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Good morning, Ortisei!

1 Aug
Good Day Rome is on-the-road this week. We head back to Rome this evening, but I wanted to share a few pictures from the last couple of days. We are traveling with our Seattle-based niece, nephew and their children.  Hoping Grandma Deb, who is cycling across the U.S. this summer, has a chance to see these pics of her grandchildren and their time in the mountains.
Sunrise on the Sella Group and the Sassolungo, towering over Ortisei, Italy, as seen from our terrace.
Sunrise on the Sella Group and the Sassolungo, towering over Ortisei, Italy, as seen from our terrace.
Across the Val Gardena, viewed from our apartment, the tiny village of Bulla. Every trip I say we need to go there. I find it enchanting. Maybe next time....
Across the Val Gardena, viewed from our apartment, the tiny village of Bulla. Every trip I say we need to go there. I find it enchanting. Maybe next time….
High above the Val Gardena, William, Elizabeth and John head down the trail. It was a chilly 13 Centrigrade.
High above the Val Gardena, William, Elizabeth and John head down the trail. It was a chilly 13 Centigrade.
Ric in front of the rifugio at Raciesa, high above the Val Gardena. Lovely stop for

Ric in front of the rifugio at Rasciesa, high above the Val Gardena. Lovely stop for “elevensies” of coffee, hot chocolate and berry crostada. Yes, it was cold enough for hot chocolate.

Elizabeth cannot resist the flower displays. The Val Gardena is well-named.

Elizabeth cannot resist the flower displays. The Val Gardena is well-named.

Horses and cows cross paths with hikers at Raciesa. We encountered a herd of about a dozen horses looking for handouts and petting. William said it was the highlight of the hike for him.
Horses and cows cross paths with hikers at Rasciesa. We encountered a herd of about a dozen horses looking for handouts and petting. William said it was the highlight of the hike for him.
Caught Elizabeth in a candid moment, bundled up against a chilly breeze at the high altitude. In the valley we did not need jackets.
Caught Elizabeth in a candid moment, bundled up against a chilly breeze at the high altitude. In the valley we did not need jackets.
Susan, Elizabeth, John and William riding the funicolare to Raciesa, Val Gardena.
Susan, Elizabeth, John and William riding the funicolare to Rasciesa, Val Gardena.
The horses were very friendly. No doubt looking for apples and carrots. John, Elizabeth and William (hidden) offer some pets.
The horses were very friendly. No doubt looking for apples and carrots. John, Elizabeth and William (hidden) offer some pets.
Ciao tutti! If you haven't been here, you should put it on your list!
Ciao tutti! If you haven’t been here, you should put it on your list!

Laurel & Ric on vacation: Part II – Ortisei

28 Jul

It’s been hot everywhere it seems. Ric and I took it hard here in Rome when the heat hit in mid-June, earlier than “usual” we are told. Hottest June in 231 years said one source. Who knew weather records were kept for more than 200 years?  We’ve also been warned that “Rome closes down in August. All of the Italians leave town.” Everyone, it seems, goes to the beach or the mountains to escape the hot city.

Now we get it. Three refreshing days in Ortisei (OR-tee-zay) in the Alto Adige region was an amazing, revitalizing getaway.

VIew down the main pedestrian-only street in Ortisei.

The town is absolutely charming. While heavy on tourist lodgings with more rooms available for tourists than there are residents of the town, Ortisei retains its character and doesn’t come off as phony or overly commercial.  Ortisei feels more like Austria or Germany than Italy.  One of our Italian colleagues said “It’s not Italy!”  The food, the bread, the signs, the architecture all led to a we’re-not-in-Italy-any-more feeling.  Given that the region was Austrian until 1919, this is not so terribly surprising. Residents generally speak three languages: German, Italian and Ladin, a regional dialect. While many also speak at least some English, the first words out of their mouths are likely to be German. But respond in Italian or English and you will likely end up in a polyglot conversation!

From our balcony we had a view up the valley toward S. Cristina and the Sella Group.

