August 24, 2012

Extended Holidays

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:13 pm by newsurroundings

Ok, I think this holiday thing is getting a little out of hand.  My doctor is on holiday for the whole month of August.  Not everyone takes that much time off, but they all seem to go off at the same time- at least all the people we need.  I am not the only member of the family whose doctor is not available.  Biscuit, our beloved cat, has a terrible cold after spending last week in a kennel and his veterinarian is also on holiday.  Yes, cats can get colds- he has been sneezing, swallowing hard (as if his throat hurts), vigorously rubbing his little itchy nose, and sleeping even longer than his normal 18-hours.   I think now he has a fever- his ears feel hot to me- so I’ll have to call and see if there is perhaps one vet left in town.

All the electricians also have apparently left town.  So, we will just have to wait for those light fixtures that I bought months ago to be installed.  Maybe our friend coming over tomorrow night won’t notice the exposed bulbs dangling from cords coming out of uncovered holes in our ceiling.

Tonight, Bryan and I headed out to a new restaurant that we had heard of and were eager to try.  We parked and before we even got up to it, I spotted that too-familiar sign in the window- “Chiuso per la vacanze”.

I suppose I’ll look back on this in a few months and see the humor in it.  But, right now I’m just hoping we don’t have a major plumbing problem or something worse before the end of the month.

There’s one thing I can’t figure out though.  With so many residents on holiday, in the south of France, Turkey, Greece, or wherever, why is there still so much traffic in Lugano?

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August 9, 2012

Provence- a Week in Pictures

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:40 pm by newsurroundings

Provence- say the word and it conjures up images of lavender and poppy fields, vineyards, markets, and hilltop villages.  Bryan and I spent a week in the Luberon area of Provence in June.  We had so much fun driving around in the countryside and visiting the different villages.  Usually one village a day was enough for us, but they are small and close together, so you can see several in one day if you want.  We met a very nice couple from California at our inn and they gave us the CD, “A Year in Provence”, to listen to as we drove around.  I had read the book, but Bryan hadn’t, and we both enjoyed this witty, warm story narrated by Peter Mayle himself.

This is the picture you see in all the books on Provence:

Abbaye Senanque near Gordes

Wheat, lavender, vineyards, mountains, and the mistral (wind)- this picture has it all.

Quintessential Provence.

Provence is known for its markets.  Almost every village has a weekly market.

The market in Roussillon.

There are so many hilltop villages to visit.  Gordes is one of the most popular.

The medieval village of Gordes.

We stayed in the Bastide Cassiopee  near Roussillon.  The owner, Jean-Pierre, made all our dinner reservations and sent us to the most beautiful settings in places we would have never found on our own.

Dinner here lasted 4 hours! Every meal is an event.

The village of Roussillon was our favorite, mainly because it is so different from the others.  Its red cliffs and ochre quarries make it a very unique place.  There is a trail on the edge of town that takes you into one of the former ochre quarries.  It costs a few euros to go on the trail and then you can choose the long or short path.  The long path took us about 45 minutes.

Is this really France??

Provence is supposedly a great place for biking.  It was very hot in late June, so we only went on one short bike ride.  The best thing about being on our bikes was the sound of the wheat fields in the wind.  You can’t appreciate that from your car.

Can you hear it?

We stopped at a couple of wineries in the area for tastings.  We especially liked this one and went back later with our car to purchase a few bottles.

Just look for the “degustation” signs.

Another one of our favorite villages was Oppede le Vieux.  It has a lot of interesting old ruins and we found a really nice shop owned by a husband and wife who are both potters.  She makes whimsical creatures and he makes really beautiful ceramic tableware.

The church dates back to the 12th century!  There are chateau ruins from the 15th-16th century.

Oppede le Vieux

The landscape is so varied.  You can drive a few miles and go from this:

The cliffs in Lioux.

to this:

The beautiful countryside.

to this:

Roussillon

Provence is indeed a special place.

