Sunday, December 23, 2007

Italy: Venice and Rome

We left for Venice early a few Tuesdays ago, first hopping a train from Strasbourg to Basel, Switzerland. We were unsure of the border crossing into Switzerland, as our train schedule noted a 10-minute walk from the French train station to the Swiss one. It turned out to be a non-issue -- we had a one-minute walk past an empty border/customs booth, and then went straight on to our train. While in the station I had a sudden urge to eat and drink (only because we couldn't buy anything - like that weird urge you get to use the toilet when there are none around). The Swiss are serious about their currency and not accepting the Euro, and I wasn't about to change my Euros to Swiss Franks just for a snack. Luckily our layover was only an hour!

We then boarded a Swiss train for the remainder of our nine-hour journey to Venice. For a train that was making such a long journey, it was not as comfortable as many of the French or German trains that we've been on. However, it wasn't crowded at all, and that made a real difference to us as we were able to move freely about the car during the long trip. For a long portion of the trip we sat beside a man from the Kitchener-Waterloo area whose daughter plays for the Lugano (Switzerland) women's hockey team. He was one of a group of businessmen who brought MacDonald's to Europe and was darned proud of it. We had packed a gourmet deli lunch and I offered him some of our food at various times, but he told us he was waiting until he got into Milan to get a Big Mac and some fries. To each his own...

We arrived in Venice about 6 p.m. and found to our shock that a vaporetto (water bus) ride would cost us 24€. There was really no help for it, though; we were tired and it was dark, and our apartment was almost three kilometres from the train station. After a 40-minute vaporetto ride and two attempts to find the correct opening into the maze of Venice's streets, Mark asked a young man (who turned out to work at the nearby naval academy) how to get to the church near our apartment. Not only did he give us directions, but he also went out of his way to walk us there : ). We were met at the door of the apartment by the upstairs neighbour, a very nice older lady who showed us around and explained everything in rapid Italian. We just kept nodding and saying, "Si, si!"

Venice is a beautiful city with a maze of narrow streets and canals. We spent two days there, mostly just wandering around. We visited the Piazza San Marco and the Basilica, and I made the mistake of buying bird seed to feed the pigeons. (It was what I've always imagined Daphne DuMaurier's The Birds to be like, before they got really mean - they were on my head, crawling up my legs, sliding down my arms - yuck!) We splurged for a day of vaporetto tickets and visited the island of Murano where they make the beautiful glass ornaments. We learned to navigate our way through Italian grocery stores, and we also learned that Italian pastries, with their heavy feel and texture, are no match for French pastries! We watched with interest the deliveries being made to the stores and restaurants, first by boat, and then by hand-carts. Since no vehicles are allowed in the city (nor could they even drive through the narrow streets), everything is done on foot. Garbage disposal was another mysterious thing - we just left our garbage in a small, closed bag outside the apartment in the street every day, and it disappeared by the time we got home. We never did figure out the sewer system, but it must be interesting. Our bathroom backed onto a canal, and every so often after you'd flushed you would see a standing boatman go by at eye level with the window.

On the Friday we headed off to Rome on a fast Italian train. Now that was luxury! - probably the nicest train we've been on. It was good that we had a nice few hours on the train, because I got a rude shock when we got to Rome. It was crowded, dirty, noisy and scary with all the traffic. To come from Venice, where there are no vehicles, to Rome, where there are (seemingly) millions of cars and almost no pedestrian crossings, is some sort of huge culture shock! We learned very quickly that in Rome, you make your own pedestrian crossings. The method: edge out into the street, waiting for a small break in traffic. When you see a break (no matter how small), confidently stride out into the road, maintaining intense eye contact with the nearest drivers who are threatening to run you over. Don't hesitate, or they will all drive around you. Once you've reached the other side of the road, breathe a huge sigh of relief, then get ready for the next one.

After several such crossings, we found the apartment rental agency, and then our apartment. This one had a great view of the Basilica Santa Croce in Gerusalemme right across the street. (The same street where several drivers seemed to think that red lights mean "slow down, see if any pedestrians are in front of you, and if not, then just go".)

We had a bit of a family melt-down while in Rome. I think it was just too many days of traveling and walking around strange cities all day. It started raining the day that we visited the Coliseum, and by the time we got back to the apartment we were very cold, wet and tired. It took us an evening in the warm apartment to shake it off, but by the next morning we were back at it, visiting the Vatican Museum. It certainly is an awe-inspiring place. I was amazed by the number of tourists who were there - I can't imagine how crowded it would be in the summer. The lineup to get in was three blocks long, but at least it went quickly; it only took us about 20 minutes to get in. We took in several of the historical sites in Rome, mostly by wandering around, our usual method. We also rode the metro a bit and were quite impressed with it. We bought the reasonably-priced day tickets at four Euros each, because they allow you to jump on and off the metro without having to worry about paying each time. The kids really enjoy using the metro and are really getting to be experts at manoeuvring through different systems now that they have had a few for practice!