We stayed in the very lovely Hotel Garni Walter. It was a short hike up from the central piazza, and oh-so-pretty and serene. La famiglia Demetz has owned and managed the B&B for 43 years and recently renovated the entire place. Each room is outfitted in pine furniture, Tyrolean fabrics, and federbetten (German-style feather comforters) that kept us warm during the cold nights. No A/C required! To give you an idea of how refreshing the summers are, Sylvia told us on arrival that it was “warm for here: 24C (75F) degrees.” Ortisei is the first of a string of three villages in the Val Gardena. Only a few minutes apart by car or bus, you can also easily visit S. Cristina and Selva Gardena.  All three towns have two names: one Italian and one German. Ortisei is St. Ulrich to the German-speaking population. Each street has two names as well. (Luckily they are clearly marked unlike many in Rome.) The architecture is Tyrolean, with onion-domed churches throughout the area.

Gondolas or “cabinovia” ferry people up — or down — from the Alpe di Siusi.

We love trains, as most of you know, and the area is easy to access by train and bus. Local transportation options include great, comfortable busses plus the cabinovia and funivia: cable ways, lifts, funiculars. Serving skiers in the winter and hikers in the summer, these lifts crisscross the hills, mountains, and high meadows.  (Ric was in heaven with all of these transportation options. During our 6 day trip we took 4 trains, several busses, and 4 cable lifts.)

In the Alpe di Siusi, starting our hike at 44 degrees F, bright sunshine, and a terrain so beautiful it could bring tears to your eyes.

The Val Gardena is a hiker’s paradise. One can hike in the mountains on either side of the Val Gardena, or from town-to-town in the valley. You can hike up to the high meadows or ride cable ways up and hike – or bike – down. We had a lovely hike in the Alpe di Siusi. Starting out one morning at 09:00 the temperature up on top was a brisk 44F/7C but sunny and clear. The green meadows, wild flowers and soaring peaks of i Dolomiti are achingly beautiful.  The peace was disturbed only by the distant ringing of cowbells carried on the light breeze. We set off for Saltria, a “town” at the other end of the meadow from the terminus of our cable way. As is often the case in Italy, the trails are not groomed in the way they are in the Pacific Northwest. Sturdy hiking shoes are a necessity. The trails in the Alpe di Siusi are well-signed however, so getting lost is unlikely. Our terrain included a road large enough for a horse-drawn cart, a footpath through a grazing herd, and a forest path much like in Oregon.

Ric on the hike to Saltria, through a meadow with grazing animals. Yes, this was the marked path, through the herd.

Not common in Oregon are cows straddling the road

Wildlife in the Alpe di Siusi.

nor ponies looking for a handout. (Shannon T., this photo is included for you.)

Moments earlier, this little guy had been rolling in the grass, thoroughly enjoying the alpine morning.

The “town” of Saltria consists primarily of two resort-hotel/spas and a large bus stop. You can take a comfortable bus from Saltria to Compatsch, where there are more resorts, lifts, and hikes. We were quite taken by the opportunity to actually stay in the Alpe di Siusi, and plan on doing so next year.

I could go on and on. The food is great, as we have come to expect in Italy. You can have a fine pizza from a forno a legno  (wood burning oven), and certainly there is pasta, but also many regional specialties like canaderli (dumplings), Wiener schnitzel, and speck (a type of bacon) is everywhere. We saw – and ate – more potatoes in a weekend than we’ve had in two months in Rome. One of the more unique pasta dishes was spaghetti con cervo, a sauce made with venison.  And a vegetarian option of grilled vegetables is served with a round of warm camembert cheese. That’s one dish I plan to try at home.

We will likely make this an annual trip. Rates go up significantly in August when Rome empties out, so I think we’ll take our annual cool-down break in July when the area isn’t over-flowing with everyone else escaping the hot cities.

We’ll be back next year for certain.

Travel in the Time of COVID-19

23 Oct

23 October 2021.

So, my friends, it has been a bit since last I blogged. After Ortisei we headed to the Alpe di Siusi for two nights and then passed three nights in Merano, a new-to-us town in Italy’s Trentino Alto-Adige. Lovely place with nice walking and an exceptional garden at Trauttmansdorff Castle. Photos below. 

