Apache Junction Seekers

Al and Linda enjoy visiting new places and having new experiences. In 2006, we spent 4 months in Europe and originally created this blog to keep friends and family informed. After a long delay, I'm trying to catch up with what we've been doing since then and hope to carry on into the future.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Germany has its high spots, but we've pretty much decided that this will be the last time for us here. There are some pleasant tourist areas in the Bavarian Alps, along the Rhine and Moselle rivers, and in the Black Forest. Otherwise, outside of the cities there doesn't seem to be anything to attract us like we find in other countries. There is a real lack of charming villages and other amenities that we find everywhere in France, for example. Perhaps this is why the Germans are notorious for spending their own vacations in other countries.

On the plus side, Germany has the best hotel beds, the cleanest restrooms (although you have to pay for them much of the time), lavish breakfasts (who knew that liverwurst was so good in the morning?) and those wonderful whole-wheat seeded rolls, not to mention the greatest variety of wursts.

The autobahns, however, just plain suck. There is the myth of no speed limits, but in our experience, there are very few kilometers which are not speed controlled. I don't understand why you can be driving along a wonderful three-lane superhighway with a speed limit of 110, then when the road narrows to two lanes, the speed limit is removed. For maybe 20 km. Something about the traffic engineering philosophy is escaping me here. Furthermore, the autobahns are so clogged with truck traffic that there will essentially be only one lane open for autos. The road surfaces are reminiscent of I-5 in central California where the pavement takes the same beating from big trucks.

I'm always fascinated to read the license plates and see where the trucks come from. About half are from Germany and the rest are split among the former eastern block. You see a lot from Poland and Hungary as well as Romania, Bulgaria and even Russia as well as Turkey. They generally look pretty modern but I wonder what kind of safety regulations some of these countries enforce. At any rate, we found that it is difficult to average more than about 100 on the autobahns, which translates into 66 mph for the metrically challenged among the audience. And the worst traffic tie-ups we've encountered have been in Germany, not once or twice but literally eveytime we get onto the autobahn. Not a selling point for the country. Can someone please tell me where it is that the car magazines go in Germany to test cars, because we never found anywhere that it would be possible except at the Nurburgring race track!

This is not to say that we didn't enjoy ourselves in Germany because we always find a way to have a good time. We rode to the top of the Zugspitze in the Bavarian Alps and enjoyed the view, but frankly after the rest of the Alps, it was a bit of a let-down. We had a beer in Heidelberg and walked around the walls at Rothenburg, but I guess we're just getting jaded because neither impressed us that much. Maybe its getting time to go home. We did enjoy a day in the Black Forest, although the traffic getting there was a nightmare, and a wonderful dish of fresh chanterelles and fresh stuffed raviolis. Yes, we do think about food a lot.

Amusing story: We were in the Garmisch-Partinkirchen area watching the Germany-Portugal match of the World Cup. Suddenly, there was a peal of thunder. I opened the door to the balcony and saw that the sky was full of stars. More thunder, reverberating off the mountains, like shots. I wondered out loud if Austria, just a few miles south, was taking the opportunity to invade while all of Germany was riveted by the match. Then we realized it was July 4th and that the US troops at the nearby recreational facility were celebrating.

The highlight of the country was visiting Brian and Sindhu, a couple we had met at the B&B in Cascais, Portugal near the beginning of the trip. Despite our age difference, the four of us really hit it off, although I'm sure they were quite surprised when we took them up on their offer to visit them. Tiny Sindhu was 8 1/2 months pregnant when we visited but she was still going to yoga classes and riding her bike out to get the morning bread. No wonder she looked wonderful. We had offered to take them out for dinner but she insisted on cooking us an Indian meal which was a welcome change from restaurant food. I was glad she had made it 'mild' because it was about as warm as I like things and absolutely excellent. It was also interesting to visit a 'typical' German home, although this one was built in 1998. Al loves to note the differences in how things are done and they had lots of stories to tell about the whole house buying process. Many thanks to them for their warm welcome.

