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Mountaintop to sea level: Girovaga’s 2018 Euro-trip

4 May
4 May 2018.
When the weather is miserable travel planning can be a great escape. At any given time, I have three or four European itineraries rattling around in my head and usually one of them has moved beyond theoretical and into reality. This year our theme is Mountaintops, Lakes, and Seashore. We will visit 4 mountain areas, 2 lakes, and the Ligurian sea. Purtroppo, we won’t be going until late summer.
I’ve spent a fair amount of energy in planning, securing lodging, researching hikes, and just yesterday I started making train reservations so as to get the super economy fares where possible. (I love every minute of the pre-trip tasks.)
Here’s what we have planned.
Having learned our lessons last year during The Grand Tour, we are not going to hop all over the continent. Our modus operandi now is longer stays in fewer places. This trip we will confine ourselves to Northern Italy and Switzerland with a tiny stop in Austria.
In a nutshell, here is our route: Milano – Ortisei – Innsbruck – Pontresina – Lauterbrunnen – Stresa – Camogli – Lausanne over the course of seven weeks. No cars, no planes, just trains. 
Milano is a city we’ve visited many times and while there are not any major sites we plan to see, it will be a buffer between a long Transatlantic flight and our train-plus-taxi to Ortisei, a journey of about four hours. We like Milano and have a favorite hotel there, the Hotel Berna. Alas, the Berna’s prices are sky-high due to a Gran Prix event so we will be staying across the street at the oft-recommended-to-me Hotel Garda. Nothing fancy, but (I am told) comfortable. We’ll recover from jet lag, buy SIMs for our phones, enjoy browsing, and perhaps take in a special art installation. After Milan, there will be no large cities this trip.

The last time we spent the night in Milano was in December 2015. Expect it to be much warmer when we arrive end-of-August.

Ortisei is, of course, our favorite place in Italy. This will be our seventh year there and eighth visit overall. Can’t wait to see our hosts Justine & Siegfried, visit our favorite shops and restaurants, and hike to the rifugi all over the Val Gardena. We will stay in the apartment we occupied in 2016 and 2017 and use this opportunity to update and add to our book, “Walking in Italy’s Val Gardena.”  We are planning to add a couple hikes to the book as certainly we will try something new in addition to repeating the hikes and riding the lifts we love.

One of my favorite views in the Alpe di Siusi. We will surely hike here and update our book.

I was in Innsbruck in 1972 but Ric has never been. I remember it being quite lovely and it makes for a convenient break in the otherwise long journey by train to Pontresina in Switzerland. Just passing two nights here.
Pontresina is near St. Moritz and is purported to be a good base for easy-hiking so we will spend a week. We’ve found a darling apartment overlooking the route of the Glacier Express and a lively river. Can’t lose with lodging overlooking a train line in Switzerland.
From Pontresina, we head to Lauterbrunnen via the famous Glacier Express. The Lauterbrunnen Valley and the Jungfrau Region offers an incredible combination of transportation and easy-hiking. It is, so far, our favorite area in Switzerland. This will be our fifth visit. It vies with Ortisei for favorite mountain locale, but the food is better in Italy.

On the hike from Männlichen to Kleine Scheidigg, above the Lauterbrunnen Valley. There was snow at high elevation in October.

If Disney wanted to invent a new attraction, they could not accomplish anything more fantastic than the Swiss have already done in the Jungfrau Region. Train to 11,333 feet? Check! Thirty-minute gondola ride in complete silence through a stunning landscape? Check! Behind-the-scenes at a James Bond’s mountaintop location with a revolving restaurant? Check! Seventy-two waterfalls in 9 kilometers? Check! We have a favorite apartment here, too, and fall brings reasonable rates, pleasant weather, and fewer tourists.

This is the view from “our” apartment in Lauterbrunnen: Staubach Falls and  a small herd of cows as well.