July 31, 2012

An Afternoon in Valle Verzasca

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:38 pm by newsurroundings

Yesterday was Erin’s last day here before heading back to school in Georgia.  We wanted to get in one last little excursion before she left.  I had heard about the Valle Verzasca right here in Ticino with a very pretty double-arched stone bridge over the River Verzasca.  I found the name of the town on the internet and we put it in our GPS and off we went to Lavertezzo.  When we arrived, the bridge was right there in front of us and we just happened to get there as someone was pulling out of the only parking spot around.  Talk about luck!  The bridge was really pretty and it was a hot day so lots of people were sunbathing on the rocks and playing in the water.  In some places where the water was deep enough, it was even possible to swim.  There were a few brave souls who jumped from high rocks and from the bridge, although that seemed really dangerous to me.

We walked around on the rocks for a while and then found a restaurant where we could sit outside and enjoy the view.  The houses and buildings here were different from ones I’ve seen in other areas of Switzerland.  They were all made of stone and even had stone roofs.  There were pretty flower boxes like we’ve seen everywhere- the flowers really thrive here.  I like it when the flowers are happy and don’t look like they’re thirsty all the time, like mine always did at home in North Carolina and Georgia.

Our meal was very good, but very long.  We have finally realized that if you order a starter, that will seriously delay the entree.  I had minestrone soup and a salad, which were actually both starters, and they brought those to me and then brought Erin and Bryan’s meals about 20 minutes later.  If I had waited to eat with them, I would have had cold soup.

After lunch, we walked across the bridge and took a short hike through the woods.  The trail was called the Sentiero l’Arte, so I expected to see some art work along the path, but I don’t think we walked far enough.  After coming home and reading more about it, I’d like to go back and walk the whole trail next time (4 1/2 kilometers).  I’m sure we’ll be back, as it’s only 45 minutes from Lugano and is a great place to spend a summer afternoon.

July 29, 2012

Getting Away From It All In Guarda

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:24 pm by newsurroundings

“Gruezie!” was the greeting we received when we arrived in Guarda, in the Lower Engadine valley in Eastern Switzerland.  Not Bonjour, Gutentag, or even Bongiorno.  In this area of Switzerland, the people speak Romansch, the 4th language of Switzerland.  Less than 1 percent of the Swiss speak it.

We spent the weekend in Guarda, Switzerland in the Lower Engadine Valley  and fell in love with this little fairytale village and its beautiful scenery.  The architecture is very unique, with the 17th century buildings decorated with sgraffiti (etchings in wet plaster) and painted facades.  July is high tourist season in Switzerland and I was looking for a place where we could go and not run into crowds of people or have to pay the high prices that this season brings.  This was the perfect place.  It is not easily accessible via public transportation- bad for tourists, good for us.  It was just a 3 hour drive from Lugano and that included 18 kilometers on a car-carrying train through a mountain.  We weren’t expecting to have to take the train and were not quite sure what to do at first, but there were instructions in English and it was actually kind of fun.  Driving in Switzerland is really a pleasure if the timing is right and you don’t run into lots of traffic.  It can be dangerous though, as it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road when surrounded by such magnificent scenery.

Guarda is very small- only two hotels in the village and a few places to eat.  There’s no real shopping, although there was one nice art shop owned by a husband and wife who are both artists.  The town was so quiet that we almost had trouble sleeping at night.  It was not crowded at all and most of the people we saw were either serious hikers or bikers.  There were hiking trails in every direction and all you had to do was walk out of the hotel and just start off in any direction.  The signs show the directions to different towns and how long each walk should take, so you can choose based on how long you want to walk.  Several of the people we saw looked like they were probably going from one town to the next because they were carrying full backpacks.  The hotel would transfer your luggage to your next hotel for a small charge if you asked.  I think if I was going to hike that distance, that would be how I would do it.  Carrying a heavy load just doesn’t seem like fun to me.

We walked for hours, sometimes in the open and other times deep in the forest.  We followed the sound of bells in the distance and found a few cows wandering around.  The cows all wear bells around their necks to keep track of them.  The funniest sight was when we walked back into town and passed a house where two little goats came out of the house and ran onto the deck.  Just a couple of kids playing, I guess.

We went on several hikes and it was so beautiful that we were oohing and aahing the whole way and taking pictures every few feet.

