and watching Julia and the team playing volleyball in four different countries was a special treat, not to be missed. Lastly, visiting old friends in Germany is always special. You just don’t know when you will get a chance to see them again.
We said our goodbyes to Hanh and Peter after breakfast on June 9th, and headed through Freiburg and the Black Forest to Lake Constance (der Bodensee). This huge lake borders Germany on the north side, Switzerland on the south side, and Austria on the east end. This is a favorite area for vacationers in this part of Europe.
There are so many delighful resort towns to choose from. In 2010 on our German vacation, we passed through Lindau on our way from Munich to Hartheim, and said we need to come back here again, and so we did. We booked a modest hotel on Lindau Island, the old town, for two nights, and enjoyed the sights, sounds, and restaurants of this very popular resort town. The town caters to people from everywhere, but the majority of visitors are from Bayern (Bavaria). There no cars on the Island, but the hotel pays for the parking in the city lot across the bridge from the old town. We did our first walk around town in the evening after we checked into our hotel.
This is a town with a photo opportunity around every corner. The variety of architecture, structure, and colors of the buildings in Lindau was a joy to behold. We started out the next day with a visit to the city art museum with a current exhibition of drawings and scissor-cut pictures of Henri Matisse, a French Impressionist. The harbor is a short walk away with a scenic lighthouse and views of the Austrian and Swiss Alps across the water. The main square of Lindau borders the old city hall (Rathaus) and a clarion (musical bell system). The street performers were good too, including the mime and guitarist. It was a great place to enjoy your ice cream and people watch. We did a good job of touring the town and enjoyed a tasty German supper on the patio of a nearby hotel.
Then we returned to our hotel and planned our next day of driving back to Milan via Liechtenstein and eastern Switzerland.
The next morning, June 7th, we packed up the car, and took off for the town of Chiasso on the Swiss border. At the border stop the Swiss nick you 35€ for the priviledge of driving aound in their country, and what a beautiful country it is! We stopped for breakfast about an hour north at a big rest stop. By the way, diesel fuel was around 1 Euro 70 per litre, or roughly $8.85 per gallon. Eleven gallons cost $99. The car got around 40 miles per gallon though.
We arrived in the town of Zug around Noon, and started our hunt for the apartment of Karl Geiger, the son of Bob and Pam Geiger, good friends of ours at home. Our Google directions were not good, so we called Karl, found out the area where he lives, stopped at a small hotel, got a good city map, and made our way to the hills at the south end of Zug, a pretty town on lake Zug in the middle of German-speaking Switzerland. Karl lives in a nice apartment building. We checked out his abode, hopped in our car, and went to the old town of Zug and a good Italian style restaurant for pasta and beer. We caught up on current family events before Karl headed off to take care of some errands, and we left town to head for Basel, Switzerland, and Hartheim, Germany, 30 miles north of Basel. We just didn’t have enough time in Basel to look up Roger Federer’s home.
We arrived in Hartheim just after 6:00 pm at the home of our long-time friends, Peter and Hahn Kuck. They lived in Plymouth for 18 years before they retired in Germany 20 years ago. Peter was the CEO of two German companies based in Plymouth. Hanh and Kathy have been friends for 35 years. We always try to visit them when we are in Europe. We had another happy reunion that evening and enjoyed the great cooking of Hanh again.
Since we needed to be back in Milan on June 11th, we didn’t have the time to head north and visit friends in Darmstadt and Hannover. Luckily for us, our friend, Elke Aulmann was able to drive down from Darmstadt to spend the day with us. Her sister, Wulle Aulmann, lives nearby in Freiburg, but was on vacation camping in the Swiss Alps. We have been friends since I lived in Germany in 1965/66. After lunch, Peter took us on another guided tour of the beautiful towns and historical sights in this area of Germany. They live close to both France and Switzerland in the warmest part of Germany. It was unseasonably warm for much of this week (around 32C/90F).
Peter always manages to find new surprises for us to visit on his personal tours. We first went up into the wine country by Munzingen. The tiered vineyards are beautiful. The winding road to the top led to an old church carefully preserved by an historical society. We got some good photos and then headed for the French border. The town of Neuf-Brisach lies just across the border and is the home of a famous fortress designed and built by Vauban, a military engineer, in 1698, to protect the border of France. The star shaped fortress is designed to maximize crossfire against an invading army. After some refreshments at an outdoor cafe, we went back to Germany and visited a cloister in Heidersheim that was formerly a center for the order of the Maltese Cross. The grounds and buildings were beautiful.
Hanh had supper ready for us when we returned to the house. We really had fun that day. Thanks for being such great hosts. It was really nice to see Elke again. She just had her bathroom expanded and remodeled, so we definitely have to visit her home on the next trip to Europe. Our German friends always take good care of us.