Then we are back in Italy, stopping at Stresa on Lago Maggiore for three nights followed by Camogli, Italy, for six nights. Stresa makes a nice place to break up a long transfer (with several changes-of-trains) to Liguria. Stresa has been on my list for years and promises not only some light mountain hiking but lakeside strolls and island hopping.
Camogli is our seaside destination. We have not been to Liguria since 2014 and our previous four visits we always stayed in the Cinque Terre. I am hoping Camogli will be a little less frenetic and allow us to experience a different part of Liguria. I am so looking forward to Ligurian cuisine! Alici marinate (marinated anchovies) are the best in Liguria most likely because they are caught nearby and fresh as can be, marinated with local lemons. Then there is pesto pasta, focaccia, and almost anything they do with a fish.
Finally, we will wrap up with a week in Lausanne, Switzerland. Several trains are required for this transfer, which is a bit kludgy, but we like a train day. Since we pack light, it’s not too difficult. Lausanne is featured in so many books and movies — especially stories of intrigue — that it has been on my list for years. We look forward to exploring Lake Geneva, the vineyards, castles, etc. It should be a rather low-key end to a long trip. We will fly out of Geneva, a mere hour by train from Lausanne.
Have you been to any of these places? What are your insights? Favorite restaurants, sights, hikes, or tours?
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Green & Clean Austria

27 Feb
Austria is amazingly clean. Cleaner than I had expected. I had read that Austria is a haven for smokers due to lax laws so I expected to find cigarette butts all over the street and chain smokers in every doorway. Not the truth! Only once did we enter a restaurant where there was significant smoking and they had a separate room for non-smokers. It is simply a country where people care: they pick up after themselves and nurture the environment.  
Clearly labeled and frequently emptied recycling center in public. Roma is not quite so neat....

Clearly labeled and frequently emptied recycling center in public. Roma is not quite so neat….

Recycling is widely encouraged and supported by sturdy containers clearly marked for the purpose. They also appear to be emptied frequently. Litterboxes are everywhere, complete with a little smokestack for butts. Never saw one overflowing. We rarely saw a cigarette butt in the street. So very different from Roma. I think we saw dog poop once on the ground in 10 days in-country. I see it ten times on my way to the bus stop in Roma.
Typical refuse receptical in the street. Note the little chimney for butts.

Typical refuse receptacle in the street. Note the little chimney for butts.

In our hotel rooms, we found the usual signs saying that if we wanted to reuse our towels we should having them on the racks and thus save on water use and laundering. Nine-times-out-of-ten when we do this the maid replaces them anyway. Not in Austria! We hung up our towels for reuse and the maid left them.
We actually enjoyed going to the laundromat in Salzburg. There is a small chain called GreenandClean throughout Austria with a couple of outlets in northern Italy. Totally unattended and automatic, it was amusing trying to figure out how the machines functioned. We were there with a mix of locals and travelers all trying to figure out the system. One of the features is that an ecological detergent was used, so one did not add one’s own soap or other ingredients, but signage was a bit obscure so it was difficult to figure this out. Ric noted a young guy put two giant scoops of detergent in his washer anyway. We should have stuck around to see the foam. The place was sparkling clean, so clearly someone comes in to tidy up daily, but it was also obvious that people picked up after themselves. The one laundromat we have visited in Rome has a full-time attendant. Even so, about half of the machines are broken and if you can avoid it, you would not want anything falling on the floor.
Golden Orb Guy statue in Salzburg, gazing up at the fortress.

Golden Orb Guy statue in Salzburg, gazing up at the fortress.

I skipped writing about Salzburg earlier because we had moved on to the Pillerseetal and I wanted to write about that area immediately. That is not to say we didn’t enjoy Salzburg. Quite the contrary! We wish we’d had one more night there even in winter. After reading Rick Steves, it seemed two nights would be sufficient, but he seemed focused on beer drinking. I think he sold Salzburg short. We have loose plans to return in more clement weather for as much as 5 days, affording side trips to Berchtesgaden and the Salzkammergut.
Hohensalzburg Fortress as viewed on our little hike across the Mönchsberg. it is huge!

Hohensalzburg Fortress as viewed on our little hike across the Mönchsberg. it is huge!