Then we turned east instead of proceeding west as planned — a left instead of a right if you will — practicing the flexibility we expected might be needed during travel in the time of COVID-19. Venice called and the call was rewarded with mostly light crowds and fine weather. Without cruise ships there were no throngs of lost day trippers gaping at the scene and clogging the bridges. 

From Venice, three nights in Paris, always a fine stop before taking the EuroStar to the UK. 

Enough about locations and travel direction. This post is about conundrums: the observations we have after almost two months visiting five countries and the idiosyncrasies of pandemic response.

  • We could fly into Germany with proof-of-vaccination…but Italy would have forced us to quarantine for 5 days. Switzerland allowed us in as vaccinated persons so we went there first and stayed for almost 5 weeks.
  • After 14 days in another bloc country, Italy would allow us to visit without quarantine…but no one ever checked to see that we had actually spent the required time before entering.
  • Switzerland demanded we complete a pre-arrival questionnaire online that dispensed an approval code…but no one asked to see it. Ever. Ditto Italy. 
  • The canton of Valais in Switzerland provided us with a QR code proving we were fully vaccinated, the so-called “Green Pass” for the EU…but the actual scanning of the pass was erratic in Switzerland though mostly compliant in Italy and France.
  • Swiss trains do not require the Green Pass…but taking a EuroCity train from Switzerland to Italy did require it. An official came through the train before the border to check that we had the credentials.  
  • High-speed Swiss, German, and French trains sell food and drinks on board…but the Italian fast trains do not for COVID safety reasons*. This was startlingly inconvenient on our 8:18 AM three-and-a-half-hour trip from Venice to Torino. 
  • Parisians are very mask compliant on public transportation (and I love that they do not talk on trains or the Metro)…but in Italy and Switzerland there are a lot of exposed noses.
  • In Italy and France, one does not need proof of vaccination to check into a hotel, nor to eat breakfast in a common area…but one has to show a Green Pass to even have a coffee inside a café. Restaurants checked proof-of-vaccination assiduously. I was a wee bit worried about the breakfast room situation. By contrast, in Switzerland a Green Pass was required check-in to a hotel because of the dining/breakfast room situation.
  • The EuroStar requires vaccination or a negative test result to go from Paris to London…but in England they do not require proof nor even masks on the Tube, trains, buses, nor in museums and restaurants. 

*When I wanted coffee on the TGV from Torino to Paris, the bistro was not open even at 11:00 AM. However I had seen someone carrying coffee cups. I stuck my head in the door where a woman was preparing the service area and asked, politely, in Italian if it was possible to get coffee. “Certamente, Signora!” I think I bought under-the-counter coffee as the services were not opened until we crossed the French border. 

Other observations

Hotels in Switzerland, Italy, France, and Germany are still serving breakfast, on a buffet, requiring a mask to approach the food. They are also servicing rooms daily, unlike in the US where COVID-19 has become an excuse to cut services. It was wonderful to have our bed made on the rare occasions we stayed in hotels, and to have someone tidy up, not to mention laying out breakfast. (We have only stayed in hotels 12 nights in 9+ weeks.)

Why-oh-why can’t people talk on a phone without pulling down their mask? And what is the need for a lengthy conversation on a crowded cable car going up a mountain? That would annoy me even if there wasn’t a nasty disease circulating. 

No one in any country is able to measure one meter (generally advised distancing in Europe) or six feet. I find it really unnerving in England where people tend to queue up just as pre-pandemic. Shudder. We are wearing masks. Everywhere. 

England requires even vaccinated visitors to get a COVID test on-or-before Day 2. We tested negative so I guess our strategy of distancing, masking, and generally anti-social behavior worked. 

We are currently in Salisbury, England, a place we visited in spring of 2019 and were quite taken with. The apartment we found is cute and comfy (at least there is heating on demand unlike Venice in mid-October). Monday we go to London and we’ll be home in Oregon on the 30th. Not sure I will be able to stay awake for Trick-or-Treating on Halloween, though. 

No especially relevant pictures for this blog, but here are a few snaps from our activities since we left the Val Gardena. Click on any picture for a slide show.