So pretty, even with the low clouds.

Sgraffiti and paintings decorate the buildings.

Beautiful views in every direction.

So lush.

The beautiful Inn River that runs through the Engadine Valley.

June 19, 2012

Gandria, Switzerland- an Italian style town

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:43 pm by newsurroundings

Here’s a really nice excursion from Lugano that doesn’t take very long, requires minimal effort, and really delivers the scenery.  The village of Gandria clings to the edge of Lake Lugano near the Swiss-Italian border.  Gandria is only a few kilometers from Lugano and you can take a boat from the center of Lugano or walk the path from Castagnola, a little village just east of Lugano.  As you wander around the small village along the narrow walkways, you will feel like you are in Italy.It’s worth taking the boat at least one way because you’ll get a view of Gandria that you can’t get otherwise.

Gandria, Switzerland

The olive-themed walk from Gandria to Castagnola (Sentiero di Gandria) is a well-marked, wide, stone path with hotels and water-front cafes along the way and a roped-off area for swimming and sun-bathing.

An inviting place to take a break and cool off.

Learning all about olive trees on the Sentiero di Gandria.

It took us about 45 minutes to walk from Gandria to Castagnola.  It is a beautiful walkway and the view of Lake Lugano and the surrounding mountains is amazing.

 

June 3, 2012

A Weekend in the Cinque Terre

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:59 am by newsurroundings

It’s hard to believe that places I used to read about and imagine visiting someday are now so close that I can just go for the weekend.  The Cinque Terre in Italy is one such place.  It is a beautiful stretch of Italian coast line where five colorful villages are built into the hillsides.  From north to south, there is Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manorola, and Riomaggiore.

the Italian Riviera

Since Bryan was away last weekend, Erin and I planned another mother-daughter trip.  The good thing about traveling with her is that we almost always have the same interests and agree on how much time to spend sight-seeing (or in this case, hiking) and when to just relax and do nothing except maybe sit on the beach and talk and make up for being apart for the last 6 months.

I prefer not to drive in other countries when I don’t have to, so we took the train from Lugano to Milan and then from Milan to Levanto, a town just north of the Cinque Terre.  We arrived at the train station in Levanto and, armed with our gps on walking mode, were determined to save money and walk to our hotel.  Neither one of us is good with directions (I guess it runs in the family) and we couldn’t figure out which way to even begin walking, so we quickly gave in and took a taxi.  Levanto is a resort town with a beach, nice shops and restaurants, and best of all, away from the crowds of the Cinque Terre, yet only a few minutes away by train.  The trip was easy and we arrived mid-afternoon, plenty of time left in the day to walk on the beach (no soft sand here though-the beaches are very pebbly) and explore the town.

Levanto

We got up early the following morning, had breakfast at the hotel, and then took the boat to the furthest village, Riomaggore.  We stopped at the villages along the way, so we were able to view each one from the water.  I definitely recommend a boat ride along the coast for the best views and picture-taking.  The towns are spaced just a few kilometers from each other and are made  up of colorful buildings clustered together and are connected by hiking trails and a regional train line.  The walk from Riomaggiore to Manarola is the easiest walk and the one most traveled, so we started with it.  It’s called the Via dell’Amore, a sort of “lover’s lane” because of all the amorous graffiti along the way (even inscribed on the cactus leaves).  We spent the most time in Manorola, where we walked on the upper trails, away from the crowds, surrounded by vineyards, olive trees, fruit trees (mainly lemon), and beautiful views in all directions.

Riomaggiore

Via dell’Amore

the walk between villages

The upper trails- among vineyards and fruit trees

The path to Corniglia was closed due to flooding in 2011, so we decided we would skip seeing this village up close.  It is high on the hill and you can take the train and then a bus will take you up, or you can walk up many, many steps if you so desire.  We did not.  Our feet were pretty sore at this point, so we just took the train to Vernazza and sat  on a rock in the harbor and people-watched for a while.

