Sunday, September 9, 2012

Visiting a Swiss Miss

Since we have family and friends all over the place, we like to maximize each and every travel opportunity to see as many people as humanly possible. So, when I learned that a good college friend had recently re-located to Zurich, we included Switzerland in our European travel plans.

It was so nice to see my friend, her husband, and brand-new baby girl, and it was also very nice to not have to stay in a hotel after nearly two weeks of traveling. Our hosts graciously opened their home to us, sharing their adventures of the past several months living in a new country (as well as having a new baby!).

Seeing a familiar face was the perfect way to conclude our trip, particularly when our train arrived in Zurich slightly later than expected. After dropping off our belongings at the apartment, we headed back into town for a brief tour of Zurich.

Old Town Zurich across Zurichsee
As much as we had enjoyed all of the restaurants we'd experienced throughout our travels, it was nice to be able to stay in for dinner. Our hosts prepared some traditional Swiss food, including raclette (special grilled cheese) and fondue. I was so proud of Jon for eating--and enjoying--fondue; he even admitted that it didn't smell like burning hair as he always claims.

After swapping travel stories and catching up on Olympics action, it was time for bed. The following morning was leisurely as well, as we waited for my friend's husband to return from work so we could all go hiking. The guys had chosen our hiking route the night before (I was engrossed in Team USA's exploits and had no idea where we were going), so once our lunch was packed and hiking boots were on, we caught the train toward Felsenegg.

We were more interested in an enjoyable hike than a work-out, so we rode the cable car to the top before hiking, where we encountered the infamous lone tree.

As promised, it looks like a computer background
The hike to Uetliberg wound through the woods and afforded some incredible views of both Zurich and the countryside. The panorama was even more expansive once we reached the top of the look-out tower.

After breathing in the clear Swiss air for a while (and enjoying the fact that it was way cooler than Italy), we took the train back down and returned to the apartment to clean up for dinner. Since we'd already had fondue, I was content with my Swiss eating experience, although Jon's ears perked up when he heard that hot stone cooking was fairly common in Switzerland. Luckily we found a place that wasn't too crowded for a weekend night (and not any more expensive than everything in Switzerland seems to be) and each selected a different kind of meat to cook on a stone. Most of us stuck with safe choices, like beef, pork, and lamb. Jon, on the other hand, opted for horse (which we all had to try). It wasn't bad, although a bit gamier like venison.

I was actually quite thankful for the bib as hot stones cause splatter
No reason to stop the eating there, so we walked through town on a quest for ice cream before turning in for the night. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who didn't want the trip to end, so I was all for another excursion. However, we had an early flight to catch, so after indulging in dessert, it was time for just a couple of hours of sleep prior to the long trip back to Memphis.

I am incredibly thankful for all aspects of our trip. I am thankful for the opportunity to visit (and stay with) good friends, the opportunity to see new places, and the opportunity to eat and drink my way through Europe. I'm also very thankful for uneventful travels with mostly on-time transportation and all of our luggage intact and with us (no risk of jinxing it now). Most of all, I'm thankful for a pretty incredible husband to share it all with. Barf.

Five Times the Fun

When Jon was in high school, he came across an article in the travel section of The Seattle Times. He was intrigued by the Italian locale described, and as he clipped the article, vowed to one day visit.

Fast-forward to 2005. One of his good friends--who pretty much knows everything there is to know about food and wine--asked if Jon would like to accompany him on a trip to Italy (important side-note: said friend is Italian-American). Jon wisely jumped at the chance and his dream of visiting the Cinque Terre was realized.

The Cinque Terre consists of five coastal towns on the Italian Riviera. Due to the rugged landscape, buildings have been constructed very creatively and carefully into the hills.

The area is not very accessible by automobile, instead relying on boats, trains, and good old hiking boots for transportation. Despite this (and thanks to Rick Steves), the area is very popular for tourists. For good reason. Not only is it beautiful, it is also home to some amazing white wines and is the birthplace of both pesto and sciacchetrà dessert wine. We indulged extensively in all three.

