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Archive for the ‘Travel and Tourism’ Category

Life is getting very Christmas-y around here.  Last night was my office Christmas party, today I’m off to a concert, and the Christmas cookie reserves are steadily piling up.  But as the year draws to an end, I am also reminded that I never shared any photos from my trip to Germany and Austria in the autumn.  So, for anyone looking for something to do on a wintery Sunday afternoon, here’s a glimpse of how I spent my holiday.

We (my mother and I) flew directly from Vancouver to Munich and arrived during the first weekend of Oktoberfest.  We only passed through the city enroute to Austria but there is nothing like being surrounded by hundreds of people all dressed in lederhosen and dirndls to help put you in the holiday mood.

The first stop of the holiday was the village of Söll in the Wilder Kaiser region of the Austrian Tirol.  We spent 5 days there hiking and enjoying the beautiful scenery, and it was spectacular.  I would go back in a heartbeat.  We had ideal late September weather – if anything it was a little too hot – and the hoards of summer visitors had thinned out to just retired German tourists and us.  It was perfect.

Regretfully, we eventually tore ourselves away and headed to Germany.  We spent the next few days based in Stuttgart, which proved unexpectedly delightful.  The city was hosting its famous Oktoberfest-esque Bad Cannstatt festival and, as this was the 200th anniversary of the festival, there was a special celebration happening in the city’s historic centre the entire time we were there.  We would go out and spend the days exploring the suburbs and local hills and then come back to the city to enjoy the festival in the evening, taking advantage of the food stalls to enjoy a glass of local wine and some of the regional delicacies for our dinners.  We also managed to fit in an opera at the city’s famous opera house – the season opener, no less.

We were in Stuttgart over the weekend and on the Saturday we took the local commuter train to the suburb of Esslingen.  It’s a beautiful medieval city which thankfully survived the war relatively undamaged.  We had a lovely morning strolling about, enjoying the market and especially enjoying the wine bar at Kessler Sekt.  It was a popular stop for everyone after the market and the crowd overflowed from the courtyard out into the street.  I am not sure I have ever found a better definition of civilized life than friends and families drinking sparkling wine in the streets on a sunny Saturday morning, with children running around and babies dozing in their strollers.  Suburban life in Germany always looks good to me but this was particularly idyllic.

From Stuttgart, we headed to Heidelberg.  My mother has wanted to visit ever since her university days, when her German professor was forever reminiscing about the city where he had studied.  It’s a beautiful town but I’m happy our stay there was short.  It felt overrun with tourists compared to where we had come from.  Stuttgart was busy but it was full of German tourists who had come for the festival – the city doesn’t rely on them.  Heidelberg, on the other hand, felt tailored for visitors rather than locals.  Even worse, there was a football match taking place that had pulled in huge crowds of English fans.  There were local police stationed near every sports bar and Irish pub in town, looking confused by the rowdy public drunkenness of these visitors.  There were a number of them on our train the next morning and they were certainly in a great deal of pain by that point.  But the city was beautiful and I would not be at all averse if someone wanted to gift me one of the villas down along the river.  

From Heidelberg, we went south, back to my beloved Freiburg.  This was my 3rd time in the city and the first time I had entirely good weather.  It’s supposed to be the sunniest city in Germany so I knew eventually I’d get my timing right!  Freiburg is a vibrant university town and a wonderful base for exploring the Black Forest.  We went on some beautiful hikes in the nearby hills but also just enjoyed the city, with its lovely twisting streets, excellent shopping, and laid back atmosphere.  It was the perfect place to end the trip.

It was a wonderful two-week holiday and I’d recommend all of these destinations (even Heidelberg).  The highlight was Söll but Stuttgart was a very pleasant surprise and I will always, always take any excuse to return to Freiburg.

Now to start planning my 2019 trip…

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I popped over to Victoria this weekend for a mini summer holiday.  It only lasted from Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon but it was a wonderful break and incorporated all the things I love about going to Victoria: stunning island scenery from the ferry, amazing floral displays at Butchart Gardens, excellent food in Victoria, and, of course, fabulous book shopping.

Russell Books, one of my all-time favourite bookshops, is located in central Victoria and I spent a happy couple of hours there on Saturday afternoon, sifting through my favourite sections.  Every fifteen minutes or so you would hear another delighted patron exclaiming over some find or the sheer variety of books on offer.  Deservedly so.  My hard work was rewarded and I can home with a respectable haul:

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Window on My Heart by Olave, Lady Baden-Powell – how to resist something this random?  The autobiography of the wife of Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, who was herself very heavily involved in the Scouting and Guiding movements.

