Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Plans 2012

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

Just pretend I wrote a great post about how relaxing and pleasant our holidays were, with lots of sweet pictures of family laughing around the tree, baking cookies and frolicking in the snow.

Now, onto the real news.

Our plans are almost all set for moving back to Canada. Flights are booked for January 31st.  That is right…only about three weeks left to go for our Euro-adventure.

After spending hours (days really) scouring Craigslist and every other housing-related website, we decided on where to live. We have sublet a furnished apartment for six months about a 15 minute bus-ride away from downtown Vancouver. (We don’t know when we will get a car, so far afield wasn’t an option.) It is in a great neighborhood (so my Vancouver friends assure me) that is good for families.

As soon as the ink was signed on the contract, I contacted the local school. After a friendly but non-committal run-around by the admin person, I very plainly asked, “Is there anyone in the school who might actually know if there is space for a Kindergarten child?” I was transferred to the principal. Principal was lovely and, indeed, they have a spot for a child at this moment, with no expectation that it will be filled before February. Yeah! The closest school (by quite a margin) is a French Immersion elementary. I’ve always wanted to have Annie in French Immersion, although part of me feels like one of those über-pushy parents making my child learn three languages. But I also believe, especially after my experience here, that one of the greatest gifts to give a child of this beautiful, interconnected world is the opportunity to learn another language.

It is possibly only for Kindergarten in any case, as we have no idea what area we will live in for the long(ish) term. But I’ll deal with that later. “One step at a time” is my new universe-forced motto.

I’m so, so (so!) excited about returning to more regular work. One contract is all lined up and I’ll know about the other one in the next week or so. I’m enjoying working for small, young companies owned by truly great people. I’m learning a lot and love not getting caught up in corporate culture. I may have to return to that someday, and do miss the stability and, you know, a benefits plan, but for now I’m enjoying the excitement and craziness and humanity of it all.

And of course, I just can’t wait to see my friends and family. Every time I send an email telling another friend when I’ll be back, I’m just so overwhelmed with the warmth and welcoming sentiments. (Remind me…why did I leave??) On the other side, it will mean saying goodbye to good friends here. But I’m sure my adventures in Europe aren’t over, so I’ll be seeing them again.

Although it has been a life-changing adventure the last three years, I’m ready to come home.



Thursday, November 10th, 2011

I am dog tired tonight, so this blog post is going to be less than creative, I’m sure.

I didn’t know alot about Hamburg a few months ago, but two of my friends recently discovered love interests in the city, and both raved about it. I was curious.

Sadly, my schedule didn’t leave me much time to look around. The British Columbian trade commissioner in Hamburg picked me up about 15 minutes after I got into my hotel room and drove me around some of the more beautiful parts of the city. There are two inner-city lakes and lovely wide and green parks. Mostly I noticed the houses near the river. Huge mansions a few hundred years old line the streets and are just stunning. Obviously, the city isn’t hurting for money.

I was then whisked off to the Business Club Hamburg, where we spent quite a while getting set up. I don’t mind public speaking as a concept, but I do get very nervous a few minutes before my talk these days. Maybe I’m just out of practice. I spoke for about 20 minutes and then had varying success answering some tough questions from the audience.

After the presentation I did end up having several people come up to me to learn more, so that was positive. I stayed until midnight chatting with some interesting people I met.

The next morning after a couple of hours of reading in bed (lovely!) I was pinged to go for a coffee meeting. I rushed to get ready and check-out and then headed back downtown. Luckily the subway system in Hamburg is clear and relatively easy. (Certainly compared to London, which I find very tricky.) We talked shop for about an hour and then I went straight to the airport.

A whirlwind 36 hours, but worth it. I look forward to going back to the city when I have more time.


Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Annie and Markus went for what I’m pretty sure is the last ski of the season on Sunday. (With our string of 20+ degree days, I’m done with skiing so enjoyed a blissful day at home alone.) This prompted me to record one of our interesting adventures this winter, which got lost in the dearth of posts the last few months. (Can something get lost in a dearth?) Anyhoo…

One Sunday we drove out to Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany. (Not, Markus was quick to point out, even close to the highest point in Austria.) Our season ski passes let us go on the cable car for free, but we had to pay for skiing. I chose to sit it out and spend a few hours enjoying the view.