Because I missed the 2005 trip (I was invited but instead went to Paris with a dear friend--totally a first-world problem), I knew that I wanted to visit someday. And someday was this summer.

Jon did an excellent job planning our time in Cinque Terre, both relying on his memories from last time and some additional research. We stayed in the town of Manarola, which is the second-most southern town. If for no other reason than because it was "our town," it quickly became our favorite.

After checking into our hotel, we walked around town (which took an entire five minutes) and climbed up into the vineyards a bit before heading to a sunset dinner. I am definitely a fan of the three-hour dinner tradition, and since the wine kept flowing, we ate pesto through sunset and well after dark. At which point taking a dip in the Mediterranean seemed like an excellent idea.

The next day, we settled into a comfortable routine of hiking, eating, hiking, drinking, hiking, swimming, eating, and drinking. What else do you really need?

We first walked the leisurely Via del' Amore to the southernmost town, Riomaggiore. After strolling through town, we caught a boat that took us past Manarola, past the center town Corniglia, and into Vernazza. We were, of course, famished by this time, so stopped for lunch before hiking for real.

Jon was so excited to see the Mediterranean again that he walked into the water, only to quickly realize that his rash decision led to soaked shoes that had no intention of drying. A true problem-solver, he remedied the situation by becoming "that guy" who hiked from Vernazza down to Corniglia barefoot.

I think he did it just as much for the reaction as anything else
Very thirsty after our hike, it was imperative that we find some wine. This was not a difficult task.

It was lovely to sit on a bench overlooking the Mediterranean, drinking wine from the bottle (we're classy people). Being too soon for dinner, we decided to go swimming, so we headed back to Manarola. When I say swimming, I really mean float around. While I can swim just fine, I was content to float in the bay watching people jump from one of the rocks jutting out of the sea.

By the time we rinsed all the salt off, it was time for dinner, so we caught a train to Monterosso (if you're keeping track, we visited all five towns in the first day) for a delicious dinner of risotto del mare. If you've known me long, you would be shocked to see all the fishy (double entendre) things I ate, and even more shocked to know I enjoyed them.

The following day was a much more serious hiking adventure. We once again began in Vernazza but this time headed north into Monterosso. I am so thankful that our luggage arrived with us (as opposed to last year's vacation) so I was well-equipped with my hiking boots and Italian-tourist-cliché floppy hat. The sun was hot and the climbs were at times steep, but with views like this, it was totally worth it.

Added bonus: stopping for pictures allowed us time to rest
Once we arrived in the next town, we stopped for some much-needed (and deserved) lunch. We needed to fuel up for an even more challenging hike in the afternoon. Thus far, we had hiked on the picturesque seaside trails. It was time to take it into the mountains.

I felt like I was either justifying or making amends for all of the delicious food and drink I had enjoyed by hiking up some pretty steep hills. As we hiked through the hillside vineyards, we got to meet close up some of what would become that amazing wine.

We finally returned to Manarola sweaty and tired, yet triumphant. We rewarded ourselves with yet another swim in the Mediterranean before dinner in Riomaggiore.

On our final day in the Cinque Terre, we skipped the hiking to take care of some travel business. We had one leg of the trip remaining, so we headed into the larger town of La Spezia to purchase tickets for Switzerland on the following day. After all of our errands were completed, we returned to Corniglia for lunch, which was pesto, of course.

We knew that we wanted to take some Cinque Terre wine home with us, so while in Corniglia, we went to do some wine tasting at an enoteca we had stopped at earlier in our stay. The proprietor was so kind as to not only describe what wines we were tasting in English, but she also wrote everything down so we would have a record to take home. It should come as no surprise that a bottle from her shop came home with us. In fact, we purchased two, one of which was the incredible dessert wine sciacchetrà that the region is known for.

We capped off our trip to the Cinque Terre with an amazing multi-course dinner event, reflecting on the lovely time we'd had. Several glasses of wine will have anyone waxing poetic. It truly is a beautiful place, and I'm glad that Jon not only fulfilled his dream of visiting the Cinque Terre but also fulfilled mine by returning.