Corniglia

Vernazza

The next day we went to Monterosso, which completed our visit of the five lands.  It’s the most touristy and has a beach and lots of hotels.  After a couple of hours, we went back to Levanto and spent the rest of the day there.  Of course, food is always a big part of our holidays, and we did sample a few good dishes.  We had pizza a couple of times, and maybe we just didn’t go to the right places, but we were both disappointed.  After living in Lugano for all of one month, we have become pizza critics and it just didn’t compare with the pizza we’ve had here.  But, I should also add that the cost didn’t compare either.  We thought the food was very inexpensive in Italy.  You could get a whole pizza for 5 euros!  Erin had one of the regional specialties, trofie, a pasta with potato in it that is made especially for pesto.  She has become a fairly adventurous eater and ordered the mixed fish one night and really liked it.  My favorite meal was a fish lasagna served at a little out-of-the-way inn in Levanto.  We had gelato more times than necessary and that is always good.  I brought home a couple of items from the region- olive oil and pesto- two of my favorite things.

beach at Monterosso

making eye contact with dinner

You could “do” the Cinque Terre in a day if really pressed for time, but it sure is nice to have time to linger.

April 23, 2012

Moving In

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:52 pm by newsurroundings

I am in my apartment in Lugano and there is stuff everywhere I look.  I have been unpacking for the last 5 days and there is still much left to do.  The main hold-up is that we have no closets.  The only cabinets are the ones in the kitchen and baths (and the ones in the bathrooms are especially small).  So, we went to IKEA this weekend and bought two wardrobes and some shelves.  I’ve been waiting to hear the phone ring all day, hoping it will be the IKEA guys coming to make the delivery.  I actually don’t even know what day they’re coming.  The Swiss are supposed to be efficient, so surely it won’t be too long.  If we were in Belgium, that would be another story.  (Sorry, all you hard-working Belgians out there, don’t mean to offend, but the service is lacking in your country.  I think you already know that though).  The reason I have no idea of the delivery date is that the man at the register didn’t speak English.  I tried to find out by suggesting a few days, “lunedi, martedi”, with a questioning tone.  He just kept saying, “telefono”.  So, I will stay home until that much-anticipated phone call arrives.  Of course, when it does, I’m sure it will be someone who doesn’t speak English.  I’ll just say, “Si, Si” and hope they know that means to come now.

March 12, 2012

A Puzzled Village

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:27 pm by newsurroundings

My car always knows where I am, even when I don’t.  When I cross into another country, the navigational system will tell me, “You’ve crossed the border”.  Well, today it went crazy, telling me every few meters that we had crossed the border.  I was in the village of Baarle, going from Belgium to the Netherlands, back into Belgium, then into the Netherlands again, back into Belgium, and on and on.  You get the idea.  How can that be?

It turns out I was in a most unusual place.  Baarle-Hertog is in Belgium and Baarle-Nassau is in the Netherlands.  That doesn’t sound so unusual until you realize that parts of the Netherlands are completely surrounded by Belgium, which is in turn completely surrounded by the Netherlands, which borders Belgium.  What?

Map

This map, showing the enclaves, makes it a little clearer.  The orange sections are Dutch territory and the green are Belgian.

As you walk around town, you’ll see the border markings.

You’ll see that the border goes to the middle of the road, up a little ways, and then across.

If you’re not sure what country you’re in, you can look at the house numbers with the flag representing their country.   The border may run down the middle of a house, so they have a “front-door policy”, meaning the placement of the front door determines which country the house is in.

house number with the Belgian flag

So, how does this town function?  Well, they have two of almost everything- two mayors, two town halls, two post offices, two fire stations.  It’s the only place in the world where police forces of two countries share the same office space.

auction house with two coats of arms

One town in two countries- I never thought I would see that.

