Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Day Twelve: Gruyeres


I did get my cheese fix in Switzerland, including eating, and visiting the town where a famous cheese is made-Gruyeres. When we drove up the hillside to the town resting behind (another) fortress wall, we passed cows with big bells grazing on the hillside.

The town threw us back a few hundred years...and then some. All the buildings declare they are old, but well maintained.
There are little fondu restaurants (next time), and shops that sell local delights, including....Gruyere Cheese!

Once you walk up the cobbled streets (no cars allowed) you reach the top, where a castle sleeps.

I have no better word (nor a thesaurus to find a better word) than "cute" to describe this town. Hold on while I increase this elequant description...it was very, VERY cute.

Day Twelve: Along the Way....

...I tried not to post this, but I had to, regardless of the lame factor....I feel pretty secure in my friendships, and place in the family....so here it is, in all the
"It's probably only funny to me" glory....but as we were driving through Switzerland, I saw this, and all I could think was "Holy Cow!"

Day Twelve: Interlaken, Switzerland


We made a super quick stop in Interlaken. We basically got off the bus to use the restroom, and then had time to walk through a little park nearby with a flower clock, and a courtyard in front of Casino Kursaal. The flowers are beautiful. All the towns in Switzerland are so peaceful.

Day Twelve: Lucerne, Switzerland


We spent most of the morning, and afternoon in a little town called Lucerne. I think this was my favorite stop in Switzerland. Our first stop was a Lion Statue in honor of The Swiss Guards' who were sent to protect King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and their children who were taken to the Tuileries Place in Paris. More than 700 Swiss officers gave their life when the Parisians stormed the palace, and it turned out that Louis, and the family had snuck out a back way.

We were dropped off in town, and Mom and I walked around, and tried to grab a few souvenirs. We did get Jason a Swiss Army knife that they put his name on, and some chocolates (Calait-which is supposedly only sold in Switzerland, it's less rich, and very creamy....but I prefer Hersheys myself. :O)). I was also on the hunt for the perfect Cuckoo clock. If you have ever been, or will ever be a visitor to my house, you will be glad to know I couldn't find one I loved (and could afford)....next time!

We then joined our group again, and were driven to Mount Stanserhorn. We took a Funiculaire 1/3 of the way up the mountain (a train on a very steep track). Next we boarded a Cable Car. Unlike Aspen, this car was built for standing visitors, and many more than the 4 person cars I've ridden in the past. More than twenty of us squished in the car like sardines, and we made the rest of the trip. I'm usually NOT a fan of dangling heights, but I was in the middle, the clouds completely covered the mountain far below, and the ride was pretty steady with all that weight anchoring us down, so....I can't complain. We made it to the top. They have walkways that dangled over the side of the mountain, so when it's not cloudy you can see hundreds....and hundreds of feet below. The problem was that we were above the clouds....and clouds were all we could see!

We went inside, and grabbed some lunch (which also double as dessert-cake), and after hanging out for about 45 minutes, some of the clouds were swept away, and we got our first....and last view of the valleys below.

We made the trip down, and then headed back into town. We walked around, and shopped, and headed across the famous Chapel Bridge. Even in the clouds, and the rain, Switzerland is one of the most beautiful places.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Day Eleven/Twelve: Fluelen


We continued to drive through the Swiss Alps, and our drive included a drive through Europe's longest tunnel-17 KM through San Gottardo. When you arrive at the tunnel, you have to wait on a light that tells you to go forward. This helps control the traffic, and create a safer drive. Apparently, sometimes it takes hours of waiting for your turn to be up, but we made the transition from one side of the mountain to the next without any drama. We made it into Fluelen in the early evening, and the rain followed us into this next stop. Our hotel was another family run hotel. There were cows roaming the hills behind us, a train track that ran along the lake in front of us, and a bell tower that rang every fifteen minutes, and FOR about fifteen minutes at 6 am. It was a little bit noisier than some of the hotels, but the noises were much more appealing b/c they weren't city noises, and it was worth it for the view, and the experience. Mom and I went out, and walked down the lake for a ways, and then ate dinner with our group. We went back out to see if we could find the entrance to the bell tower at the top of the mountain overlooking the little town, and we were joined by some of the other gals we befriend on the trip. We did 'find' the next wave of rain, but no entrance. It was a quiet evening, and a quick stop.

