Archive for September, 2009

Under the Tuscan Sun

Monday, September 28th, 2009

(I know, I know….but I couldn’t resist the title.) When I returned from the summer in Canada, Markus reminded me that 2 years ago we had given his father a GC for a travel agent to encourage him to visit us in Canada. He never came, and the certificate was set to expire in October. Markus parents didn’t feel like taking a holiday (or were just being kind and let us have it), so Markus and I were forced to come up with some travel plans. Poor us.

We decided that it would be better to drive somewhere, and spend the GC on a hotel instead of airplane fares. (And frankly, I was none too keen to get back on a plane after my busy traveling summer.) Through the magic of the Internet and a helpful travel agent, Markus found the Tuscan Isola D’Elba, best known as the island where Napoleon was exiled.

Last Friday the three of us piled into the minivan and headed south (and a bit west.) I love the Italian countryside. You drive out of the mountains and then it is all rolling hills and centuries-old farmhouses.

After a six-hour drive we ended up at the port city of Piobino. The hour-long ferry ride went by quickly, especially as they have a skookum play area for children.

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As we approached Elba it became clear that this small island (150km of coastline) is very hilly and has some serious history. A large tiered wall, clearly several hundred years old, surrounding one of the first towns we saw. Beautiful and Mama Mia-style Mediterranean buildings line the shore.

Elba, as seen from the ferry

Elba, as seen from the ferry

Elba from the ferry

One of the Elba villages

Close-up of one of the villages with old city wall

Close-up of one of the villages with old city wall

My first glimpse of the port town after we got off the ferry made me start wondering what our accommodation would be like, as it was a bit derelict looking. However, after a day or two on the island, I came to realize that approximately 90% of the buildings were in need of a good paint, and that people obviously abandoned their junk  (old cars, playground equipment, etc.) haphazardly. It was just something to be overlooked, as it in no way affected the quality of anything. Or even much impeded the view, as everywhere you look you can see beauty: the expansive ocean surrounded by craggy rocks and hillside villages; tall palm trees and those crazy cacti with the flat leaves like ping-pong paddles; vines heavy with wine grapes. Magic.

View from the hotel grounds

View from the hotel grounds

The resort where we are staying is past their high-season, so they upgraded us to a junior suite with a separate area for Annie to sleep. Very nice. And unsurprisingly…since we are in Italy, and since I have met Markus and know he wouldn’t choose anything different…the food here is fantastic. We are on a package called half-board, which means that we have breakfast and dinner at the hotel everyday. The breakfast is a well-equipped spread, including at least one dessert. For breakfast.

Dinner is a daily-changing, four-course affair, with three or four choices for each course: appetizer, pasta course (or risotto), main course and dessert. Fresh seafood, well-cooked meat, nicely blended flavours, and the pasta. The pasta! Fresh-made with delicate pesto, fresh prawns, creamy cheeses. Why can’t N.A.ers do pizza or pasta correctly? It is one of life’s great mysteries. Although I guess just as well, or it wouldn’t seem so special when you do get a chance to travel. (I can now believe that Elizabeth Gilbert gained 25 pounds during her three-month stint in the Italian “Eat” part of “Eat, Pray, Love.”)

And I am enjoying the local Elba wine as well. Amusingly, one night I decided not to drink, and the server asked several times, quite confused, “You don’t want any wine with dinner? No wine?” Clearly, this is an anomaly in Italy.

So far the days have been all about swimming and lounging, since the 30°C weather precludes much else. Two days on the beach and one at the pool hotel. The beach we have gone to both days (there are many to choose from) is great. Our hotel has a sister beach-side hotel, so we get a discount on the lounge chairs and parking. There are a few children still around, but mostly Annie has been playing and swimming with us. Just so much fun to have a relaxing family holiday.

View from the beach

View from the beach

Although a bit cautious at first, by the first afternoon Annie was swimming like a fish in the ocean. Hours are spent in the water, which is perfect for kids as the sandy incline goes out for ages. As you can see, Markus’ parents decked Annie out in a very Italian-appropriate bikini. I usually go for the full SPF body armour but, as they say, “when in Rome”…or 400 kilometers from Rome as is the current situation.

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The hotel pool is freezing, much colder than the ocean. But once we heated up in the sun, it felt nice.

Hotel and pool

Hotel and pool

There is a large grassy area, comfy lounge chairs, and an exceptionally friendly staff. I’m learning a few Italian words, but get by quite well using mostly my German, as there are far more German tourists here (Austrian, German and an unexpectedly large contingent from Switzerland) than English-speaking visitors.

Our vacation is only five days plus the two travel days, but we are already happy and relaxed. We will hopefully make it to Napoleon’s residence for a look back in time, but otherwise more of the same in on the agenda for the last two days. An unexpected welcome surprise to round out our summer.

Ciao!

Almabtrieb und Landesumzug, 2009

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

There are few weekends here where there isn’t something going on either in Innsbruck or in one of the neighbouring towns. Pretty much anything is taken as a reason to gather outside, drink beer, eat deep fried cheese and sausages, play traditional Austria tunes and…drink beer.

