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Training cats

2 Jul
2 July 2016. Cats are considered untrainable, for the most part. They use the litterbox, but beyond that, it is pretty difficult to train a cat, unless you live in Italy and can take your cat on the train! Yes, Janie and LibbyJean are on vacation in the Dolomites. A few days ago we loaded them on a Trenitalia Frecciargento bound for Bolzano, where Taxi Ivan Moroder met us for the trip to Ortisei. In years past, Ric and I have taken the pullman (bus) service, which is very nice; However, with the cats along plus luggage and supplies for a month, we popped for a transfer service. It was so nice we may never take the bus again.
Janie showed a lot curiosity on the train.

Janie showed a lot curiosity on the train.

Libby hyperventilated much of the time. They don't find the train as relaxing as we do.

Libby hyperventilated much of the time. They don’t find the train as relaxing as we do.

I cannot say the cats enjoyed the train; they tolerated it. You can take a cat on a train without paying, but the cat has to go in the luggage storage area, which is very limited and they would be subject to constant disruption including people poking fingers in their crates. So we bought four standard-class seats at the super-economy rate of €29.00 per occupant. The capotreno never batted an eyelash at two seats occupied by cats. We let them take turns sitting (crated) on the table so they could see us and look out the window, which seemed to entertain Janie, who at 20 is ever-adaptable, in particular. Libby is not fond of strangers nor strange situations and even hissed at a little girl who got too close to her kennel. 
The long trip was worth it and the girls seem to have taken to the new digs, with a sunny terrace overlooking the village. 
A terrace with a view, even for cats. We see them peeking out between the slats on the railing.

A terrace with a view, even for cats. We see them peeking out between the slats on the railing.

Sunrise on the iconic Sassolungo as seen from our terrace.

Sunrise on the iconic Sassolungo as seen from our terrace.

Our terrace overlooks the lovely village of Ortisei.

Our terrace overlooks the lovely village of Ortisei.

We have an incredible apartment at Residence Astoria (#5 if you want to take a peek) with views over the valley and up Mont Seuc. We can see the round red cable cars rising from the valley to the top of Mont Seuc and if we peer around the corner of the terrace we can see the Sassalungo. Last summer we enjoyed our two weeks in Ortisei so much we decided to go for four weeks this year and take the cats along. We really do miss the girls incredibly when we are gone, and while during our significant travels there has been a parade of fabulous cat sitters (you know who you are!), we decided to close up the city apartment like so many Romans do when they go on summer holiday. Lots of apartments allow dogs but not cats. Then we met Justine and Siegfried who said yes to cats, but no dogs as they have their own cat. We signed up on the spot. 
My favorite hiking companion neare teh chapel at Rasciesa.

My favorite hiking companion near the chapel at Rasciesa.

Me on the Rasciesa hike.

On the Rasciesa hike.

We have already put in two days of hiking but are taking it easy adjusting versus last year when we pushed it the first day. See my entry for July 6, 2015, in this too-long post about hiking last year. This year we took one of our favorite hikes on Day 1, the Rasciesa Ridge, but it still tired us out. We walk a lot in Rome and everywhere we travel and would expect to have greater endurance; However, when we consider that Rome is sea level and flat, while Rasciesa is at about 2100 meters/6900 feet, no wonder we felt the exertion. 
Day 2, today, saw us on a forested path overlooking the valley. We got some kilometers in and managed to return to town moments before a huge thunderstorm hit. The weather is really everything we hoped it would be. The high today was about 21 Celcius/70 Fahrenheit. In Rome it was 34 C/93 F. I needed a sweater to go to dinner last night. It’s a nice temperature range for outdoor activity. 
Colorful bicycles are all over the village of Selva, celebrating the Sellaronda.

Colorful bicycles are all over the village of Selva, celebrating the Sellaronda.

Noah's Arc fountain in Selva, just down teh valley from Ortisei.

Noah’s Arc fountain in Selva, just up the valley from Ortisei.

We will suffer through August in Rome, taking walks at 06:00 and hiding in the apartment during the hottest hours as much as possible. The beauty of Rome in August is that so many people leave the city that traffic is greatly diminished making sleeping more peaceful and the streets less chaotic. 
I am not sure how much I will blog this month. I am hoping to read more and study Italian when I am not out busting my butt on the trails. We shall see. So for now, we wish you all a great summer, and Happy Independence Day to our compatriots in the U.S! 
How to know when you are in the part of Italy that was formerly Austria. There's nothing like a beer at elevensies!