With only one full day in the town, we had to choose carefully what to do. Since the day dawned sunny, with rain forecast for the afternoon, we had to be outside. Salzburg’s mountain, the Mönchsberg, afforded us a lovely if chilly hike on a clear morning and the Hohensalzburg Fortress was well worth a visit. We thought it would be a walk-through, but were quite intrigued by the history and the well-curated displays so stayed much longer than anticipated. There’s an app on the free WIFI that serves as a self-guide with a clever cartoon version for children. I think a child of 6-11 would have a blast self-touring the fortress.
One of the things we really love in Europe is that no matter where you go -- even a medieval castle high on a hill -- there will be a quality cappuccino available, served in a ceramic cup.

One of the things we really love in Europe is that no matter where you go — even a medieval castle high on a hill — there will be a quality cappuccino available, served in a ceramic cup.

We did not make time for a concert here in the birthplace of Mozart. His influence is everywhere, right down to the Mozartkugeln or “Mozart’s Balls” sold everywhere.
We only licked windows and did not purchase anything, but Salzburg looked like a great town for fashion as well as mountain sports attire.
The restaurants – at least the ones we found – were not as creative as those we found in Vienna, although Organic Pizza was a highlight. We found plenty of good Grüner Veltliner to drink.
Lovely walk on the Mönchsberg.

Lovely walk on the Mönchsberg.

So why did we like Salzburg better than Vienna? The weather was only slightly better. I think the quaintness of the old town that is highly pedestrianized, the riverside location, the mountains looming over the town, and the views make Salzburg a more Ric-and-Laurel kind of place, a far cry from the big city. We love Roma, but one does get tired of the mess and noise, and when we travel we gravitate to quieter places where the sound of motorini is not omnipresent.
Can I tell you how much we appreciate that train stations are putting in lifts to platforms? After years of hauling our luggage up-and-down stairs between platforms, this is a blessing.

Can I tell you how much we appreciate that train stations are putting in lifts to platforms? After years of hauling our luggage up-and-down stairs between platforms, this is a blessing.

I have to say that in Italy since the stiff fines for tossing cigarette butts in the street went into effect February 1, there are fewer of those overall though in Roma the cracks in the sampietrini are still full of cigarette butts. Apparently no self-respecting Austrian would dream of tossing a one in the street. And why would they need to when the cities and towns provide adequate sanitation stations?
If Roma could put all the mendicants to work cleaning the streets instead of holding their ball caps upside-down outside of bars, it might be a win-win for the city.
Frankie the hotel cat at Landhotel Strasserwirt.

Frankie the hotel cat at Landhotel Strasserwirt.

Golden Orb Guy as viewed from the fortress above.

Golden Orb Guy as viewed from the fortress above.

One of the intriguing exhibits in the fortress.

One of the intriguing exhibits in the fortress.

Cute little cafe at the Hohensalzburg Fortress. No plasticware and paper plates.

Cute little cafe at the Hohensalzburg Fortress. No plasticware and paper plates.

The road less traveled in Austria

23 Feb
People traveling to Europe are often dismayed to find huge crowds everywhere they go. Firenze, Venezia, and Roma, not to mention Paris, Zermatt, Vienna, and Salzburg, are popular for a reason: they are beautiful and there is a lot to see and do. Everyone has heard of them. Everyone wants to go there. We do too. We’ve been to all of these places and many more but we also try to go places that are truly off the proverbial beaten path. Torino, the Val Gardena, Abruzzo, Porto Santo Stefano, and Procida are places unaccustomed to seeing very many North Americans and we’ve enjoyed these visits as an escape from the usual suspects such as the Cinque Terre and Sorrento, though we enjoy the latter as well.
Beautiful country. The only downside is that our hiking is at lower elevations.

Beautiful country. The only downside is that our hiking is at lower elevations.

