20 October 2007

Why I Miss Halloween

Please do not misunderstand. I am not actually a great fan of Halloween in and of itself. I have no desire to dress up in a costume or attempt to scare small children by cackling.

However I do appreciate how it pushes back the Christmas marketing for one more month.

The stores here are now filled with Christmas decorations and Christmas shopping reminders and Christmas everything else.

If you start too soon, Christmas just isn't as special.

So please, Europeans, start celebrating Halloween.

19 October 2007

A Very Good Night

Last night was the first full night of sleep that I have gotten in many months. The temperatures dropped near freezing. With our windows still open, it was finally cool enough for a really good sleep.

When I am too warm, even slightly, I wake up continually and have difficulty going back to sleep. Last night I slept like a baby.

Perhaps more like a "polar bear baby." But I was happy.

Summer is finally over. Welcome to Fall!

Perhaps now I can finally get rid of the dark circles under my eyes...

15 October 2007

Oktoberfest in Zürich

We heard last week that Zürich Haubtbahnhof (Main Train Station) would be hosting an Oktoberfest.

Given last year's Christmas Market, also hosted in the Haubtbahnhof, we weren't expecting a whole lot. But we decided to give it a "Look-See" over the weekend.

Yeah. Right. Oktoberfest...

When we want an Oktoberfest, we'll just go back to Munich...

13 October 2007

Exploring Venice

Excessively early on the morning of Friday, 5 October we headed for the Charles de Gaulle airport. Indeed, it was so early that we had to take a taxi because the Metro and the shuttle buses weren't running yet. Now that's early!

Even so Alicia was happy because we were finally going to Venice, a city she selected to visit based upon the number of novels she has read that have been based there. And based on the fact that she heard Italian men are very cute. (Note: We discovered that not only are they cute, but they love to flirt as well.)

After arriving at the Venice airport we purchased tickets for the vaporetti (water bus) to Lido Island where our hotel was located. (By the way, when you see the ticket windows for transportation in the airport just keep walking. Those are the more expensive options. Follow the signs for Water Bus and buy your €12 tickets there instead!)

We waited on the floating dock for about 20 minutes until the next one arrived. At which time I began to discover a potential problem with visiting Venice. I get pretty extreme motion sickness. This was confirmed by the 35 minute ride to Lido after which I needed a good hour of recovery before I felt well enough to do anything at all.

Venice is not the best place for people who have motion sickness.

However, we had made it.

After checking into our hotel we ate a quick and early lunch and before heading into Venice. Our plan was to see the Gallerie dell'Accademia (Academy of Fine Arts). GLH would be joining us that evening and I knew it would be best to get the art museum done before he joined us.

Not that GLH dislikes art museums. Quite the contrary. But I discovered at the Zürich Kunsthaus that Alicia is one of the slowest museum viewers I had ever met in my life. The Zürich Kunsthaus is very small and most spend an hour or less viewing the collection. But it took Alicia over 2 hours to visit it because she stops and studies EVERY SINGLE PIECE and she reads EVERY SINGLE LABEL and listens to ALL AUDIO DESCRIPTIONS IN FULL. Plus she's got short legs and walks slowly.

True, I'm a fast museum visitor mostly because slow walking hurts my back and because I have ADHD. But still!

In Paris I was careful to bring along something to read and would say "I'll meet you here when you are done." But I knew that GLH would have very limited patience for Alicia's Extremely Slow Museum Approach and I thought it best to get it out of the way. Plus I was almost done with a rather thrilling book and wanted a chance to finish it!

After the Accademia we went for a wander through Venice with no particular location in mind. I was astounded at how many gondolas there are and the fact that they could manuever so well in such crowded situations.

I also fell in love with the many alley ways and took loads of pictures of things such as people's laundry hanging out to dry...

We happened upon Piazza San Marco and I decided I could use a spot of tea and a bite of something sweet to eat.

So we sat at an outdoor café directly across from the Basilica and the Doges' Palace and did some people watching. I ordered my tea and sweet while Alicia sat beside me and pursued the guidebook. When the bill arrived I was shocked to discover it was over €20! I knew when I ordered that the food was a little pricey, but I had no idea that they would also charge both of us €4 just for sitting! I then and there vowed that I would be using their restroom any time I happened to be in the area for the rest of my life because I had already prepaid for it!

We then headed back to the vaporetti stop and the blessedly short trip to Lido for dinner and to wait for GLH's arrival from the airport.

The following morning we got an early start and headed for the island of Burano. Yes, it begins with a "B" and not an "M" because we are talking about the lace makers' island, not the one for glass.

We loved Burano! It was such a sweet, friendly and colorful island. Plus the lace houses were beautiful. And look! They also had alleys that made great photo ops!

Unfortunately while we were on the island the weather turned very cold. The original plan was to spend the morning on Burano and have some lunch before going on to Murano for the afternoon. But after lunch it began to pelt down rain and hail. As we were all wearing summery clothes, we nixed Murano for the day and headed back to Lido for a change. We napped until the weather cleared up.