A Path to Lunch

3 Oct

03 October 2021.

Sunday lunch in Europe is a special thing. So many multi-generational groups gather in restaurants and, I suppose, at homes. Maybe Nonna still cooks for the family on Sundays. I like to think so.

We take great pleasure in carving out a more special meal for lunch on Sunday when we are traveling. It’s even a better experience if we can have a good walk before and after. 

The weather today is borderline bleak and truly bleak weather is in the forecast, but Sunday we avoided rain and enjoyed a six-mile walk, truly a path to — and from — lunch.

For the 9 years we have been visiting Ortisei we have managed to miss an incredibly easy but satisfying walk from Selva di Val Gardena to Santa Cristina Valgardena. This is half of the path known locally as the Il Sentiero del Trenino della Val Gardena or The Trail of the Little Train in the Val Gardena. It is also called La  Ferata de Gherdëina using the Ladin language term for train. We can simply call it the Railway Path or “Trail of the Seven Playgounds.” If you take this route with children, you may never complete it because there are so many — yes, seven — playgrounds to enjoy along the way.

One of the seven playgrounds along the route. A little different than the playgrounds in Forest Grove.

For the record, we’ve walked the Ortisei to S. Cristina section both directions several times. We just never managed to do the Selva section and it might just be the best part.

Castle viewed from the trail. Private residence, dating to 1640 or so.

Why railway? There’s no train here now, but in WWI, Russian POWs were conscripted to build a narrow gauge railway between Chiusa and Selva di Val Gardena. After the war, it became a tourist train (history here https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferrovia_della_Val_Gardena) until it was discontinued in 1960. Eventually, this path was created and serves as a lovely promenade through the Val Gardena for walkers and cyclists alike. 

Along the path one encounters historical pictures and descriptions of the creation of the WWI-era railway, public art, gardens, architecture, and valley and mountain views. The path is thoughtfully bifurcated in places to keep pedestrians and cyclists in separate lanes. There are ample places to stop and eat but we suggest timing this outing for lunch in S. Cristina at La Tambra, a restaurant/pizzeria/steakhouse.

Nothing says Sunday lunch like pork roast, this served with mushroom gravy and potato cakes that are rather like latkes. Of course we drank LaGrein, the local red.

Whether it is Sunday or not, this is a great stop. They have the best pizza in the Val Gardena and an excellent selection of soups, salads, pastas, steaks, and more. The dessert card is hard to resist. 

Warm raspberry sauce with vanilla gelato.

This isn’t a challenging hike. Almost anyone can do it. Most of the route is gently downhill, yet it is 6 miles worth of calorie burning activity with delightful views. What’s not to like?

Logistical details: Buses 350 and 352 from any of the villages take you to Selva Plan. The path starts just a tiny bit uphill from the stop and is quite evident. At S. Cristina, one can continue above the village without stopping in the center, or descend at Dosses to enter the pedestrian zone and find the restaurant. After dining, continue downhill and at the intersection with this sign.

Turn right to enter the interesting  display about the old train. Leaving the tunnel, again follow the obvious path, now steeply down a hill but eventually level again all the way to the church in Ortisei. Total a bit over 6 miles and 2.5 hours. 

Swiss Wrap-up

28 Sep

28 September 2021.

Five weeks ago we flew out of Portland. Condor Airlines whisked us from Seattle to Frankfurt and I have to say we quite enjoyed the flight. It wasn’t a full plane and we were propelled by the excitement of going abroad after two years. We were able to fly in Business Class thanks to Alaska Airlines’ extraordinary Mileage Plus Program and the miles we hoarded. Condor has some of the best in-flight food we’ve had plus we got some sleep. After a night in Frankfurt, we spent most of a day getting to Saas-Grund and finally, on the fourth day of our travels, our trip began with the infamous hike at Spielboden (See Glaciers and Butterflies).

We had a good time exploring the Saas Valley but the best was yet to come as we headed off for four weeks in the stunning Berner Oberland, establishing Base Camp Barton in James’ and Michelle’s cozy Lauterbrunnen Apartment. With a waterfall view and less than a kilometer from the train station, it is perfectly situated and very comfortable.