Day Eleven: Lugano, Switzerland


...and then....there was Switzerland. Switzerland is the most naturally beautiful location we visited on our trip. It rained most of the time we were there, so the pictures don't do it justice....I'll just have to go back for my blue sky pictures. Switzerland is also the most expensive place we visited. The Swiss Franc matched the American Dollar almost exactly, but it was still costly. Our first stop was in the town of Lugano. The town curves around a lake, and the Alps are the backdrop to this sailboat, and swan covered lake. The lake was crystal blue, and you could see clear the the bottom. All the colors were so vivid. I think God used some of the best colors in the box of crayons when He created Switzerland. We walked down the park that followed the lake's edge. We shopped through the town, and got our first glimpse of Swiss Army Knives, and tried our first bite of Swiss chocolate.

Day Eleven: Under the Tuscan Sun....

Before I leave Italy....here are a few last little memories....
We drove through the Tuscan Hills, and "Under the Tuscan Sun" and we passed acres of sunflower fields.

We also passed the areas they quarry large rocks for sculptures, including the 'rock fields' where The David's material was brought from years ago. The rock can be as large as a car, and rest along the side of the road after being removed until the crew picks it up, and ships it out to it's new home, and it's new artist.

Pinocchio's was born in southern Italy so they had Pinocchio 'everything' in the shops.

Last, is my dream Italian job. I'm pretty sure that if I moved to Italy, I too would like to be a part of the assembly line that puts together these marshmallow/sugar coated bouquets. I don't know who came up with the idea to place flower shaped marshmallows on sticks, and sell bouquets of them...but they are everywhere. Let's be real, this so sounds like something I would do....

Day Eleven: Pisa



Like you didn't see this coming....

Look close....I'm the dot at the bottom right of this picture, taking the 'traditional' picture that all tourist take when visiting Pisa. (My 'photographer' wasn't ready to work with various depths so you get the long distance shot, and I have to be little. I rarely get to describe myself as 'little' in a picture. In fact....I'm thinking of taking all future pictures from half a football field away...)
We just stopped off at Pisa for a few hours on the road to Switzerland. We got to walk around the square of miracles, take our tourist pictures, and shop the shops that all sit within this city surrounded by fortress walls and towers. It really leans, and there are no wires holding it up any longer, but I think they recently did some foundation work. Can you imagine spending so much effort trying to keep a failed project from falling? I guess it just goes to show-some things really do work for good. I bet we wouldn't have made this particular stop if this particular failed attempt wasn't resting inside this town's square. I'll remember that next time a project bombs....

Day Ten/Eleven: Montecatini, Italy


The hot spring's town of Montecatini is the place we spent the evening after our day in Florence. It is a Bath House town built around the hot spring baths that draw visitors. We arrived in the middle of a Car Rally, which was interesting. We had a really great dinner with the best green beans I've ever tasted....uh, sure, I haven't exactly tasted very many in my life because when I have eaten green beans in the past they were YUCKY! The vegetables, and fruits are so much better in Italy. I don't know what soil/water combination makes them so fabulous, but I'm a fan. After dinner, Mom and I walked around the town square. It reminded me a little of Pasadena, CA with the palm trees, and building structures. There was a bands playing, and entertainers performing in front of the various hang outs with guest sitting out at the tables, talking, people watching, and listening to the music. Despite it all, it was a really peaceful setting

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Day Ten: Florence, Italy


We spent the morning driving to Florence. We had to get out a few minutes walk from the heart of the city. Once we reached the first piazza, we found out there was going to be a big sports event that afternoon in the square, so a stadium had been constructed, police were getting ready to block off routes, and control crowds, and stores were closing in that particular piazza in about two hours. The first thing we did was go to a leather shop (Peruzzi) and see how the leather designs are created, and how the gold is laid into the designs.

We also got a lesson on fine leather, and then....of course, used the free facilities. Florence is known for it's leather, gold, and sun glasses. It was my favorite shopping location in Italy. We managed to find leather, and jewelery before leaving in the afternoon-I left the sun glasses for the next visit. There are also a lot of men, and women who sell knock-off purses (prints, glasses, jewelry etc) illegally from blankets all over major Italian Cities. They place their ware on a blanket, but quickly pick the purses up and leave when police come nearby. We tried to avoid them as much as possible, but they are pretty intent on getting you to look at their wares. We had some free time to shop, and eat, and then we met with our local guide for the day. We were each given our whisper head sets, and then we made our way into the rest of the town. Our guide pointed out the buildings that were important to the Medici family, Dante's old house, Galileo's resting place, and Michelangelo's David.