That evening we had made dinner reservations at San Trovaso (Rio di San Trovaso, Dorsoduro 1016) based upon the recommendation of our friends, Laurie and Iain. It was a fabulous meal with great wine, good service and spectacular desserts. (Reservations strongly recommended as it is popular with tourists and locals!) Here's a photo taken just outside the restaurant at dusk.

After dinner we were slightly tipsy and I proposed that a gondola ride at night after one has had good food and wine was the best way to go.

As it was past 10 pm most of the gondolas were parked for the night, but we found one gondalier who was still taking passengers. And late at night is definitely the best time for this!

Not only is Venice gorgeous at night and the best way to see Venice is from the rivers and canals. But late at night when there is little other traffic the water looks like glass and it is a smooth and beautiful ride. Plus with so few people around you do not feel as if your ride is intended for public display. Although it is more expensive to ride past 8 pm, so those on a budget may wish to keep that in mind.

While drifting along we chatted with our gondalier...

(Sorry for the blurry quality, but I thought it best NOT to use flash while he was punting us along!)

He is the third generation of gondaliers in his family and has been ferrying passengers through the canals since he was 16 years old. He explained that it is the law that all gondaliers must be Venetian by birth and most come from families that have been doing this for several generations.

The following morning we got an early start and took our luggage to the airport. We checked it for the day and then headed for Murano Island and the world famous glass making factories.

After watching a demonstration we wandered through the factory's showrooms.

Although we were a little put off by how pushy the salespeople were. That did seem to be the way of it on Murano in general. Have to admit Murano was disappointing. The salespeople were much pushier and nowhere near as friendly as those on Burano. Plus it wasn't nearly as charming or pretty. My advice? If you have time for only one island, go with Burano.

Back in Venice we tried to find Piazza San Marco, but kept going down twisting alleys that lead us the wrong way or into dead ends. Finally we decided that a leisurely stroll through the city when one is actually trying to get somewhere isn't very productive and we had limited time before we had to get back to the airport for our flight. So we hopped a packed-to-the-gills vaporetti and went that way.

Back at Piazza San Marco we quickly decided to see the Basilica and then if we still had time we would go to Palazzo Ducale (Doges' Palace).

The Basilica is beautiful, but not terribly large so we got into the line for the Palace.

But to have time we had to keep Alicia moving. No stopping and reading every single sign on this visit. Plus we were trying to keep ahead of the multiple tourist groups that kept getting in our way.

But we managed to see all of the Palace (no photos allowed inside)...

...including a walk across the Bridge of Sighs into the old Prison...

...before calling it a day and heading back to the airport.

Alicia was a bit breathless by our pace. It was definitely the fastest that she has ever viewed any museum in her life!

City of Museums

Leaving GLH at home with the cats, Alicia and I headed for Paris.

Paris is one of my favorite cities, so I was excited that Alicia would be seeing it for the first time.

While in Paris we saw the major sites such as...

...the Catedral de Notre Dame...

...the Eiffel Tower...

...the Arc de Triomphe...

...the Chateau de Versailles, only a 30 minute train ride away...

...Napoleon's Tomb, which is hidden in...

...the Hospital de Invalides...

There are no signs anywhere that might point where the tomb is and asking a museum employee wasn't much help either. We finally managed to stumble down the right hallway and then saw the stream of people walking from the tour buses.

And, of course, while in Paris you must visit the small cafès and soak up the atmosphere. In one we even saw a resident cat settled in for a long nap.

And I amused Alicia by repeatedly murdering the pronunciation of Les Champs-Elysees. For some reason I am incapable of saying the name, even if someone says it slowly for me first. Although I will admit by the end of our three days I was making it even worse just for fun until Alicia also was no longer able to pronounce it. Am I good or what?

But the highlight of Paris are the museums.

Early Wednesday morning we headed for the Louvre, where we purchased our two-day museum passes. The passes are an absolute must in Paris. Over 60 museums and other attractions and no waiting in line to buy tickets at every place!

Although Alicia was disappointed in the Louvre. Mostly because she is vertically challenged (i.e. very short) and she couldn't really see the artwork anyway. This photo of the Mona Lisa was taken BEFORE the museum "got busy." See what I mean?

That little tiny picture way far away is the Mona Lisa. As I hate wading through masses of humanity, that is about as close as I got to it.

However, she was happier with the other art museums we visited.

The Musee de Orsay has a wonderful collection well displayed in an old train station.

And the Rodin Museum is one of the best designed museums I have ever seen.

So after three days in Paris I asked Alicia what she thought.

Her response? "Eh, it's o.k. Can we go to Venice now?"

09 October 2007

Mountains, Cows and Beer

On the 25th of September Alicia arrived from Kansas City for her Two-Week European Vacation.

Unfortunately, she brought with her non-stop drizzle and oppressive clouds. So for her first few days we did mostly indoor activities, such as the Kunsthaus in Zürich...

We also hopped on a train to Luzern for lunch, medieval wall walking and the famous wooden bridge.

And, of course, no trip to Switzerland would be complete without seeing some cows.