A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor – PLF’s travel memoir about his time spent in monasteries.

P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe – There were shelves and shelves and shelves full of Wodehouse but I chose to go with a collection of Plum’s letters.

Nairn in Darkness and Light by David Thomson – a memoir about growing up in Scotland in the 1920s.

An Italian Odyssey by Julie A. Burk and Neville J. Tencer – I am fascinated by the Via Francigena but there are so few books about it.  This memoir about walking the Italian portion of the route is one of the few out there (alongside Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim, which I picked up earlier this year).

Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay – slowly building up my collection of GGK, having read them all first from the library (as usual).

The Pebbled Shore by Elizabeth Longford – I learned about this when reading My History by her daughter, Antonia Forest.  Longford sounds absolutely fascinating and I can’t wait to learn more about her life.

The Smell of Summer Grass and The Gentry by Adam Nicolson – both excellent books that I’ve been meaning to add to my library since I first read them. 

A Change of Appetite by Diana Henry – I can now safely return the library copy that I keep checking out.

A very good day’s work, as far as I’m concerned!  And also just a nice summer break in a lovely city.

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Europe Trip: Malcesine

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After a wonderful week in Tuscany, I headed north to Lake Garda to spend three nights in Malcesine. How surreal to pass through so many places I’ve dreamed of visiting – Florence, Bologna, Verona – without stopping. The fates obviously did not want to make me feel bad so responded with pouring rain. Instead of envy, I just felt pity for the poor tourists arriving in Florence who had to venture out of the train station into the streets where rain was falling so hard it was bouncing a foot after hitting the ground.

After a week on my own, I was nice to meet up with my mother (who’d been in the Czech Republic and Germany while I was gallivanting in Tuscany).  It was still pouring rain when we arrived in Malcesine mid-afternoon, but that just gave us an excuse to settle in at a bar with a glass of Prosecco and catch up with each other.  And when the rain broke, we got to see just what a beautiful place we’d landed in.

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The next day the weather was perfect so first thing in the morning we took the cable car up to the top of Monte Baldo. I’d been praying for good weather since we booked our stay in Malcesine but never allowed myself to hope we’d get such a perfect, almost cloudless day. We enjoyed a beautiful morning walking around, enjoying the views in every direction, and relaxing in the sun with our mid-morning coffees. My mother broke her ankle at the beginning of the summer so that ruled out any hiking this trip but I’d love to go back one day and explore the trails.  The dusting of snow on the top of the highest mountains made the views all the more beautiful.

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From the cable car, we went directly to the castle, the town’s other main tourist attraction. The castle is more impressive from a distance but it did have one great charm: a wedding had just taken place and the lovely (Scottish) bride and groom were still having their photos taken on the castle grounds:

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The next day, we took a boat across the river to Limone, where it was market day. Limone wasn’t anything special but a boat ride is always enjoyable. It had picturesque areas but was so overwhelmingly, unrelentingly touristy that I couldn’t stomach it. It was a relief to grab the boat back to Malcesine.

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Mostly, we just enjoyed Malcesine. We walked along the lakeside promenade, ate leisurely lunches in sunny squares, and enjoyed practising our German (the majority of tourists here are German-speaking and the entire tourist industry is geared towards them – there is even a Tyrolean bakery). It was a wonderful break before heading into the bustle of crowded Venice.

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Europe Trip: Tuscany

Tuscany 5The centrepiece of my trip to Europe this year was a walking tour in Tuscany.  Given that I’d never been on a walking tour before – never been on any kind of group tour whatsoever – I was nervous.  I didn’t really know what to expect but the tour offered me a chance to see more of Tuscany that I could have ever seen travelling alone so I decided to take the chance.  And I’m so glad I did because I had an absolutely wonderful time!