We generally avoid cities no matter what country we are in but we are here in Nuremburg for the LGB 125th birthday festival. For the non-garden-railroaders in the audience, LGB is a toy company that created the garden railway concept and has an avid following for its products world-wide. The festival included a large expo at the factory which we attended the first day we were here. It was well-organized and included a variety of eating options. One vendor had a whole beef on a spit--I mean a whole beef, not a whole side of beef--from which he was cutting slices for sandwiches. It wasn't Texas BBQ but it was delicious and very tender. We met Dan and Ed, a couple of fellow Phoenix-area garden railroaders and the fellows investigated the entire event while I took frequent breaks in the heat and humidity. The next day, we and Ed took a steam train ride out of the main rail station. It was a pleasure to sit in the first class car and enjoy smooth tracks, so unlike the average American narrow-gauge steam experience. Later we visited the toy museum which has a special room of vintage LGB toys as well as railroads. Today, Al visited the Regio repair facility and the railroad museum.

Tomorrow we leave Germany and I doubt that we will return. The food is good but the country just does not offer the kind of life style that we look for in a vacation spot.
Our introduction to Italy was not auspicious. The drive down from the Col de Magdelene was marred by road construction and although the lunch of gorganzola-stuffed ravioli was excellent, the cost of beer had taken a 50 % leap as had the food prices. The autopista leveled out to roll across the plains but the experience continued to go downhill. Once out of the mountains, there was nothing to look at except great swaths of industrial develpment interspersed occasionally with corn fields, the only green in the otherwise drab landscape. The truck traffic was awesome and although we made it through Torino without slowing down too much, by the time we reached Milano, traffic was crawling at best. I had not expected that this part of Italy would be one continuous urban area, at least as viewed from the autopista, from west of Torino to where we turned off the autopista near the south end of Lago Garda. The worst part is that the route was under construction and narrowed down to one lane frequently, except at the toll plazas where tolls were collected as if we were driving on a real superhighway.

Traffic up the west side of the lake was as unremitting as on the autopista, but now we were down to one lane in each direction. We desperately wanted to stop for the night, but stuck in this endless parade, it was hard to interpret signs and figure out where we should turn off. The towns are all strung along a narrow swath and the couple of times we left the main road to follow hotel signs were fruitless ventures. Finally we stopped at one on the main road, but it was full. We didn't like the looks of the three and four star establishments. Even though it was mid-week and 'not the season', the area seemed to be swarming with tourists. What to do? Finally, Al spotted a B&B sign in English, again right on the main road which wasn't great but we were desperate. Yes, they had a room. We could choose from one with a window opening onto the main road or one with an interior courtyard (i.e., no view) but with, unbelievably, a portable air-conditioning unit. The temperature was about 37 C, so you know we opted for the inside room. Refreshed, we wandered out to look for dinner and our host directed us to a narrow lane down the hill. After a couple of wrong turns, we broke out onto a small lakeside plaza with a tiny marina full of one-design sail-boats. There was some kind of arts-crafts sale set up in the middle of the square and there was a pizzaria with outdoor seating along one edge. Wonderful dinner including a salad with real Balsamic vinegar. Oh heaven. Things were looking up. And the coffee really is different in Italy.

In the morning, we ate breakfast on the terrace of the B&B, finishing just before the skies opened up. First it thundered, then it poured, then the hail came down. The car ended up with little dents in the top, although not as bad as on our previous trip. Who knew that this was as bad a problem in Europe as it is in the American midwest?

We drove up to the north end of the lake to Riva del Garda which was also really busy and was not the 'laid back' town described by the guidebook at all. However, Arco, just a couple of kilometers off the lake filled the bill. We found a hotel room just outside the city wall. The town is dominated by a steep hill which looms over it with several medieval monasgtery or abbey-type structures, looking like a painting by an early Italian master. The town was full of eating establishments of all varieties of which we sampled only two, a pizzaria (where we had a seafood and spaghetti combination) and a pannini shop where we enjoyed the best pannini I've ever had. Of course. We followed up with gelato. Of course.

We hated to leave Arco and we really would have liked to have gone south, toward Modena, but the temperatures were unbearable. We were seeing 37 and 38 on the car thermometer and had reports of 42 at Parma. There is nothing I need to see anywhere in that kind of heat in a land with no air conditioning. So on toward the Alps.

We drove northward on the road toward the Brenner Pass and turned off just north of Bolzano on the tiny road that goes toward Cortina. At first the traffic was almost nonexistent, but that rapidly changed. The scenery was unsurpassed in my experience. The Dolomite Alps are great slabs of gray limestone rising abruptly from lush foothills and I cannot even begin to describe how lovely they are. We drove over three passes to get to Cortina and the views just kept getting better and better.