Then we planned our return trip to Milan via Lake Constance (der Bodensee), Liechtenstein, and eastern Switzerland. We settled on staying in Lindau at the east end of the lake for two nights and found a nice hotel on hotels.com.
On July 6th, we left Arezzo after breakfast, and headed north to the city of Como, on Lago (lake) Como. The city is around six miles from the Swiss border on the southwest corner of the lake. We had spent time in Cernobbio, around four kilometers north of Como on a trip to Italy in March of 1995 (wow, 19 years ago).
It was another hot day in our little car without a good air conditioner. The trip was scheduled to be around four hours. As we headed out of Florence on the way past Bologna, the traffic came to a grinding halt on the Autostrada. Trucks were lined up for five miles in front and in back of us. We found out from a truck driver that a truck had exploded in a mountain tunnel north of Bologna. It took an hour and a half for the highway department to build up a bypass around the tunnel and for us to proceed north again.
We knew we had to bypass Milan and the airport to get on the road to Como. We made one bad turn again, and luckily it only cost us 15 minutes this time. We arrived on the west side of Como at 4:00 pm instead of 2:00. We had an apartment waiting for us through airbnb again. The owner, Riccardo Nucci, met us at the gate to the area, and set us up for a night’s lodging. He was a nice younger man who spoke excellent English after working two years in Sweden. It was a nice place to stay, a few miles out of downtown, and very close to the Autostrada leading to the Swiss border. Breakfast was not included, but the rate was great, $96 (70€) for the night.
We had just enough time to get to the lakefront area of Como, check out some of the scenery, and have a good meal at a Ristorante overlooking the lake. Como is a fairly large town with a population of 85,000. It took a while to drive in and find parking, but it all worked out. It was hot and humid, and the Italian lakes seem to always be somewhat obscured by haze. We noticed that last time we were in the area too.
We stayed in a prettier mountain town the previous trip, and took a drive on a scenic, but scary, mountain road between lake Como and lake Maggiore. The northern lakes of Italy are worth several days of your time if you want some beautiful scenery and plenty of lakeside activities. But, we were on our way to Germany with a short stop in Zug, Switzerland. We didn’t have time to look up George Clooney either!
After supper on the lake, we made our way back to our apartment, and prepared ourselves for the trip to Zug and Hartheim the following day.
On June 5th, we left our hotel on the cliffs overlooking Riomaggiore, drove back to La Spezia, and got lost making our way to the Autostrada between La Spezia and Florence. It’s so easy to do, especially without a GPS. I won’t drive again in Europe without one, but they were too expensive to rent. A couple of hours later, we took a wrong turn in Florence that cost us twenty minutes to correct. No big deal, just annoying.
The hill town of Arezzo is located about an hour and a half southeast of Florence, still in Tuscany, but getting close to Umbria (and Asissi). We had a special reason for going there: Our granddaughter, Rachel Doyle, will be attending her last semester of her undergraduate degree with Oklahoma University at their extension school in Arezzo. She will be there August – November of 2014. Momma, papa, and sister will visit her when she is done at the end of November. We just had to check out the town and the school since we were “in the neighborhood, so to speak.”
Naturally we made a wrong turn on the way to our B&B and ended up at the railroad station in the center of Arezzo, where a very nice young lady supplied us with a good city map and directions back to our B&B. On this trip, we decided to try out airbnb.com for a couple of our overnight stays, Arezzo and Como, Italy. Airbnb helps travelers to connect with property owners who rent out rooms or apartments or whole houses on a more personal basis. It’s almost always cheaper than a hotel or standard B&B, and the owners are usually there to greet you and help you out with information, tips, and maps, etc. Lorena Fallai met us at the door, helped us bring our luggage up to our room on the third floor of her building, and set us up with tea and snacks before we left for downtown. Very nice!
Our place in Arezzo was only about a five minute drive to the center of town and the area where the OU school facilities are located. The school address was 40 Corso Italia, near the Piazza Grande (main square) of the town. Nothing is ever easy to find the first time in a city in Europe, especially in old town centers. The street was wide, and shared between cars, vespas, and pedestrians. We parked near the Piazza, and started our hunt for the school. All we found at the address was an arched tunnel leading to a restaurant. Puzzled, we walked down the street, and heard some young voices speaking English. Three young ladies and an older man were having a meeting at an outdoor patio of a restaurant. I asked them if they knew where the OU school was located. The three women said they were students there and the man was a teacher there. The teacher asked us to wait for their meeting to end, and then he would take us to the school.
This was good luck, indeed! It also turns out that Kathy recognized the man from a chance meeting in Norman, Oklahoma, last year while touring the campus with daughter Rhonda. Small world!
When we returned to 40 Corso Italia, we had not noticed the doors in the hallway just prior to the restaurant. They had electronic security numeric locks on them. We followed the teacher upstairs, did a small self tour, and signed the guest register before leaving. The college is located on the second floor, is probably a few thousand square feet, and has classrooms, a computer lab, a reception area, and administrative offices. They will be moving to a larger facility in a year or so.