Tuscany 1Based at an agriturismo near the town of Buonconvento, south of Siena, each day our small group of 8 (7 walkers plus our guide) would head out to explore a beautiful new area and –inevitably, in Tuscany – a hill town or two.  We walked sections of the Via Francigena, the pilgrim route that runs from Canterbury to Rome.  We saw grape vines heavy with fruit just waiting to be turned into the region’s famous wines and finished one of our walking days with a tasting at a winery.  We saw charming village after charming village.  We explored Pienza, the ideal Renaissance city as envision by Pope Pius II (and the only really crowded tourist place we saw on our travels).  We met truffle hunters in the woods, who were just emerging successful with several prized white truffles to their credit.  We visited a monastery after a long day’s walk and listened to Gregorian chanting in the cool of the church.  We were enchanted by the spa town of Bagno Vignoni and relaxed in the outdoor thermal pools at one of the hotels. 

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Tuscany 2There is no better way to explore a place than on foot.  Walking through fields and forests, vineyards and villages, I had the time to take in my surroundings.  I realised Tuscany is far more lush than I’d ever imagined it to be, with everything from oak trees to cacti happily growing in its rich soil.  I never got tired of the daily view of cyprus and olive trees.  I marvelled at the old stone buildings we passed and stopped trying to count the number of churches we saw after realising that even the smallest villages have four or five.

Tuscan DoorsMost of all, I thought how lucky I was to be able to have this adventure.  I met wonderful people, saw amazing, unforgettable places, and, most importantly for a vacation, left my normal life far behind.  It was relaxing, inspiring, and everything that a good holiday should be. Tuscany 4

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Europe Trip: Siena

View from my bedroom in Siena

View from my bedroom in Siena

I started my holiday this year in Siena and I can’t imagine a better introduction to Italy.  I’d spent years saying I wasn’t interested in Italy, spending my holidays further north instead, away from romantic languages and sun-drenched landscapes.  Even once I started planning this holiday, Tuscany held no particular appeal.  However, the walking tour that worked best with my itinerary was based in Tuscany so to Tuscany I went.  I had one night between arriving in Europe and the start of my tour so I decided to spend it in Siena.  It made for a long trip (Vancouver to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Florence, Florence to Siena with no sleep at any point – I hit that really fun weepy/giddy no-sleep stage during my four hour layover in Amsterdam.  Good times) but was absolutely the right choice.  As soon as I arrived in Siena, I feel in love with it.

The Campo at Night

The Campo at Night

I arrived just before dusk, giving me enough time to enjoy the stunning view from my hotel before the sun set.  After tidying up a little (there is nothing so wonderful as a hot shower and a change of clothes after 24 hours in transit), I went out into the streets and found them alive with locals out for their passeggiata evening stroll.  I spent two hours just walking, seeing the Duomo lit up at night, watching children race around the gently slopped Campo (Siena’s famous clamshell-shaped square) while parents and grandparents chatted nearby with neighbours, and just generally taking in the atmosphere.  By the time I sat down to dinner, I was thoroughly enchanted with the town.  The seemingly endless number of (sometimes bizarre) events taking place around town only added to my enjoyment – Siena may be small but that doesn’t make it sleepy!

CampoThe next day I had to join my walking tour group further south but not until the evening.  The weather was stunning, so I climbed the tour on the Campo, enjoying the fantastic views of the city and the surrounding countryside.  After that, I just wandered, enjoying the slow pace of a sunny Sunday in Siena.  It’s been a busy and stressful year for me and this was the perfect break from that to get me into proper, relaxed holiday mode.  I walked empty streets and thronged ones, through building-lined squares and tree-lined parks.  I had a leisurely lunch in the sunshine and licked a gelato while wandering later in the afternoon.  And then, revived and excited to start my Italian adventures, I left.Siena

But I came back!  Later in the week, as part of my walking tour, we had a free day to explore Siena.  It was pounding rain (making me very happy I’d made the most of my sunny day there) but that made it the perfect day to explore the Duomo – which had been closed for Sunday service my first day there.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been as comfortable in a cathedral as I was in Siena’s stripped, pattern-mad Duomo.  It’s an extraordinary space and I spent hours exploring it and the rest of the cathedral complex before venturing out again into the wet streets.  The best thing about rain is that it gives you an excuse to duck into shops and cafes.  I had a lovely, leisurely lunch in one of the restaurants on the Campo, bought beautiful marbled notebooks at Il Papiro and, later in the afternoon, was revived by a visit to Nannini, the city’s famed bakery. Duomo

My two weeks in Italy were wonderful but, for me, Siena was the highlight.  Yes, Venice was magical, Lake Garda was breathtaking and the Tuscan countryside was like walking through every Renaissance painting you’ve ever seen.  But Siena was perfect and my time there was too short.  It was a wonderful taste of a city I can’t wait to visit again and already I am plotting how and when I can return. Siena 2

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VignoniI am back after a wonderful two weeks in Italy.  I strolled through vineyards, forests, and countless hill-towns in Tuscany, admired palm trees, snow-capped mountains and German tourists on Lake Garda, and found unexpected quiet on Venice’s twisting, charming streets and canals.