The traffic, however, was also hard to describe. First, you have to understand that Europeans are fanatic bicyclists. Then you have to understand that for a European cyclist, there is no challenge like conquering a mountain pass in the Alps. Furthermore, you have to realize that these cyclists come in literally by the tour bus load to challenge those passes. Now remember that in all of Europe, the cyclist must be treated with respect. If you come up behind on while he is grinding away up that 10% grade and there is a blind curve ahead, you must wait until the view ahead is clear before you pass him. Unlike in America, you must not run him off the road. Of course, the cyclists take full advantage of this by riding in the middle of the road and perhaps two or three abreast.

Now you must remember that what goes up must come down but at a much greater speed. So when you finally get a clear view of the road ahead, there may be no oncoming autos but there may very well be cyclists coming down at 50-60 kmh, also two and three abreast, using the entire road.

As if that were not enough, add motorcycles into the mix. Motos regard the mountains as a challenge as much as the cyclists but of course they go uphill much faster than autos. They also have their own rules, which pretty much consist of doing as they please. Motos pass literally whenever they want to, on blind curves, with on-coming traffic, when you are passing another car or cyclist, whenever. They seem to think that if they drive on the venter line, they are invincible. What is it about driving a moto that makes a person immortal?

Anyway, you get the idea that the thrills on the route are not confined to the sharp curves and the steep drop-offs with no guardrails. At the top of each pass, there is the obligatory bar-restaurant and the cyclists will be strewn all over the shoulders and into the road, resting up for the ride down. Any free parking will be taken by the motos who are stopping for a cigarette, which means that they will have to re-pass everyone they passed on the way up.

I forgot to mention the tourbuses. The only near-incident that we saw was when an inattentive auto driver forgot that the tour bus will take up the entire road on a curve and ended up temporarily running the bus into a shallow ditch. Somehow it works.

Cortina was something of a disappointment. We had a nice hotel with a killer view, but the town isn't much. Many things were closed because this is a town that caters to the high-rollers of the ski season and not the cheapskates of summer. No sandwich shops and dinner prices were high as might be expected.

We moved on to a little valley outside Brunico where the country might be Italy but the primary language and the food are both German. This area is a lower-key ski area in the winter time and despite the fact that the hills seemed to be crawling with tourists, there were only three other guests at our pension. The five course meal was marvelous as was the German-style breakfast in the morning.

The next day, we headed into Germany, with regrets. Al had resisted going to Italy at all, but once we got the hang of things, he decided it was OK and that we should pursue a closer relationship with the country. Next time we will come earlier in the season.
Trip Summary

Now that we are in the last month of our trip, here's a timeline summary for the linear thinkers in the audience. Note that I am using the German keyboard and the Z and Y may be transposed. Please bear with me.

April 10-14 Lisbon Portugal Beautiful, walkable, manageable city that was a mellow place to recover from jet lag. Highlights were taking the Number 15 tram with about 10,000 of our closest (in the literal sense of the word) friends out to Belem to enjoy the maritime museum and walking along the river.

April 14-19 Cascais, Portugal This beach resort turned out to be a suburb of Lisbon out at the end of the train line which meant that everyone in Lisbon came out to the beach for Easter weekend. No matter, there was room for all and we never felt crowded since there were lots of beaches, restaurants and public areas. We made side trips to the towns of Sintra (old buildings) and Peniche (seaside town) as well as to the westernmost point of Portugal. Loved the new highways but the traffic mix was scary because some of these folks don't understand that they are not on that country lane anymore.

April 19-22 Évora, Portugal A delightful walled city near the Spanish border. We also enjoyed exploring the countryside which was a riot of spring-blooming wildflowers--large fields of brilliant purples highlighted with splashes of red, yellow and white.

April 22-24 Faro, Portugal. We had intended to go north to Porto, but the weather gods dictated a southern move so we just had to see if the Algarve was as bad as the guidebooks said. From Faro west the coast is lovely and the development not nearly as dreadful as in Spain but yes, there are way too many people. All of us decided to go to the southwesternmost point in the country on the same day, including all of the motorcycles in the country, who regard it as their right to pass in the most impossible conditions.