The OU school is located very close to the scenic areas of the old city, including the marvelous Piazza Grande, a city park with great views of the town, and a grand cathedral nearby. Arezzo has a population of around 100,000. It’s a nice sized, clean town with plenty of good restaurants and cafes. The location is nice, Florence is just over an hour away, the hill town of Cortona is just 45 minutes south, and Rome is about three hours away. We really think Rachel is going to enjoy living and studying in this Italian city.
When we returned to our B&B, Signora Fallai asked us what we were looking for in a restaurant. She spoke mainly Italian, so between my limited vocabulary and her smartphone translator, we got along fine. We were in the mood for an inexpensive place serving pizza, pasta, and beer. She took us five blocks down the street to the “New Black Cat” (true name), told the staff to help us out, and went back home. This place was full of locals, young families, teens, and senior citizens, all talking loudly and having a good time. We shared a salad and pizza with two glasses of wine for 24 Euros. Nice!
The next morning, we had a nice breakfast at the B&B, said Arrivederci to Lorena, and headed back towards Florence on our way to Como on Lago (lake) Como north of Milan.
We said goodbye to Julia, the team, coaches, and friends at the Milan airport Monday morning, June 2nd. We had a wonderful tour with them. Then we found the Europecar desk and picked up our rental car, an Alfa-Romeo Guiletta. We headed southwest to the Cinque Terre (5 Lands/villages), located on the cliffs overlooking the Mediteranean north of Pisa. We found our hotel, Il Due Gemelli, after a three hour drive. It was located about 600 meters above the village of Riomaggiore. Nice room with a great view, free parking, but four floors down with no elevator.
There was a handy public bus service right outside the hotel that got us down a steep and scary road to the village of Riomaggiore, the first of the Cinque Terre villages (from the south). Since we had three nights booked, we took it easy, explored the town, and had a nice supper outside in sunny weather. We took a ton of pictures this first day at this extremely picturesque town.
The next day, we headed back to Riomaggiore, determined to take the commuter train between the towns of Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Corniglia. The villages are only about four to six minutes apart on the train. June is peak season for Italians and Germans visiting this region, and the trains were packed to standing room capacity.
Well, I finally met my match in Italy. I have been travelling for 49 years in Europe and never had my wallet lifted, until that day on the train. With the packed train and people pushing, they got it out of a zippered front pocket very smoothly. I lost 200 Euros and one credit card. The rest of our cards and passports were in neck wallets.
The lesson learned is: keep all your money and cards in a neck or belt wallet. I cancelled the card before they could use it. Ces’t la vie!
After the shock treatment, we made the most of our day, exploring the villages of Manarola and Corniglia. The Cinque Terre was famous for it’s beautiful hiking trails along the seacoast between the villages. Flooding has closed all the paths except one, the most difficult one between Monterosso and Vernazza to the north. We used the trains this day, and the boat service the following day.
Manarola was pretty too, smaller and not quite as photo friendly as Riomaggiore. After some awesome Gelato, we headed back to the train station and a short trip to Corniglia. This village is located high on the cliffs overlooking the sea. There was a three block walk from the train station to the base of steps leading up to the village. It looked like a long way up. Kathy decided not to make the trek, but I wanted to check out Corniglia, so up I went, all 360 steps. The village was small, with another 40 steps or so to get to the top. On the way down, I learned that there is a shuttle bus to take you up and back. Es la vida! We caught the next train back to Riomaggiore, went back to our hotel, and had a nice meal there.
The next day we had breakfast and took the shuttle bus to Riomaggiore. When we arrived, I looked up the Federal Police, the Carabinieri, and filed a police report with them regarding the wallet loss the day before. It won’t do any good, but at least they know it happened again. Then we bought tickets, around 12 Euros each, for the boat trip between Riomaggiore and Monterosso, the fifth village north. On a hot day, the boat trip was really relaxing, and gave us some great views of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso as we traveled along. The boat does not stop in Vernazza.
Monterosso is the biggest of the villages, easy to explore, with two major sized sand beaches (not the usual rocks). There are lots of shops, bars, and restaurants, so we had a good pizza and beer lunch along the way. Finding the train station was a bit tricky, but we finally did and took the shuttle train to Vernazza.
Vernazza was more like Riomaggiore or Manarola for scenery. We did find a small stretch of rocky beach with some surfer type waves hidden away behind a small cave. It was too rocky for safe swimming, but Kathy took off her shoes and got her feet cooled off in the Meditteranean sea.
We took the train from Vernazza to Riomaggiore, and had supper at our favorite little restaurant there. Then we went back to the Due Gemelli Hotel for a nightcap, and got ready to leave the next day for Arezzo. Two and a half days was the right amount of time for us to explore the Cinque Terre.