How to know when you are in the part of Italy that was formerly Austria. There’s nothing like a beer at elevensies!

 

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Even a great trip can have it’s share of problems

8 May
8 May 2016. I have written before about the pleasure of returning to a place. You can relax in the familiarity and explore beyond the usual locales of first-time tourists. Our third trip to London in four months afforded us an opportunity to get beyond Big Ben. We were familiar with the Tube, the bus system, and the city in general. We did not need a map at every turn. We were able to go into neighborhoods previously ignored by us, to find museums less patronized, and to generally enjoy this great city, even if it was unseasonably cold.
That does not mean our trip was trouble free. Oh no!  Our travels are usually problem-free and easy going. No missed trains, no bungled reservations, no illnesses, good meals, and few budget surprises. Pick your favorite cliché: Smooth as silk; Easy as pie; Clear sailing; A bed of roses. This time was somewhat different. We encountered a multitude of weird and annoying little things – things we came to call “wrinkles” in our trip. Perhaps because we were familiar with London, we were able to shrug off the annoyances with a dose of humor. 
I’ve interspersed this narrative with some pictures so you can see we really had a lovely trip. 
When touring Windsor Castle, Ric and I both felt a Disney-like quality. It was also perfect! So serene! No litter, no eating,, the grass "just so."

When touring Windsor Castle, Ric and I both felt a Disney-like quality. It was all so perfect! So serene! No litter, no eating, no smoking, and the grass “just so.”

ANother lovely view of Windsor Castle. The weather was the best we had in a week in London.

Another lovely view of Windsor Castle. The weather was the best we had in a week in London.

Gift shoppe at Windsor full of corgis -- stuffed corgis.

Gift shoppe at Windsor full of corgis — stuffed corgis.

We usually have terrific success with our lodging choices. Whether apartments, B&Bs or hotels, we usually have no complaints or they are so minor we don’t say anything. The flat we had this time in London was hardly a nightmare, but the lack of attention to detail became laughable. One or two “little things” I would brush off, but this place was chock full of wrinkles: Non-working lamps (yes we replaced the bulbs); no wastebaskets; VRBO advertised king-sized bed was a double, not even a queen; non-working heaters (did I mention it was cold?); No hot pads in the kitchen which we did not discover until we had a hot casserole ready to come out of the oven; A washer/dryer combo all-in-one that did such a bad job I had to iron our jeans because they came out of the dryer wrinkled in a way I did not know denim could wrinkle.
Somebody from the staff needs to stay here a few nights and realize what improvements could be made. (See Dear Vacation Rental Property Owner.)
The management sent a taxi to pick us up at St. Pancras as part of the service. The taxi driver apparently could not find the taxi rank and his non-English accent was so thick we could not understand him when he called to coordinate. We had to pay for a cab to the flat, no one offered to reimburse us, and they told us “this happens all the time.” WTF?
We had ordered groceries to be delivered by Waitrose, which has been described as the British Whole Foods. We had done this in March when we rented in a different location and it was flawless. This time, the delivery was quite late and we had plans. I called Waitrose and was told he should be there soon. It took three calls in all, only to find out the driver could not locate our building due to construction in the area. Seriously? I had to go out and walk around the area – about a 4 block square area of densely packed buildings – to find him and lead him in.
Then we had THE GREAT OVEN DISASTER. Our last night, a Friday, we decided to stay in, eat a pizza and salad, and watch a movie. We stopped at Waitrose where we’ve purchased fresh-made take-out pizzas before (yes our standards slipped this one night). I pre-heated the oven and after about 20 minutes Ka-BOOM! The inside glass door of the oven exploded, sending shards of glass flying all over the kitchen. It was safety glass, so the danger of getting cut was minimal, but it was scary, messy, and annoying. The outer oven door glass somehow stayed intact.
I was so stunned I neglected to take an illustrative picture. It looked a lot like the over door in the picture at the top left of this link. If you Google the topic you’ll find it seems to happen a lot. Boh!
Obviously, we were not cooking our takeaway pizza in that oven. We were already in our jammies and not inclined to get dressed again, so we called up Deliveroo for our postcode. We’d seen the ads throughout our week in London so we gave it a whirl. Great service! Twenty-three minutes after placing an order on their website, the delivery guy pulled up to our door on his motor scooter. It was not great pizza, but it was hot and it was delivered to our door.
The Imperial War Museum is a fine museum covering wars from WWI forward.