Veni, Vidi, Vici...Venice and Verona

I love the efficiency of overnight travel. Even if the quality of sleep is hit or miss, I really like going to bed in one location and waking up in a totally different one. After our visit to Munich and Garmisch, we hopped on an overnight train bound for Venice.

Venice was purely a stop-over location for us. I had spent several days there in 2005, and while Jon had never been, he was content with our half-day visit. Rather than try to cram in as many sights as possible, we spent the morning through early afternoon strolling through the city.

It was in Venice that we got our first taste of an Italian summer. Yes, we live in Memphis now, but we had spent nearly a week in Germany and were just getting used to a more temperate climate. That party ended in Venice.

We joined throngs of other sweaty tourists as we walked over canals and through tiny side streets. Too cheap for a gondola, we rode a water bus instead and traveled to the Venetian island of Murano, known for its glasswork.

Look but don't ride

Glass shops are an excellent way to escape the heat and bum some air conditioning. When we weren't wandering in and out of shops, we walked around the island admiring the many pieces of public art.

After some lunch and our return boat ride, it was time to return to the train station. We caught a train to Verona, Italy, where I promptly began to geek out in a big way.

When Jon and a friend went to Italy in 2005, they drove through Verona en route to the Cinque Terre. As Jon was excitedly telling me about the trip, he made the mistake of asking me, "Did you know Romeo & Juliet takes place in Verona?"

Do I know Romeo & Juliet takes place in Verona? What a ridiculous question.

Of course, I know that! For pete's sake, Shakespeare made sure you do when he writes in the prologue:

"Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene..."

When Jon asked his silly question in 2005, I was in the middle of teaching this play to 9th graders. Since then, I have probably read the play an additional twelve times, plus watched numerous film and stage versions. So, yes, I was and am very aware of the connection between Romeo & Juliet and Verona.

However, unlike many (particularly young) people, I do NOT think Romeo & Juliet is a love story. I think it is a tragic story of hasty decisions, miscommunication, and the danger of hatred and revenge. Therefore, while I was interested in seeing all things R&J, I did not get caught up in the foolish romance. (That fanaticism was reserved for Anne of Green Gables and Prince Edward Island, Canada.)

Like Venice, we had a limited time in Verona, so I made a short agenda of R&J sights, including both Juliet's balcony and tomb. For a more or less made-up story, there sure were a lot of "authentic" locations.

One thing I hadn't planned to see was the opera. As we walked past the Arena di Verona (the Roman coliseum in the center of town), we noticed lots of people streaming through the gates. We knew from our guide book that, unlike the Coliseum in Rome, this Arena was still in use for shows and special events. Upon investigation, we discovered that the opera Turandot was being performed that very night. Always keen to seize each and every opportunity, we snagged some tickets in the upper deck and headed to the opera.

We do not know opera or any of the stories. We do not speak Italian. We were not prepared for the stone bleachers to be as hot as they were. But despite all of these things, we had a lovely time, recognizing that we were participating in a very cool thing. The production was glorious with elaborate sets and costumes and the music was incredible. When the lead male sang what we later learned was one of the most famous tenor solos in opera, the audience went crazy and demanded an encore, right in the middle of the show. And when we also later learned what was happening in the storyline (thanks to Wikipedia), we were even more impressed with the experience.

What a wonderful welcome to Italy.

A Little Taste of...America?

After several glorious days in Bamberg, we were headed to the Cinque Terre in Italy (see subsequent post). However, rather than go straight there, we decided to take advantage of our travel schedule to hit a few more hot spots. In order to leave the country, we had to go through Munich, so we left a little earlier than we needed to and spent some time in the English Garden.

The two previous times I have been to Munich were in the winter and early spring, so I was never able to experience the park. It's a great public space and people were out in droves to enjoy the warm summertime weather. If we had known, we would have brought bathing suits to float down the canal, although even if we had been so prepared, we still would have been content to merely watch the surfers.

Who would have thought we'd see surfing in Germany?
We finally dragged ourselves away from the park and headed south toward the Alps. Since we were in the area, we booked a night at the Edelweiss American resort in Garmisch. Honestly, it felt a little like cheating to be surrounded by English-speaking Americans, but we quickly got over it and embraced all the benefits they had to offer, such as group outings to breweries and massages in the spa.