Continuing to find places new-to-us, this week we are in the Pillerseetal (Pillersee Valley)  of Austria. Specifically, we are between two tiny towns: St. Ulrich am Pillersee and St. Jakob in Haus, staying at the charming and low-key Landhotel Strasserwirt  for some winterwandern or winter hiking on groomed paths. Yeah, it’s a thing in Europe. We’ve done winterwandern in Switzerland and Ortisei as well.
Loving the sun! Had a bit too much of the gray skies and rain in Vienna and Salzburg.

Loving the sun! Had a bit too much of the gray skies and rain in Vienna and Salzburg.

This is a destination patronized mostly by Austrians and Germans, with a smattering of other Europeans. Luckily English is widely spoken in Austria, although my college German comes flooding back at most unexpected moments. (I’m hoping it doesn’t push the Italian out.) The menus can be a little challenging to figure out, but that’s part of the fun. As long as I avoid anything with the word leber (liver) or blut (blood) I should be OK. The wines are excellent, too. We drank a lot of Grüner Veltliner in Vienna and Salzburg. Here we have turned to the Zweigelt, a generally lighter red with notes of berry and cherry, appropriate with the mountain cuisine of the hotel. As always when we leave Italy, we miss the ubiquitous bars with €1.00 espresso shots. There are no damn bars in these tiny towns so we are coffee deprived. 
Our home for 4 nights, Landhotel Strasserwirt.

Our home for 4 nights, Landhotel Strasserwirt.

We have certainly found a quiet, no-stress, restful retreat from the city. The scenery is excellent and the prices are low. All-in-all we prefer the hiking in all seasons that the Berner Oberland of Switzerland offers. There the amazing system of lifts and trains and rifugi offering coffee and lunch along the trail are an unbeatable combo, but the prices in Austria make for a more affordable trip. Here is a place a family of four can pass a week enjoying the horses and lessons, two-meals-a-day, and mountain activities nearby for €1700.00. Can you do that in the U.S? I don’t know, but I suspect you’d have to have a car to do it, and here you can do it car-free if you like thanks to the network of trains and buses.
Here we are high above the valley on a hiking trail. with Nordic trails criss-crossing below us. See the tiny people?

Here we are high above the valley on a hiking trail. with Nordic trails crisscrossing below us. See the tiny people?

In the Pillerseetal there is a convergence of downhill skiing, Nordic skiing, and hiking, something for nearly everyone. The Dutch are apparently having their winter break so we see school-age kids and their parents heading to the slopes, but there are no huge crowds.
As I write this we’ve spent 2 ½ days taking hikes of various lengths in decent weather. Some would say it is too warm, and the Austrians would love to see more snow. It has begun to rain this evening and we hope to experience snowfall ourselves before we depart the day after tomorrow. It’s been a very long time since these Minnesota and North Dakota natives have seen significant accumulation.

Night train to Vienna

21 Feb
Does that title conjure up images of The Third Man: Harry Lime and Holly Martins with the lovely Anna prowling about post-WWII Vienna, chasing through dark streets, sewers, and buildings reduced to rubble? The movie paints Vienna as a bleak and dreary place, certainly not the city of Mozart and Schubert.
The Stephanskirche in Vienna is very dark and grim inside and out.

The St. Stephens Cathedral in Vienna is very dark and grim inside and out.

We found Vienna to be quite bleak as well. Perhaps it is just the weather, which was rather like Seattle in winter, only colder. Skies were gray on gray, with winds that chill the neck and beg one to wrap the scarf more tightly.  We feasted our eyes on the riches of the Habsburgs in all their excess: The Hofburg Palace, Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM for short; marvelous!), and the Schönbrunn Palace. We walked through diverse areas of the old city, marveled at the musical heritage of this one small burg, and ate non-Italian food for days. We did miss our €1.00 espresso shots and accessibly priced Italian wines, but my, the bread and pastries were tasty!
Settling in for a night on the train.

Settling in for a night on the train.