The Imperial War Museum is a fine museum covering wars from WWI forward. Not very busy on this clear, cold day.

Imperial War Museum, view to the main hall.

Imperial War Museum, view to the main hall.

Montgomery's jeep at teh Imperial War Museum.

Montgomery’s jeep at the Imperial War Museum.

St. Paul's Cathedral, our neighbor this trip.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, our neighbor this trip.

In yet another flat-related “wrinkle,” Ric left his wedding ring on the nightstand, remembering he might have done so when we were already locked up and keys pushed through the mail slot. Any attempt to go back or contact management to let us in (on a Saturday morning of a holiday weekend at 08:00) would have caused us to miss the EuroStar. The staff redeemed itself with true honesty: the cleaning service found the ring and it is being shipped back to us.
Sand dog. Saw this little guy sculpted at Piccadilly Circus. Where he got the sand....

Sand dog. Saw this little guy sculpted at Piccadilly Circus. Where do you suppose the sculptor got the sand?

This red telephone box was the model for all the booths to come. Still in pristine condition unlike most of them these days. Near the Royal Academy.

This red telephone box was the model for all the booths to come. Still in pristine condition unlike most of them these days. Near the Royal Academy.

I don;t know whay is cuter here: The little children on a school outing in their safety vests or the double-decker bus painted to promote Hawaiian pizza (which is a travesty in Italy).

I don’t know what is cuter here: The little children on a school outing in their safety vests or the double-decker bus painted to promote Hawaiian pizza (which is a travesty in Italy).

Finally, we had a couple of transportation wrinkles.
Waiting at Gare de Lyon in a lounge area, two French army soldiers with automatic weapons and a uniformed security guy from SNCF (French national train system) appeared. The SNCF guy asked us to move along for “security reasons” and they cleared the area! We lost no time in beating a retreat to our departure hall, although that meant waiting in the cold. No idea what was going on.
We always hope for minimal drama on the way home. Who wants to end a trip with stress? We got up at 4:30AM in order to make a train at 5:40AM out of Dijon. We were traveling all the way back to Roma from Dijon, 13.5 hours on 3 trains, so we dragged our sleep-deprived selves out before dawn. (Fortunately, our hotel room was equipped with a Nespresso machine. Heaven!) Arriving at the station, we got on the train, and there it sat. Apparently the conductor was a no show. Our 40 minutes to change trains in Lyon ticked away. If we missed the connection we would not get to Rome that night and the cat sitters were leaving, not to mention the prepaid ticket on Trenitalia that would be worthless if we missed the connection. Luckily when the conductor arrived the train driver stepped on it and we had a few minutes in Lyon to catch our connection. Whew!
Tombstones in Postman's Park, London, a park which grew out of a former burial ground. It includes a Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice as well.

Tombstones in Postman’s Park, London, a park which grew out of a former burial ground. It includes a Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice as well.

Did you know? The inspiration for the contemporary wedding cake was the steeple of St. Bride's Church, in London in the 18th century. The baker supposedly had this view out of his window in Ludgate.

Did you know? The inspiration for the contemporary wedding cake was the steeple of St. Bride’s Church, in London in the 18th century. The baker supposedly had this view out of his window in Ludgate.

It may look like spring in London, but it was cold enough to waer gloves every day. The tulips did not care.

It may look like spring in London, but it was cold enough to wear gloves every day. The tulips did not care.

Fools for Sherlock that we are, we did tour 221B Baker Street. it's cute and fun.

Fools for Sherlock that we are, we did tour 221B Baker Street. it’s cute and fun. We also took a walking tour of Sherlock sites with Brit Movie Tours. Very well done!

Fat Boy or the Golden Boy of Pye Corner, is a monument at the spot where the Great Fire of 1666 was stopped.

Fat Boy or the Golden Boy of Pye Corner, is a monument at the spot where the Great Fire of 1666 was stopped.

Last unshrouded picture of Big Ben for awhile. The Elizabeth Tower and the clock will undergo extenisve renovation soon.

Last unshrouded picture of Big Ben for awhile. The Elizabeth Tower and the clock will undergo extensive renovation soon.

And a few more snaps from our Paris food tour. We’ve not done a food tour anywhere before but this will not be the last one. Terrific fun!
Bread chandelier, Poilâne Bakery, St. Germaine. This place has an amazing history. I have posted a link at the bottom of the page.

Bread chandelier, Poilâne Bakery, St. Germaine. This place has an amazing history. I have posted a link at the bottom of the page.