While traveling, it's important for us to have as authentic an experience as possible (which is sometimes tough when we don't speak the language and visit primarily tourist locations). In particular, we really try to eat local food. Being in an American resort presented an interesting challenge. But, when in Rome, do as the Romans do, so we didn't feel too bad about eating hamburgers in the resort bar and grill to the "ear-pleasing" sounds of karaoke (a girl was actually singing "Edelweiss" from The Sound of Music when we walked in).

Despite being very close to Germany's highest point the Zugspitze, the cloudy weather dictated that we visit the Partnach Gorge the following day instead. It was extremely beautiful, and I'm glad I had my rain jacket with me from the spray from the rushing water.

We had a schedule to keep and weren't able to enjoy nature's bounty all day, though, and prepared to head back to the resort. However, as we walked to the bus stop, a sign stopped us in our tracks.

Anyone who has ever lived or traveled near mountains in Europe is probably familiar with rodelbahn. Basically, it's a summer luge with go-karts that travel on a metal track and is pretty much the coolest thing ever. We made time for a quick trip down the hill, which was just as awesome as I remember rodelbahn to be. Serendipity.

After our turn down the hill, we caught a slightly later bus back to the resort and arrived in plenty of time for our couples' massage (happy birthday to me!) and for the group outing to a local brewery where we were treated to a tour from the braumeister himself.

Now, we've toured many a brewery, albeit never one in Germany. It was interesting to compare, and we discovered that it really wasn't that different from most American craft breweries after all. Wolfgang, the braumeister, shared lots of information about his brewing process and beer-making in general (we had to take a quiz at the end), which he interspersed with several tastings.

"Beer shots" at Braueri Griesbrau
We enjoyed a traditional German meal and took notes for the brewery we are going to open someday when we retire. Jon even got to talk shop with Wolfgang, who was impressed with Jon's beer knowledge and experience. It was a perfect way to end our time in Germany. Next stop: Italy.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Back in Bamberg

A 1000th birthday is kind of a big deal.

For someone who considers each and every birthday to be a milestone event worthy of celebration ("the best day of the year"), it did not take me much effort to get excited about the Bamberger Dom turning 1000 in 2012. Bamberg, Germany is a magical place for us--where Jon and I met, fell in love, and eventually got married. We met some of our best friends there and created memories to last a lifetime. Needless to say, we jump on any opportunity to go back. Thus, a 1000th birthday was a perfect, reason.

We learned several years ago that the Dom (Cathedral) would reach the ripe old age of 1000 in 2012 and immediately made plans to go see it. Several friends were on board, and we actually began planning over a year ago. But then, life happened, and unfortunately our friends decided they could no longer make the trip. We still wanted to go, however, and kept our plans on the back burner...not actually making any because that would be silly.

We ultimately decided that we wanted to combine the Bamberg return trip with a couple of other choice locations: the Cinque Terre--where Jon had traveled with a friend in 2005 and continues to talk about--and Zurich--where a college friend recently moved (see subsequent posts). We hemmed and hawed about when the ideal time to travel would be, and as we are wont to do, made our final travel arrangements for the end of July/beginning of August at the last minute.

But as usual, our last-minute plans had very little effect on the awesomeness of the trip. When the only thing you have to complain about is the fact that you were unable to sit on your couch glued to the Olympics for two weeks, you know you're doing pretty well. (And besides, we were able to catch the BBC occasionally, so we didn't miss too much.)

We kicked off the trip in the only way we know how: a beer fest. Within hours of landing in Germany, we were whisked off to Annafest by some good friends (who we knew in Washington and currently live in Germany). And then, we ran into some more good friends (who also live in Germany again) in the parking lot. It was wonderful catching up with these aforementioned friends while enjoying German beer at a fest in the woods.

Beer and rides in the woods? Yes, please!

Starting to feel a bit tired from our travels (or was it the beer?), we headed into Bamberg, where we had the opportunity to show off one of our favorite places to our "Washington friends." Since it was still summer vacation for their daughters, they were able to stay the next day--Monday--so we were in full-on tour guide mode (once we got some much needed sleep).

