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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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Lovely Craftsman house in Laurelhurst with snowdrops galore!

I spent last weekend in Portland (Oregon, in case some of you might have thought I was very ambitious and had popped across to Maine for a couple of days).  Portland is just far enough from Vancouver to make any visit there feel special (I take the proximity of Seattle for granted so much that I’ve never actually visited) and it more than rewards its visitors with wonderful neighbourhoods, excellent restaurants, and, of course, one of the largest book stores in North America.

Thanks to a long weekend in BC, I was able to spend three nights in Portland and packed quite a lot in to the visit.  I visited neighbourhoods I had never seen before (Laurelhurst made me nostalgic for the way Vancouver used to look – and for the prices we used to have!), stood in line with hipsters for twenty minutes at Salt and Straw for ice cream (a scoop of Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper that was actually worth the wait), revisited favourite restaurants, attended the very enjoyable Italian Style exhibition (on loan from the V&A) at the Portland Art Museum, and visited Powell’s bookstore.  Twice.

Let’s be honest: book buying is half the attraction of visiting Portland.  I’m not as practised as some of my fellow bloggers but I came home with what, for me, is a large haul:

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Dr. Wortle’s School by Anthony Trollope – it is never a bad thing to grow one’s Trollope collection.

The House by the Dvina and A Home by the Hooghly by Eugenie Fraser – I was reading a library copy Fraser’s wonderful memoir The House by the Dvina just before we left for Portland and had to pick up a copy of my own.  And I couldn’t resist her second memoir either, about her married life in India

Anthony Trollope by Victoria Glendinning – Audrey has been reading this and sharing wonderful excerpts from it.

Talks with T.G. Masaryk by Karel Čapek – an interview of Czechoslovakia’s first president by one of its great writers.  I’ve been meaning to add this to my collection of Czech books for years.

The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner edited by William Maxwell – STW is possibly the best letter writer I’ve ever come across.  A collection edited by Maxwell – a close friend and equally devoted correspondent – promises to be good.

The Virago Book of Women Gardeners a wonderful collection (and one of my favourite books that I read in 2014).

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan – Hazan is frequently mentioned by many of my favourite food bloggers and, having fallen completely for the few recipes of hers that I have tried, I knew I had to add this cookbook to my collection.

Now to find somewhere to put these books – my shelves were already overflowing!

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It was cool and crisp here this morning – an inspiring and invigorating start to 2015.  Now, after an embarrassingly scenic morning walk (dear readers, I am sorry you don’t live here.  It must be difficult for you), I am looking forward to spending the rest of the day reading.  I am almost done the excellent How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, which has been reminding me how differently each reader reacts to the same story.  We have very different feelings towards some books (she doesn’t like Emma Woodhouse, which, obviously, I find inconceivable) but that is no barrier to my enjoyment of this engaging and highly entertaining memoir.  Once that is done, I’ll have a tower of books to choose from – a rather overwhelming prospect, actually.  Shall I go for Nevil Shute?  Ruth Ozeki?  Guy Gavriel Kay?  Alistair Cooke?  There is nothing nicer than starting a new year with plenty of options!

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Bachalpsee

Bachalpsee

The more time I spend in Switzerland, the more jealous I become of Heidi.  And of the all the (non-fictional) Swiss who are lucky enough to live and play there.  I spent a full week in the Berner Oberland region of Switzerland this summer, hiking every day and getting the absolute maximum value out of my regional transit pass, and there hasn’t been a day since I got back when I haven’t thought longing of it.

Since I can’t go back any time soon, I thought I’d relive my happy memories of the mountains by sharing some of my many photos.  Enjoy!

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Alpine cow! Solidly 50% of what attracts me to the Swiss Alps are the cows.

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View from Schynige Platte to Brienzersee

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Iseltwald on Brienzersee

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View of Grindelwald Valley from Kleine Scheidegg (random literary trivia: AA Milne proposed to his wife while on holiday in Grindelwald)

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Walk from First to Grosse Scheidegg

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Lauterbrunnen Valley from the valley floor

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Lauterbrunnen Valley from Wengen

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Lauterbrunnen Valley from Männlichen (notice a theme?)

At the Jungfraujoch

Slightly windswept at the Jungfraujoch

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Europe Trip: Meersburg

Meersburg

Meersburg

The first day of my vacation was a long one – or, to be accurate, two. I don’t think I’ve ever flown to Europe and spent the first night in the city where I have landed. That would be too easy. This year was no different. After two planes, a train, a bus, and a ferry, we arrived at our first destination: Meersburg, a small town on the German side of Bodensee.

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Meersburg was delightful. It was quiet and beautiful, the perfect place to get over our jetlag and ease into our vacation. We hiked, we swam (in the lake, to my delight), we visited the local sights, and we generally just had a wonderful time. We also marvelled at the zeppelins constantly floating overhead because, really, in 2014 where else do you see zeppelins on a daily basis?

An almost as exciting – though not as frequent sight – were the glimpses we got of the Swiss Alps on the other side of the lake. There are few things more lovely at dusk than purple-pink mountains.

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Alps!

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Mainau Island

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View to Birnau from Unteruhldingen

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View of Meersburg from the lake

This was my first visit to this region of Germany but I know I’ll be back again. The water, the vineyards, the hiking paths, and the nearby mountains provide all the things I could want in a holiday destination.

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