Poilâne again. A beautiful and tasty product,.

Poilâne again. A beautiful and tasty product,

These are chocolates, not marbles, at the very high end chocolatier, Patrick Roger, I think 3-4 Euros per piece. Luckily our food tour included some product tastes.

These are chocolates, not marbles, at the very high-end chocolatier, Patrick Roger, I think 3-4 Euros per piece. Luckily our food tour included some product tastes.

Tiger prawns. Note the lemon included for perspective. Small lemon, but still!

Tiger prawns. Note the lemon included for perspective. Small lemon, but still!

 

Location of our post food tour feast. It means "the last drop."

Location of our post food tour feast. It means “the last drop.”

As I mentioned at the start, familiarity with a location just adds to the enjoyment. Our first two trips were focused on the classic must-sees (see entries about our Christmas trip here and here, and about our March trip).  This time we wandered in diverse and historic neighborhoods, sought out places locals eat lunch, visited the Museum of London (well-curated and much patronized by school groups) and the Imperial War Museum (lightly attended, highly recommended), saw a show (“The Book of Mormon,” which was hilarious), went to the Handel & Hendrix in London exhibit, shopped, and took a ride on an historic steam railroad thanks to out friends from the East Midlands, Nigel and Carol. This third trip only whetted our appetite for more. London, we will be back. But maybe not for awhile…
The story of Poilâne, from an article in The New Yorker.  

Not the usual travel photos

21 Apr
21 April 2016. We are once again traveling with stops in Milano, Paris, London, and Dijon. Rather than give you a rundown on the sights we’ve seen, I thought I’d share some of our more unusual photos. We have a lot of fun going to less-known neighborhoods and sights, taking walks where mostly locals walk, and looking at even famous sites with a fresh perspective.
Please click on any photo for a better view and complete caption. 

 

Plane vs. Train? No contest!

8 Mar
Flying may get you across many miles quickly, but there is nothing enjoyable about the experience. NOTHING. Trains, on the other hand, are simply a pleasure.
Not long after we had returned from our Christmas trip to Paris, London, and Switzerland, our son informed us that his company was sending him to the U.K. for work. Would we meet him in London for a week? How could we not? We had really enjoyed our time in London in December, and had immediately booked a return for April, but when your child is going to be on the same side of the ocean, you go. We don’t get to see any of them often, so this was a treat.
There was just not enough time between our Austrian adventure and an upcoming visit from American friends to allow us to take a leisurely journey by train, so we bit the bullet and bought tickets on EasyJet. (We prefer taking the train and stopping in Paris for a couple of nights.)  I popped for seats in the front of the plane and early boarding to try and minimize our discomfort. We abandoned our reliable roll-aboard cases in favor of large, uncomfortable backpacks so they would fit in the EasyJet overheads. I felt like I was going to tip over backward carrying that pack (although it only weighed about 20 lbs.) on buses and through the terminals.
EuroStar interior, photo taken on our December 2015 trip. Spacious. The TGV and FrecciaRossa trains are excellent, too. We like the configuration with the table between us, like you see on the right.

EuroStar interior, photo taken on our December 2015 trip. Spacious. The TGV and FrecciaRossa trains are excellent, too. We like the configuration with the table between us like you see on the right.

Now to the Planes vs. Trains discussion.
If we have a 3-hour train trip to Milano, we can travel door-to-door—from our apartment in Roma to our hotel in Milano—in 5 hours. We are relaxed, have been given espresso and wine on the way, we probably would have had WIFI access, and there would have been no need to disrobe and be x-rayed to prove we are not carrying anything hazardous.
Our 2-hour-and-40-minute flight to London took 8 hours door-to-door. In fact, 4½ hours after leaving home, we were just leaving Roma, taking off from FCO. I don’t need to tell you what the security experience was like, but we walked about a kilometer through the airport just to get to the bus that would drive us to the gate. On board we ate sandwiches that were 75% bread and the coffee was undrinkable.
Interior of Easy Jet airplane with passengers. Courtesy of EasyJet. Yeah, this is fun.

Interior of Easy Jet airplane with passengers. Courtesy of EasyJet. Yeah, this is fun.

We will return to London in April–a trip scheduled and partly paid for before Derek’s surprise voyage so no sense canceling. However, we will do the April trip in style: TGV to Paris for a few days, EuroStar to-and-from London, and a 3-night stopover in Dijon on the way home just because. Our roll-aboard bags will be back in service.

 

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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