The REAL David actually now resides in a museum nearby, so the one on the square we photographed was an exact replica standing in the spot the original stood along with tons of original statues from other famous Italian artist. We also saw the Gates of Paradise in front of the Baptistery.

After our tour, Mom and I walked to the Arno River that overlooks the famous Ponte Vecchio Bridge.

We shopped back to our next meeting point, and then went and found a gelato, and watched a local parade pass in period costumes.

Day Nine: When in Rome....


We woke up early, and went with our group to the Vatican. Someone mentioned when following such a busy schedule, and seeing so many things, sometimes the only thing to do is to choose 'one' of each series of sites to see. One church you want to spend a lot of time at, one museum etc, etc, etc. This is all to say...we did go to the Vatican, we went into St. Paul's Basilica, but we did not see the Sistine Chapel, or any more of Vatican City. I do plan to go someday, maybe with someone Catholic so I can see it through their eyes? We chose to walk around St. Paul's which is GORGEOUS. At one point I could hear psalms being sung, and I looked down at this golden seal in the floor, and below a service was being held. We also saw the balcony the Pope waves from on Sunday, and seats were being set up for services.

After the tour, we headed on to do some shopping, and walk across the Angels, and Demon's bridge.

We also got to have a leisurely pizza lunch, and gelatos. We met up with the rest of the group after their tour, and headed on to the Forum, and Colosseum. We had a local guide throughout the day, and a little treasure called 'Whisper Headsets.' She had a 'Britney Spear's' head-microphone, and we each had small battery packs, and ear plugs so as we walked in a large group, through crowded areas, we could hear all the details of what we were seeing broadcast in our ears by our guide. If you haven't had the good fortune to see Italy, I have to say, again-it's SO hot! Luckily, I brought a bottle of water, and there are fountains with 'safe' water in a lot of locations where you can refill your water bottles, but even at that....smarter people brought umbrellas to hide from the sun, and they sold frozen bottles of water for struggling tourist. By the end of our walking tour, that included a lot of the group-both young and old. We started our tour walking through the Forum, where government, business, and faith matters took place centuries ago in Rome. WE saw the seven hills, various Arches, old Government Buildings, and Temples, and the place Caesar was cremated.

Next, we made our way across the uneven cobblestones to the Colosseum. It was interesting to see there were even 'numbers' above each gate entry for the tournament ticket holders who attended the shows here. You can see into the hallways that ran below the wooden floors, and there is graffiti scratched all over the walls, both old....and new.

Outside the Colosseum men dressed as Roman Soldiers milled trying to get you to take a picture, and if you take them up on the offer, they will pester you until they get a Euro or two. (My friend warned me about this in advance, it's not really my style, but I thought I'd pass along the advice.) It was so hot, we chose to head back to the hotel to cool off for a bit before going out again. We walked up and down the streets near our hotel, and entered a local shopping market (I love to see grocery stores in other places, whether it be Amory, Mississippi (did I ever tell you about that, Nicole?), or Rome, Italy). We got (another) gelato...yes, they really are THAT good, and great for cooling off, and then we found a pizza place. I learned that Pepperoni Pizza is actually peppers, and if you want the 'American' version of Pepperoni, ask for Salami. Lots of people also told me if you want the best food, go where the locals go, which is NOT next to the big attractions. Restaurants by big sites don't really care if you return, but if you go to the back streets etc, you have to have a reason for making the effort to go to these places. This pizza was worth the effort. They have the BEST brick oven pizza in Italy. My favorite food came from Italy.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Day Eight: All Roads Lead to ROME!