This weekend we fit in two festivals. The first, on Saturday, was in Kufstein. The festival is a celebration of the cows being taken down from their alpine summer home back to the farms. “Look, the cows are coming! Let’s sing, eat and drink!!” Cracks me up.

The farmers dress their prized bovines in floral headdresses and huge cowbells and parade them through the city center. My friend, Nicole, caught the action on her cell phone video.

Almabtreib from Hillary Samson on Vimeo.

The other festival was a 200-year celebration of Andreas Hofer. Hofer is a huge hero here, as he and his army of pitchfork-carrying farmers pushed back Napoleon’s troops. A few times. The result of these battles (eventually lost by Hofer’s troops) was that Sudtirol became a part of Italy. The parade included several groups and banners calling for the reintegration of Sudtirol into Austria. This part of Italy even has a “distinct society” status. All very Quebec, right down to the protest bombings in the 1960’s. Markus tells me that the Italian police weren’t too fussed about giving the suspected rebels a fair trial at that time. They just never came home.

The parade was massive. 26,000 participants marched through downtown Innsbruck for four hours in front of about 50,000 spectators. Given that Greater Innsbruck has only 350,000 residents, this is an impressive turnout.

The traditional costumes are always interesting to see and Annie loved the music. The highlight of the parade was the carrying of a giant crown of iron thorns on the shoulders of 20 men to represent the suffering of the Sudtirolers. Apparently this caused quite the controversy in the past, so the thorns are now covered with red roses. In celebration of the year, 2009 roses were used to beautify the crown. Very impressive.

Our pictures weren’t great, but you can see 44 images of the parade here on the local newspaper’s website.

Another highlight for me was taking Annie to the start of the evening festivities in the square behind the hotel. A band was playing traditional music that literally everyone in the crowd knew and sang along to. Annie and her cousin, Lili, joined the dirndl and lederhosen-outfitted couples and were dancing queens for over an hour. Sadly, no pictures or videos but, trust me, it was cute, cute, cute.

I’m sure there is more going on next weekend, but on Friday we are off to the island of Elba, Italy (between the mainland and Corsica) for 6 days. But more on that later…

Sugar and Spice…and a dash of puppy dogs tail

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

Annie is a delicious mix of personality traits. She is pink ballerina, twirly dancing, kiss and cuddle her dolls, sensitive heart one minute, and bam-bam, chaos, screaming-wildly-running the next.

When Annie emerged from her room this morning, it wasn’t hard to tell which side was on show today.

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You make me smile, my love.

Wee, Wee, Wee, All the Way Home

Friday, September 4th, 2009

My brother, Andy, and I just finished a Skype chat. He lives in Korea with his beautiful wife in their home they built themselves. I haven’t seen him in too long so we try to connect whenever we can using the magic of the Internet.

So I mention that I am home safely and he asks if Austria feels like my home. I reply, well, Markus is here and I don’t need to live out of suitcases, so in that way it is home. But there is no denying I have the feeling of one foot on the dock and one foot in the boat and whoa what is going to happen next? I feel  disconnected, which, I admit, could be due mainly to the jetlag. But still.

Happily, the trip was uneventful. Although I am always a stressy traveller (and packer), the long flight doesn’t phase me in the least anymore. And the charter airline, Air Berlin, was just fine. We had a pillow and blanket and two to-be-expected gross meals, so all the basics were covered. The seats were a bit squishy, but better than Air Transat from what I remember. And all for €500 for the both of us. I brought the portable DVD player for Annie and the computer for me, so didn’t miss the in-seat entertainment too much. Markus and cousin Lili picked us up in Munich and, except for a missing stroller (that thing always goes missing…very old and well-used, so we aren’t worried if it doesn’t find its way home), everything went smoothly. Annie was over the moon to see Lili and they laughed and joked until Annie (and I) conked out in the car on the 2-hour drive back to Innsbruck.

Of course there are lots of things I’ll miss about my first and always home, Canada. Friends and family at the top of the list, of course. Speaking English a close second. (I immediately felt that anxiety of speaking German as soon as we landed in Dusseldorf. But I was able to get through the basics with Lili, who doesn’t really speak English yet, so I haven’t lost as much as I feared.) Shopping for craft supplies and English books (both adult and children). Actually, shopping in general. I’m really showing my middle-class North American colours, but I love going to huge stores that carry everything and just browsing and shopping and walking out with scrapbook paper, Kleenex, Tylenol, make-up, bread and magazines all from the same store. That just doesn’t exists here. (The above list is at least three, if not four, stores to complete.) And the ocean. Oh my beloved ocean. It has a unique place in my soul and I was so thankful that I spent time near the water both in Victoria and Vancouver.

I’m sure I’ll settle in again here pretty quickly though. The mountains are still, and always, stunning to me. The bread and cheese and pizza (oh the pizza) are calling. The bells chiming throughout the day sound of ancient times and something unchanging. And all the pretty people dressed in their beautiful clothes make me feel excited about hopefully making some money in this country so I can add to my beginnings of a Euro wardrobe.

Sometime I wonder what the hell I am doing here, but I’m sure (sure? maybe hopeful) it will all become clear in the fullness of time. And until then, the adventure continues.