Unfortunately, the clouds and haze obscured the mountain views for most of her time in Switzerland.

Then on the Saturday after she arrived we boarded an extremely early morning train for an overnight trip to Munich and Oktoberfest. Fortunately, we also found some good weather!

When we made our hotel reservations months ago, we had no idea we had happened to pick Italian Weekend at Oktoberfest. It's the busiest weekend of the festival during which trains, planes and cars fully loaded with Italians descend upon Munich.

Indeed, there are so many Italians that weekend that the Italian government actually sends a large contingent of Italian police. Because most of the Italians who come cannot speak German. And even if they did, the German police are not quite certain how to handle really drunk, exuberant Italians who use their hands to talk even when they are holding enormous steins full of beer.

As Oktoberfest Newbies, we didn't know the best way to go about it. For instance, we had no idea that in order to get served beer at Oktoberfest, you needed to be seated at a table in one of the tents. And unless you know an insider, the odds of getting into a tent, especially on the busiest Saturday evening, is pretty much nil.

Fortunately, a friend here in Zürich (and a former Munich resident) hooked us up with Donna. Donna has attended every Oktoberfest since 1984 (or something like that). And she agreed to meet us and try to get us into one of the tents.

We met her for a late lunch to discuss Oktoberfest Strategy. With our game plan decided, we headed out.

We boarded the train to the festival grounds. Donna reminded us to stay near the doors and "hold our positions" whatever the cost. We soon understood why as with every stop more and more people shoved their way into the train. But we all managed to stay right next to the door, even though some gave us the Evil Eye for our efforts.

However, that was simply practice for the hate which would soon be thrown our way. Because as Donna led us through the packed festival grounds towards the Ausgustiner Tent, we saw mobs of people around every door leading into one of the many tents.

Note: the "tents" are actually enormous wooden buildings that are constructed and deconstructed every year. There are 15 major tents and some other smaller, less important tents. Each tent belongs to a German beer producer.

When a door opened for any reason, the mob would surge forward in the hopes of making it past the security guards charged with keeping them out. A few lucky ones managed to sneak by, but most were forced back out again. And they would continue standing by the door for their next opportunity. When we got to the festival grounds at approximately 5 pm, there were people who had likely been standing outside for hours waiting for an opportunity to get in.

As we approached one of the back doors to the Augustiner tent, there was a crowd of at least 50 people packed in tight waiting for their chance to enter.

Donna arranged us in a line. She went first, shoving people out of her way like a pro, smart talking to any who objected. (Example: "You can stand out here til you're 30 and you aren't getting in. But I will, so get out of my way." In German, of course.) Next went Tom, an American who has lived in Munich for several years and a colleague of GLH. His job was to keep the hole open. Alicia closely followed Tom. At only slightly over 5 feet tall, she was most at risk for getting lost so needed to stay in the middle. I came behind Alicia. GLH made up the rear. Because at 6'4" and a former college football player, GLH is ideally built to ensure that we all made it through the increasingly hostile crowd. Occasionally he was forced to glare down at someone until they moved out of our way but he only needed to use one of his football blocks once.

It took us several minutes to make our way to the head of the pack while obscenities and threats rained down upon us. Finally we made it to the doors. Donna waved at one of the Bier Fraus, whom she has known for years, and we were in. The shouts increased as the security guards redoubled their efforts to keep all others out.

Donna had led us to the door that leads directly into the Maibaumräuber-Boxe.

There is a tradition in Bavaria that if you are able to steal a town's Maypole, you can ask for a ransom to get it back. Many years ago, two brothers concocted a plan to steal Munich's Maypole, and astonishing feat given it's enormous size. The ransom they asked was a reserved box in the Augustiner Tent and free beer for the rest of their life. They are now in their 80's and still come for their reserved box and free beer every year. They are an Oktoberfest Legend and no others have ever successfully managed to steal the Munich Maypole.

As mentioned above, the Official Oktoberfest Rules state that in order to be served beer you must be sitting at a table. However, since we were in a box, we were able to get beer even though we had no place to sit. As demonstrated by Alicia...

We then found a place next to the tables where there was a bit of breathing room, although not much. When the Bier Frau working that area saw us with beer, she asked how we had gotten it. When we explained, she said "come to me for the beer and I'll serve you..."

As time went on, some space cleared at a table near us and we were invited to sit down by the Current Possessors of the Table. A husband and wife team, they had been there since 8:30 am. Having claimed a table, all they needed to do was hold on to it. As people came and went, they decided who among the standing were worthy of sitting. We managed to make the grade.

Here is Tom (on the right) with the German Guy who Possessed the Table. Unfortunately, I haven't a clue what his name was. But thanks for a place to sit!

I would love to include a picture of Donna. I have a fabulous one captured just as one of the very drunk Italians grabbed her and planted a sloppy, wet kiss on her cheek. But she swore she would never talk to me again if I posted it on my blog. (Won't you please reconsider?)

08 October 2007

Back Again...

We've had a visitor for the last two weeks and we just got back from a trip to Paris and Venice.

Will blog again soon!