To be frank, I am not particularly excited to be home.  I would much rather be sitting somewhere in the Veneto with a glass of prosecco or visiting a spa in Merano or maybe discovering the ancient glories of Rome.  Instead, I am back at home where it is cold and wet and I am expected to work for a living for another thirty or forty years.  Most unsatisfactory.

the-road-to-little-dribbling-115989452My wanderlust is something I live with the whole year round, though my vacations are limited to three weeks a year.  I am already plotting where to go next year.  Italy again?  My beloved Germany, perhaps?  Croatia, finally?  Dare I pluck up the courage for India?  I thought I had it narrowed down but then yesterday I read Bill Bryson’s newest book, The Road to Little Dribbling, and now, of course, I am desperate to go back to the UK.  One of the delights of the UK, as Bryson never tires of pointing out, is how crammed full it is of fascinating people, places and history.  London alone has more cultural sights than many countries but there are thoughtful, original museums and galleries scattered across the rest of the nation with infuriating frequency.  I am ready to go NOW and spend three or four weeks (months?) roaming about, visiting museums and galleries, walking the South Downs and the Yorkshire Dales.

What I shall actually do is stay here, work, study for a demanding upcoming professional exam, and, perhaps, occasionally remember to update this blog.  I do miss regular blogging but have been so busy this year that I’ve barely had time to read, never mind reflect on my reading.  It is something I miss and I hope in the coming months I’ll be able to make blogging part of my regular schedule again.

Though I didn’t read much, and certainly not deeply, I did come across some excellent books this summer.  Girl at War by Sara Nović, about the impact of the Serbo-Croatian war on a young girl, was excellent; Uprooted, a light, undemanding fantasy novel from Naomi Novik, was a fun distraction from my other concerns; and Man Overboard by Monica Dickens was a nice, light romance about an unemployed naval officer that reminded me of how well Dickens writes from the male perspective and had unmistakable similarities to the writing of my dear Nevil Shute.

Sofia Khan is Not ObligedBut the most delightful surprise of this summer was Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik (of which Kate has already written an excellent and far more detailed review).  Sometimes, books appear that so perfectly match my dream book wish list that I can barely believe they are real.  This was one of those books.  Sofia Khan is a young British Muslim woman, working in the publishing industry in London (much like her creator).  Like many young women, she is looking for love but not prepared to compromise too much.  She wants someone who shares her faith, is close to his family (though not too close – living with the in-laws is a step too far for Sofia), and believes in her feminist values.  If he happens to be gorgeous and brings the banter, so much the better.

Through Sofia and her friends, Malik looks with humour and sympathy at the way young, educated, devout, modern Muslim women approach romance.  One friend is in love with married man and, as the novel begins, considering becoming a second wife.  Another is in a relationship with a black man, something her family and community would certainly not approve of.  Sofia isn’t quite sure who she wants but she knows she wants love and marriage and a family of her own.

As someone who has never been able to connect with alcohol- and regretful hook-up-driven Chick Lit novels (or television shows, like Sex and the City), Sofia Khan is Not Obliged was a welcome change.  It offered a cheeky, intelligent, fallible heroine who, although I may not share her faith or culture, I could identify with more easily than most of the other protagonists in the genre.  Once I started reading, I could not put the book down – it’s the only thing I’ve read this year that kept me up past midnight (on a weekday, no less).  I read it thanks to NetGalley and can’t wait for the paperback to come out in January (it is available now as an e-book).

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Sea to Sky

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Yesterday morning, I finally got a chance to visit one of Vancouver’s newest tourist attractions: the Sea to Sky Gondola.  About an hour north of the city, the gondola whisks you from sea level up into the mountains, offering spectacular views of Howe Sound.  There are multiple viewing platforms, several short walking paths (not to be confused with the challenging hiking routes), a suspension bridge, and a welcoming, casual restaurant/guest centre with a stunning deck .  We have family visiting from Europe and back East this summer and I can’t wait to go back with them.  It is a place I would return to again and again.
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