We’ve been here many times over the past eight years but never for such a prolonged period. The length of stay was a tactical decision made when Italy was requiring 10 days of quarantine for anyone who passed through the UK, which had been our original plan. If we spent at least 14 days in Switzerland, Italy would let us in without quarantine. The Swiss were happy to have us arrive vaccinated with no further restrictions. Of course the rules vis a vis stopping in the UK and transiting to Italy changed before we flew, but we had a course set and had managed to avoid LHR anyway by taking Condor instead of British Air. All ist gut. (See “Hey Europe! We’re Back!)

We’ve hiked over 80 miles. Astoundingly, my Fitbit tells me we’ve walked another 166 miles above-and-beyond the hikes! That’s just to-and-from transportation, doing daily grocery shopping, walking to meals, taking an evening passeggiata to stretch the legs. I hope my theory that exceeding 16,000 steps per day will counter the amount of cheese, bread, butter, potatoes, chocolate, wine, and Scotch consumed, the first five items being prominent in the Swiss diet. I can still zip my jeans.

During our stay, Switzerland enacted a requirement that to dine inside a restaurant one had to have a COVID Certificate which is only given to those who are fully vaccinated or who have tested negative in the prior 72 hours. We had our COVID Certificates issued by the Canton of Valais in August as I had discovered we could do so online in advance of travel. (Based on reports from others, I managed to do this before a logjam of requests slowed the system for travelers.) It turned out to be a great convenience when restaurants started to scan the QR codes on our phones. These coded certificates are viable throughout the EU so we don’t need new ones in Italy or France. It is a relief to know that inside restaurants we are relatively safe since this was enacted. Earlier, with good weather, we took great pains to eat outdoors. Now only the unvaccinated (or those willing to eat in cold temperatures or rain) eat al fresco here.  

Base Camp Barton allowed us to take two side trips, one to Kandersteg (See Another Valley to Discover in the Berner Oberland) and the other to Bettmeralp. I didn’t manage to blog about Bettmeralp this visit (See Finding Peace and Quiet from 2019), but we are quite taken with the area after two short visits and will likely stay a week next year. It is one of the quietest places I have been outside of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area. I will leave you with a few tantalizing pictures of our time there. The hikes won’t be in the book because Bettmeralp is in Valais, not the Berner Oberland.

There will be several new hikes in the second edition of “Walking in Switzerland’s Berner Oberland,” so if you are planning a trip next year, wait until February to get the new book on Amazon. Three are in Kandersteg where there is potential for many more days of activity, one is in Gimmelwald, one near Stechelberg, two start from Zweilutschinen, and one is above Grindelwald. That will make 21 walks in the second edition. 

The cows, sheep, and goats are largely down from the higher elevations and the hiking season is coming to a close in the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Hoteliers and restauranteurs will take a break, lifts will have their annual servicing before ski season, snow plows will be readied to clear train tracks, roads, and the paths for winter wandern. All must be ready when the snow flies. And so we take our leave, looking forward to a return in 2022.

Late morning coffee in Mürren. We hiked 90 minutes for this!
Sheep being herded from mountain pasture to valley. I would hardly call it a ”parade.”
We never used to see these signs here but in the past we did see tourists with unnecessary cars venturing where they were not wanted. Not sure the signs are helping.

Yesterday we arrived in the Val Gardena of Italy, after one bus, five trains, and a taxi. It was simpler than it sounds thanks to Swiss efficiency. This is the only other location we’ve ever passed an entire month on holiday (See Training Cats and other blog entries from 2016). It’s time to speak Italian — after two years of no practice — and it is a relief to understand most of what we read. My German is poor at best.

Leaving heavy Swiss schnitzels and sausages and rösti behind, I know there will still be great chocolate and cheese here, plus grappa and great Italian food. After the eye-watering prices in Switzerland, costs in Italy seem quite sane although the price of an espresso in the mountains would make a Roman cry. We’ve already had superb pasta twice and taken a two-hour hike at about 7400 feet of elevation. Off to a good start!

A presto!

Sunrise on the Sassolungo as viewed from our apartment in Ortisei.
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