Coming back to Strasbourg proved to be a challenge as we had booked a night train and then had to find a way to keep ourselves busy for the day. In the end it turned out to be more of a challenge to our budget than anything else. We had to check our bags at the train station (34€), went to a "time machine" presentation (64€), and accidentally ended up in a very nice but expensive restaurant having ice cream and coffee (we won't discuss the bill on that one.) We took the night train to give the kids the experience, which they really enjoyed, but we decided it definitely wasn't worth the money! Not only that, but we were really tired the next morning after being awakened at 5:30 a.m. in order to get off the train at 6:20 in Bern, Switzerland. (At least the kids slept well!) We had a couple of quick train changes and the required but eerily silent border crossing at Basel, and we were back in Strasbourg just after 9 a.m. For the rest of the day we mostly sat around and stared at each other in exhausted befuddlement. We gave a small thought to trying to make one more day trip to Stuttgart before our Eurail pass ran out but nixed it pretty fast when we thought about how tired we were.

And so ends the crazy traveling. We will still travel, but much less now that we have to pay out of our budget for our train or plane tickets. We really enjoyed our forays throughout France, Germany and Italy but recognize that it's a lot of travelling to do in a short time. Any further travel we do will have to be more carefully planned out and arranged in advance to take advantage of better rates. But for now, we get to slow down, relax, and enjoy what Strasbourg has to offer.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Visitors from Canada

Last Monday we walked my sister Barb and her husband Pat to the train station to see them off to Paris. They had just spent four days with us in Strasbourg and were heading to Paris for a few days before returning to Canada.

We had a great visit with them, finally doing some of the touristy Strasbourg things that we had saved up for visitors. We toured two churches, including Strasbourg’s famous Cathédrale Notre Dame, where we trudged up the 332 steps to the platform with its amazing view of the city. We were first in line, and we really felt the pressure on the way up until we let a few people go ahead of us – with the narrow circular staircase, there was only room for one at a time.

We went to Kehl, Germany, by train (only 11 minutes), but it was a cold and blustery day, so it wasn’t as enjoyable as it could have been. We left Barb and Pat and the kids in separate department stores and then Mark and I walked further up the street to see if we could find some German wine.

We also took the Ill river tour, and the kids and Mark had fun furtively switching everyone’s pre-recorded audio guide from English to Italian in mid-explanation. After a few months of staring down at the tourists in the boats, it was fun to be the ones that everyone was staring at. We tried waving at a few people but just got some weird looks… except for the “boys” under the bridge near our apartment, who all waved at us from their beds as we glided by their makeshift community.

We took the train south to Barr (the village with the wine festival) and hiked up the mountain again but took a different path on the way down. We had a wonderful view of Barr from a different angle and even spotted a few castles. Barb’s boots had a bit of a heel, so I teased her about hiking in her stilettos – something we had watched another woman do on our first trip up.

During the visit we christened our party grill, or raclette. We had had such a fun supper in Birkenwerder with Horst, Eva and Matthias that we decided to buy our own raclette. When we first heated it up and put oil on the grill, we thought we might have to feed the people from the fire department as well – it made so much smoke. It’s a good thing that the grill creates a lot of heat, because we had to warm the apartment back up after leaving the balcony windows open for so long! After things settled down, we had a very memorable meal with different meats, vegetables, cheeses and of course, wine.

I will remember their visit as the one with bretzels and wine. On more than one occasion we left the apartment late, and bretzels served as lunch. Then there was the wine – all over Strasbourg, people are selling glüwein (vin chaud or mulled wine) from stands in the Christmas markets. Every time we passed the market at the train station (and we were there a lot!), we tried another variety. Every time we went to the grocery store, we bought a few more different kinds of wine to try with supper. It certainly expanded my knowledge of the wines of the area!

So we waved them out of the train station, with their seats backward to the motion of the train (I’ll have to ask Barb how that went for her!) and then went home to relax for half a day before packing for our Italy trip. We haven’t heard from them yet but are optimistically assuming that they didn’t get lost on the Paris metro…

Thanks so much to Barb and Pat for coming all this way just to visit (I'm sure that's what it was!) and for all the treats that you bought us. Now that we're back home to our apartment and email, I've heard from Barb that they got home safely.