April 24-28 Matalascanas, Spain, on the far SW coast. We were there to visit the Donana National Park with its flocks of lesser flamingos, spoonbills and other waterbirds. We made a side trip to visit the town where Columbus heard mass before leaving on that first voyage and climbed around on tull-scale replicas of his three ships. How did they all live in those close quarters for so long?

April 28-May 1 Zalamea, Spain, near Minos de Riotinto where the oldest copper mines in the world were still worked until last year. Great mining museum with a replica of the Roman mining tunnels and a so-so tourist railroad on the old ore-carrying line. Stayed at a delightful B&B in a building restored by a German-born artist and her Spanish husband. Made drives into the surrounding hills to the wonderful old villages.

May 1-May 9 Conil, Spain, on the south coast between Cadiz and Gibralter. A laid back beach resort built around a living ancient walled town so there is something for everyone. Visited a sherry bodega at Jerez, lunched on the windsurfing beach in Tarifa and saw Gibralter and Tangier from a distance. Cheap room, great tapas, great beach--why would anyone want to leave? Starting to get hot, that´s why.

May 9 Drove the route of the white villages so beloved by the guidebooks. Don´t bother. The onle redeeming feature of the day was the non-guidebook drive through spectacular small-mountain national park west of Ronda.

May 10-13 Trujillo, Spain, in the west-central part of the country. Visited Montafrague national park with its wonderful large birds. Thanks to the kindness of fellow birders, I saw much more than I would have expected although the great bustard remained elusive. Trujillo is a great town with a medieval section and a wonderful main plaza where there is action every night. Now it's getting really hot.

May 13 Transit day about which the less said the better.

May 14-May 19 Ribadesella, Spain, on the north coast west of Bilbao. Cheap hotel room with a balcony above the beachfront promenade. Visited the Picos de Europe and the prehistoric paintings at Altamira but just did a drive-by of the Gehry museum in Bilbao.

May 19 - Arcachon, on the French coast west of Bordeaux. Later in the trip we met another American who advised us to give this town a miss and he was right. Terrible weather, unattractive town and the oysters, which are the only reason to visit, were non-edible becausse of a toxin.

May 20-22 Chabanais, France, SW of Limoges. One of the many French villages that never make it into the guidebooks but which are delightful. Lovely countryside full of flowers and beautiful homes and farms. Visited the memorial at Oradour-dur-Glane and found an English-language book sale while here.

May 22 Noirmoutier, France, off the southeast coast of Brittany. Neat little island but the wind and rain swept us off after one night.

May 23-29 Malestroit, France, in the heart of Brittany along the canal to Brest. Revisited a B&B from three years ago and through the owner met several local people whose restored homes we were able to visit.

May 29-June 3 La Hisse, near Dinan, France on the east edge of Brittany. Dinan is a walled city on the Rance River with a great old town and a separate great old port. Our B&B was high above the river with a wonderful view. Visited lLe Mont-St. Michel again as well as the seaside town of Dinard and walked along the cliffs at Cap Frejus.

June 3 -June 17 Greye-sur-Mer, France, at the Juno Beach invasion site. The week of D-Day was full of commemorative activities including a mass parachute drop of US forces over the bridge at St. Mere-Eglise. Made a day trip to Monet's garden at Giverny but mostly just enjoyed life in this seaside town. For this period we had an apartment which made life easier in many ergards.

June 17- transit day

June 18-26 Near Millau in south-central France to visit the famous Viaduc du Millau which is a work of art in addition to an engineering marvel. The area is also near the confluence of rivers that have carved scenic gorges between limestone plateaus. We also visited the chees-ripening caves at Roquefort. Yummm.

June 26 - transit day into northern Provence

June 27 - Drove the road at the top of the Gorges du Tarn, the deepest gorge in Europe. Not the Grand Canyon but pretty impressive. White limestone cliffs plunging into the green river far below.

June 28 - Entered northern Italy via Briancon, France. Slogged through Torino and Milano on an under-construction highway for which the tolls were still diligently collected. Ended up on the western short of Lago Garda in -- wonder of wonders-- an air-conditioned room. The host directed us down the narrow lane to a lakeside plaza with a small marina and an outdoor pizzaria. Things were looking up.