After a long day, we arrived in the bustling city of Rome. I was surprised by how congested it was (I don't know why, it is the roots to so much of our civilization). I was also shocked by the amount of graffiti, despite it's ageless draw, it's still a city with all the grime that comes with that word. Our guide assures us this grafitti will be the '20th' century art addition a thousand years from now as tourist make the trip to Rome. It's not exactly the contribution I'd like to make to the art world, but there it is....We had a quick stop at the hotel to drop off our things, and then we headed out for a tour of Rome by night, and a four course, Italian meal. We drove through parts of the city and saw some of the famous sights like the Vatican, and Angels and Demon's Bridge, and then we were dropped off near the Four Season fountain. We walked through the Piazza where artist were displaying their work, and street performers were trying to earn a few Euro's (a very common sight in Europe). There are fountains, and buildings that represent so many of the centuries sandwiched together in the little squares. There are also more Egyptian Needles here than in Egypt, thanks to Roman's carrying these souvenirs home after trips to Egypt. There are hundreds of beautiful churches in every nook and cranny.

We then headed over to the Pantheon before it closed. We got to see the last of the day's light spilling through the roof.

We also made our wish in the Trevi fountain. 1st coin toss over the right shoulder=a guaranteed return trip to Rome, 2nd coin toss brings good luck, and the third toss grants you an Italian husband. I guess I'll have the good fortune to return to Rome with my Italian husband sometime in the future. ;o)

Our last stop was one of the best meals over the two week period at the Mangrovia Restaurant. Musicians played Italian music, and we sang along, and our waiter ended the night by joining in, and then administering kisses, and roses to all the ladies in the group. It was a fun night of laughter with our new little tour group family.

Day Eight: Assisi


We made a short stop in the town of Assisi, Italy. The town is built within a fortress, and at the top of a VERY steep hill is St. Francis' Church, and it's beautiful frescoes which cover the ceilings and walls. No pictures are allowed inside the church in order to help the paintings retain their color.

St. Francis is the patron saint of animals. After climbing the steep hill, we entered the church. The first level is dark and haunting where services were being held, but after climbing (more) stairs you enter a much lighter, fresco filled chapel. We shopped around the town a bit as we descended the hill, and then headed on down the road.

Day Eight: More Driving Through Italy

A few common, yet beautiful sites along the Italian roadside include:

Poppies border the highways, and pop up throughout the fields.

This part of Italy was called the "Belly" because of all the fruit, and wheat fields. Wheat=Bread=Happy Christy

These houses rest upon the river. The nets are lowered into the water. Fish swim into the nets. Nets are raised. Dinner is made.

There were little open air markets to hop off at for a quick break along the road.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Day Seven: Venice, Italy


When people ask which place was my 'favorite.' I really can't choose a favorite, I truly loved it all....but if I had to eat fish (ugh, I hate fish), or choose my favorite-Venice would definitely be in the running. We took a ferry over to the Island, or rather, Islands (it was take a ferry or swim). It's really interesting to be somewhere without any cars. There are tons of bridges because it's a bunch of little islands hanging out together, minus the typical sand, and palm trees most islands offer-Venice offers beautiful buildings instead.

It's a busy place, it's a hot, and muggy place, and it's completely different from anywhere else in Europe...or anywhere I've ever been. I love that boats, and gondolas are the source of transportation through the canals. The shopping is great, and the gelatos are even better! I used to collect mask, so this was my place, as several friends that went before me predicted.

We took a quick tour of the main square, including a visit to a famous Venetian Glass factory where we got to see glass heated, blown, and shaped.

This was better than the diamond stop, but still-it was ultimately about the free bathrooms because this is the city you can find the $2.25 restroom stops (it's so hot, it's not that big of an issues, but still...). There were also Italian musicians playing all the traditional Italian songs on the piazzas with little cafe tables overlooking the bustling squares. There are pigeons...lots, and lots of pigeons everywhere. You can feed them by hand, they'll be happy to hop around on your shoulders, head, whatever, but why? Birds=Yuck! We went inside St. Mark's Basilica.

No pictures are allowed inside, but it's pretty incredible. The ceiling is completely covered with tiny gold, and bronze tiles. It's hard to really describe the churches in Europe, it's incredible to see the details, the moldings, the paintings, and mosaics. It's amazing to think of the craftsmanship that went into creating these masterpieces. Of all I saw that was made by man, the churches are the thing that absolutely took my breath away. After shopping down the narrow streets, and people watching, we ended our day in Venice with a gondola ride, and serenade.

It was neat to wind through the big, and small canals via gondola. Our boat ducked under bridges, and wound around through these colorful little houses. I can't even imagine what life would be like here with the water tapping at your front door, but I imagine they visit places and think the same thought in return. Venice is fabulous!