February 27, 2012

Weekend in Normandy

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:13 pm by newsurroundings

It would be a shame to leave Belgium without having visited Normandy, France, so we did squeeze in this one last trip before our upcoming move.  On the way to our inn, we stopped in Honfleur, a small port town made famous by the fact that Monet did a lot of his painting there.  I could imagine in spring that it was an especially lovely village.  We spent a couple of hours going in the many art shops and had tea and apple crisp at a tiny little earthy cafe run by one man who was cook and waiter.

the port town of Honfleur

I thought we would go for an authentic French experience, so I booked a bed and breakfast in the country about 20 minutes outside of Bayeux.  I actually didn’t look at the location closely enough, so we were both surprised when we kept driving further and further away from town along narrow roads, into the countryside as it was beginning to get dark and very foggy.  Bryan is really good about not saying what he is thinking, but I could tell he was not happy.  We finally arrived and we were warmly greeted by our French hostess, Odile, at the La Ferme du Pressoir in the town of Villers-Bocage.  Odile speaks very little English and we speak very little French, but we somehow understood each other and communicated fairly well.  I actually liked the fact that she always spoke to us in French, even though I’m sure she could have greeted us in English if she had wanted to.  It made our trip more fun.  She showed us our very large room (3 beds and a crib!) and then offered us a drink and snack.  She recommended a really good restaurant nearby, so we went out for a nice dinner.

La Ferme du Pressoir

The next morning we came down to a big spread of pastries, cereal, omelets made with just-laid eggs from the farm, a cheese plate, juice and cider made at the farm, and coffee and tea.  Wow!  We ate a little of everything so as not to offend and enjoyed it all.  I had no idea at the time that apples (pommes) are so plentiful in Normandy.  During our 4-day stay, we enjoyed apple pie, apple crisp, apple sauce, and apple butter and drank lots of apple juice and cider.

Bon Appetit

We had booked a d-day tour with Gold Beach Tours, so we arrived early in Bayeux for our morning departure.  It had taken many emails and phone calls before I was able to find a tour that was operating, since it’s the low season for tourism.  Well, we waited and no one came.  We called the company and there had been an error and they didn’t have us booked.  I had the confirmation with me, and they were able to take us that afternoon.  So, other than the fact that we could have slept in longer, it worked out.  We walked around town, went in the cathedral, and saw the 70-meter long, nearly 1000-year old tapestry that tells the story of the Norman invasion of England.  It is actually embroidery on a linen cloth, not as I was expecting, but still very impressive.

Bayeux cathedral

The tour took us to Gold Beach, the Arromanches, Omaha Beach, the American Cemetery, and Pont du Hoc.  Seeing the actual location of the invasion and being able to imagine the conflict, made history come alive.  Visiting the cemetery where nearly 10,000 soldiers are buried and seeing the wall of names of thousands who were missing in action, was very moving.  The tour piqued our interest in history and made us want to read more about WWII.  Our guide recommended watching The Longest Day, so that is on our to-do list, as well as rewatching Private Ryan.

American cemetery

We had dinner at a wonderful restaurant,  La Pommier, in Bayeux.  I had the cod fish and Bryan had the pork.  Check out his appetizer below.  We weren’t able to identify most of what was on his plate, and he didn’t actually eat much of it, but it sure was a pretty and unusual dish.

fresh from the sea

The next day we were greeted with another wonderful breakfast, this time including chocolate croissants, one of my favorites.  We went to Mont St. Michel, a gothic abbey built on a rocky island off the coast and, as our host said, it was “magnifique”!  It is one of the most frequented sites in France, so we really appreciated the fact that we were there during the low season.

Mont St. Michel

From there we drove to the coast and on to Dinan, stopping for yet another delicious meal on the way- goat cheese salad with baked apples.  Dinan is a lovely walled medieval town with rambling cobbled streets, half timbered buildings, and a castle.   We shopped for a while and I bought a few tea towels for gifts and some speculoos-flavored chocolate powder.  Can’t wait to try that!

Dinan, France

We were tired after a long day, so were happy to find a pizza restaurant where we could have a quick dinner and then get back to the inn to relax.

The next morning we enjoyed our last breakfast at the inn with our delightful host.  She sent us off with a hearty “Au Revoir!”, a hug, and a complimentary bottle of apple cider.  Superbe!

February 2, 2012

Doing a Double Take

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:19 pm by newsurroundings

I was shopping in our local grocery store a few weeks ago and could not believe my eyes when I saw this.  They had a new kind of pizza I had never seen before called “Big Americans”- made in Europe.  It is supposedly an American-style pizza with a Real Big Taste.  See for  yourself.

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