June 29 -- Arco, Italy. We moved north a few km to this medieval town with its ecclesiastical buildings looming on the steep hill immediately above the walled old town. The guidebook disparages the lake but it is in fact quite scenic with steep hills plunging into the water and the attractive villages hanging precariously just above the waterline. Too many people of course but that is Europe. We would have preferred to go south, but the heat is pushing us into the mountains.

June 30 - July 1 Cortina, Italy Fantastic drive through the Dolomite Alps to get here and the balcony of our room has a killer view. The town is a dud since it's geared to the high rollers of the ski season and not the summer cheapskate hikers. Since I can't do any hiking, we move on.

July 2 Near Brunico, Italy. Our lovely pension has only three other guests for dinner and we have the obligatory great view from the balcony. The map says we are still in Italy but the first language is German as is the deliciouis food.

July 3 - July 5 Grainau, Germany at the foot of the Zugspitze, Baviaria's highest Alp which dominates the view from our balcony. We took the tram car up to the top and the cog railway back down, which was a bit of a disappointment since the train goes through a tunnel for the upper half of the trip.

July 5 - Rothen o. d. Tauber, Germany We took the guidebook's advice and traveled the Romantische Strasse here to this heavily touristed town. The route was a major disappointment and the town a moderate one. All of the tourists must come in on busses and eat at their own hotels because there are few restaurants and the tour busses start loading at 4 am outside our window. You can give this one a miss.

July 6 - Transit day along the Neckar River. Enjoyed watching the freight boats on the river.

July 7 - Wiesloch, Germany, south of Heidelberg. In the middle of the day, we visited Heidelberg along with half the other tourists in Germany. Too modern for our tastes -- early 1700s? The downpour that drove us back to the car may have colored our opinion but you can give this one a miss also. The day was redeemed by our visit with Brian and Sindhu whom we had met in Portugal and who were, I'm sure, quite surprised when we took them up on their invitation to visit. Sindhu's delightful Indian meal was a welcome treat.

July 8 - 13 Barr, France, just south of Strasbourg. Way ahead of schedule, we fled back to France to kill some time before our next commitment. As we had found three years ago, the Alsace is a wonderful place to kill time. We visited Strasbourg which is a surprisingly beautiful city and also made a day trip back across the Rhine to enjoy the Black Forest.

July 13 - 17 Nuremberg, Germany. We are here along with a couple of fellow model railroaders from Phoenix to attend the LGB 125 birthday festival, about which more later. Nice walled city but like all cities, too noisy and hectic. Having a good time. More later.

This has been the year of the World Cup hosted by Germany. You would have to either be an American or be living under a rock to have missed this. We have been trying to follow the competition despite the fact that, as Americans, we understand nothing about the game. By watching every match that we could, we have learned a few (very few) things and in the process have developed a thorough appreciation for the athleticism involved in running up and down the field for two 45-minute halves, maybe more if overtime is involved, and managing to "handle" the ball without touching it with your hands at the same time. I had no idea that it was possible to direct the ball with such finesse and accuracy using the head or the shoulder or the thigh. These are motor skills with which I totally fail to identify but which are nonetheless admirable.

As Americans, our personal stake in the outcome of the competition was rapidly eliminated so we were free to root for whomever, which generally meant that we were on the side of whichever country we were in at the moment. We were in France to cheer for Les Bleues when they defeated Spain (for whom we had cheered when they won the European Cup competition.) We were in Italy to cheer for the Azzurris when they defeated Ukraine. Both times, the victory was celebrated by much cheering and drive-by horn-honking, leaving no doubt as to the winning team. We were also in Germany for their game against Italy. We fell asleep before the extra-time game was over, but the silence in the night told us all we needed to know about who won that one.

It´s hard for Americans to understand how seriously football is taken in the rest of the world. It´s so much more than the World Series, the Final Four or the Superbowl. All it takes to establish instant rapport is to mention something about the national team. The desk clerk or the bartender is immediately on a closer footing with us, and we are no longer just those American tourists. Or French tourists: We were stopped at a traffic light in Germany after the defeat of Germany that determined that the final match would be Italy and France. The German truck driver in the next lane leaned out of his window and yelled "Allez France!" and smiled and waved. I returned the wave, happy to be part of the scene, at least for a moment.