Our first stop in Bamberg was Altenburg Schloss (castle), which allows for some of the best views in Bamberg.

While I'm pretty sure we already have taken "this" picture several times, it's still quite an impressive sight

As our friends have a similarly good taste in beer (and since they had a car), we next headed to a brewery that Jon claims to have a mystical connection to: Braueri Kundmuller. I cannot claim a similar connection, but I do know they have delicious beer and a really cool playground for kids.

So happy
We headed back to Bamberg for lunch and rauchbier at Schlenkerla and a bit of souvenir shopping. At that time, it was important to actually go to the Dom since we'd traveled all that way. Just as majestic as ever, although there seemed to be more tourists hanging about (have people found out about Bamberg?). Despite being the end of the July, the roses in the nearby rose garden were still fragrant, prompting yet another repeat photo.

Christmas card preview?
Our friends had to head home after the Dom, so we were on our own. It should come as no surprise that our first stop was a brewery.

Mahr's Brau: Jon's favorite Bamberg brewery, home of his all-time favorite beer (besides his own)
And what did we do after that? Go to another brewery.

My favorite Bamberg brewery--Spezial--and my favorite German meal, jaegerschnitzel (there's pork under all that gravy somewhere)
The next morning was the official launch of our "Best of Bamberg" tour. We borrowed bikes from our hotel and rode all over town. Our first stop was a return to the Dom and a visit to the museum. While we couldn't understand what exactly we were looking at (due to the language barrier and all), it was still cool--and important--to be there.

Happy Birthday, Dom!
All of those artifacts and religious history made us hungry, so it was time for our "Doner-Off." For the uninitiated, doner kebab is basically the most delicious street food ever. Similar to gyros, doners are a variation of meat shaved from a rostisserie (typically lamb) with lettuce, tomatoes, and yogurt sauce on a pita. So good. What we've discovered is that people get very territorial when it comes to the best doner. Everyone has their favorite spot. Jon prefers some inferior place called City Snaxx (guess what I call it), while I will forever favor Marmaris Imbiss, where I had my first doner ever. I will publicly acknowledge that Jon's doner was good, delicious even, but in a head-to-head competition, Marmaris was far superior. Jon may disagree, but really, everybody wins.

You may have noticed a common theme, that we spent the entire trip eating and drinking. This is true. But we also biked a lot. In fact, we biked to our next food location, Braueri Hoh. Of course, we couldn't go there until we stopped at another brewery, but that's just a technicality.

We left a little souvenir at the brewery where we met 7 1/2 years ago
We made the huge mistake of talking up the Hoh when we brought our families to Germany for our wedding in 2008. After making everyone salivate over pfefferhaenchen (pepper chicken), we showed up at the brewery only to discover it was closed. We didn't take any chances this time and did our research, learning that they were only open for dinner. After biking for several kilometers outside of Bamberg, we were richly rewarded.

Literally half a chicken
We had one more stop on our Bamberg pilgrimage that night: Spezi Keller, a beer garden on a hill overlooking the city.

How to order another beer in Bavaria
We had done a lot of repeat things that day, so the next day was adventure day. Once again, we borrowed the hotel's bikes and hit the road. The day was beautiful and the biking easy (at first).  Jon has recently gotten more interested in cycling. While I enjoy it--particularly when I can ride to work--I'm still very much an amateur. For that reason, I'm glad that I didn't know that Jon had planned what turned into a 36-40 mile bike ride. But it was beautiful (even the giant hill that I pushed the bike up). We rode all through Franconia and up and over Frankischer Schweiz (Little Swiss).

Everyone bikes in Germany
One of the coolest parts of the ride was that it was something new that neither of us had ever done in Bamberg before. Since we'd seen and eaten our way through Bamberg proper, we got to go places that the average tourist would never see.

However, like all good things, our time in Bamberg had come to an end. We woke up early on our last morning to run through town one last time and get some pictures of our favorite places.

Thanks, little tripod!
Is it bad that we're already planning our next trip?