The night train was fun and we would gladly do it again. We had a large private compartment for less than the price of two one-way airline tickets and a night in a hotel plus airport transportation on both ends. The compartment even had a bathroom, although coaxing hot water out of the shower proved to be an impossible task. We slept far better than we expected to and greeted the new day in Austria with breakfast served in our compartment. All-in-all it was a lovely evening and night, affording us the opportunity to hit the streets of Vienna upon arrival.
The Schoenbrunn Palace of 1441 rooms rivals Versailles. It dates to the 16th century when it was, of course, built as a hunting lodge. Inside is 18th century Rococo.

The Schoenbrunn Palace of 1441 rooms rivals Versailles. It dates to the 16th century when it was, of course, built as a hunting lodge. Inside is 18th century Rococo.

The Habsburg wealth and excess gave us pause to consider excesses and royalty. It seemed even more excessive than that which we have seen elsewhere in Europe. Perhaps because Austria is now such a small country it is difficult to reconcile with the once great status of the empire and the family that acquired such wealth.  It is a wonder the Austrian people didn’t do to the Habsburgs what the French did to the Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette in the French Revolution. (Nota Bene: Marie-Antoinette was a Habsburg by
The backyard at the Schoenbrunn Palace.

The backyard at the Schoenbrunn Palace.

birth.) Empress Elizabeth, AKA, Sisi, seemed to be worshiped in the eponymously named museum within the Hofburg Palace. While it was fun to see the gowns and elegance of the time, she was a tragic narcissist who had ankle-length hair, a penchant for the finest chocolate Demel could deliver, and despised being married to the Emperor. Not much to admire in my book. 
For more on the riches and sights of Vienna please click on any picture below for a slide show. 
The silver lining to winter city-trips is that sites are not crowded. While weather prohibited sipping coffee in a sunny square, we enjoyed crowd-free touring and waltzed right into the museums and palaces. To be fair, even with 2 ½ days we failed to see all Vienna had to offer. Wish we’d had time for the Klimt Museum at the Belvedere Palace.
Typical wurstel stand in Vienna. YEs, they are much patronized. No, we did not.

Typical wurstel stand in Vienna. Yes, they are much patronized. No, we did not.

The food surprised us. Our dinners were anything but formula Austrian. Fresh fish and creative treatment of vegetables surprised us, although of course one can find schnitzel, too. Wine by the bottle is expensive compared to our beloved Italy, but restaurants offer a remarkable selection of wines by-the-glass at prices that make a bottle seem unnecessary. We are now big fans of Grüner Veltliner, the exceptional Austrian white wine.
The Vienna U-Bahn employs an honor system we’ve not seen before. There are no turnstiles or gates. You are responsible for buying and carrying a validated ticket or pass, and there are spot checks. We sashayed on-and-off a few times, then the last morning on our way to the train station encountered an army of ticket checkers at Schwedenplatz – at least a dozen strong – randomly looking at tickets and passes. The system made transit quite smooth. I wonder if it could be made to work in Rome?
My travel companion of 31 years and a bottle of prosecco to start the trip.

My travel companion of 31 years and a bottle of prosecco to start the trip.

For anyone planning a trip to Vienna, I have three recommendations.
  1. Hotel Stefanie is just past the Danube Canal to the north of the Ringstrasse. Old-world in style, but upgraded for modern travel with powerful showers of never-ending hot water (unlike Base Camp Barton in Rome), WIFI, and an enormous breakfast buffet. The tram to the center runs right by the front door. Off-season we paid €106.00 per night.

    Lovely fish and vegetable dish at El Hans. Delectible and pretty.

    Lovely dorado and bok choy with potatoes at El Hans. Delectable and pretty.

  2. We had incredible meals at El Hans and ef16 both within walking distance of the hotel. Certainly you can get Wienerschnitzel, but why do so when there is freshly grilled octopus, calamari, trout, pumpkin soup, violet mashed potatoes, and figs at every turn? How does Austria manage to do vegetables so much better than Switzerland?
  3. A transit pass for three days was very worthwhile. Although we walked 9-10 km daily, the weather frequently made jumping on the tram a good idea. No need to buy a Vienna Card. As seniors, every museum gave us a discount upon asking (the low end of senior defined as a youthful 61). 
More to come…Salzburg and the Pillerseetal ahead!

 

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