It really is a long way up.

We started here.

And then went up…

…and up…

…and up…

…and up…

…and up.

At the top are several restaurants, shops, a small museum focused on the history of mountain climbing and lots and lots of massive picture windows and viewing platforms.

Annie and Markus bought their ski passes and went on there way.

Zugspitze: highest mountain and highest ski region in Germany.

The reason that our ski passes didn’t work is that the cable car is in Austria but the ski region is in Germany; the boarder runs right through the mountain peak. So if you go out one of the doors you leave Austria…

…and enter Germany.

Even after almost three years here I still think the proximity of all these countries to each other is so cool.

Just into Germany there is an old restaurant (closed when we were there.) Here is the door:

Wait a minute; what does that sign say?

That’s right. Built in 1897. 3000 meters up a mountain. Maybe it doesn’t compare to the pyramids, but I’m still mighty impressed.

This 14 foot high, gilded iron cross was erected on the mountain’s summit in 1851, hauled up there on foot as the first cable car wasn’t built until 1926.

I’m not sure what drives people to explore, discover and build in the most unlikely of places. But I’m glad they do, as I had an awesome day.

48 Hours of Fantastico!

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

Mom was here for a wonderful three week visit! This trip Mom and I decided to travel on our own for a couple of days and explore Venice. Neither of us had ever been there, and as it is only a 5-hour train ride from Innsbruck, it seemed like a great idea.

And was it ever! Venice is nothing like anywhere else I have been in the world. We had a spectacular time and can’t believe we packed so much into two days.

After the train arrived we walked through the station direct to the Grand Canal, which is the main water artery that snakes through Venice feeding into the smaller canals throughout the city. Here were our first visuals:

We managed to hop onto the correct ferry and made our way to the stop nearest our hotel.

Here you can see the ferry that is Venice's main transportation

Most of the sidewalks are narrow and windy, (does one call them “streets” if it is a city without cars?) but luckily we had a good map and a fairly straight-forward route to our hotel. The family-run hotel we had booked over the Internet worked out well. (Thank you Trip Advisor guest reviews!) I think due to our very last-minute booking, we were upgraded to an apartment that was in another building overlooking the canal. We didn’t spend much time in our spacious room, but it was fun to peer down on the gondolas and wake up in the morning to the chatter of boat operators as they hauled luggage and laundry and groceries throughout the city.

Love the high arched bridges

Gondola passing under our window

It amazes me that all of the necessary business of a bustling city is accomplished on these narrow waterways

As we were in the city for exactly 48 hours, we spent our first lunch going through brochures to plan our itinerary. Mom and I thankfully were completely of the same mind in terms of what we wanted to see and do. Touristy gondola ride? Absolutely! World famous cathedral? Only if we have time. (We have both been lucky enough in our lives to already have toured about 8 zillion historical churches and cathedrals.)

So after a walk through the main tourist plaza, St. Mark’s, we took a 30-min gondola ride. It was fantastic. The gondoliers are all male, dressed as you would expect in striped shirts, and exceptionally skilled. They can pass within millimeters of another boat or a wall without hitting anything.

Mom and I in head out in a 6-person gondola

View from the water

Creative marketing to the tourists floating by

From the gondola it is apparent how dilapidated the outside of the buildings are, wearing away from the constant movement of the water. It must be a huge adventure to even paint these buildings, never mind repair them.

We had been traveling since 5 a.m. (in order to take the more direct train), so after our ride we poked around the shops, had dinner and returned to our room.

The central city of Venice has a population of 60,000 people and I would guess 98.7% of them are affected in some way by tourism. I almost exclusively heard English during our stay here. Even our first night of meals in the touristy area was merely O.K., which surprised me because I’ve been to highway stops in Italy that produced tasty pasta and pizza. I guess when you know almost no-one is returning, you don’t try very hard.

I kept trying to image what this amazing place must have been like 150 years ago…or 500 years ago for that matter. A major center for trade and commerce and culture, filled with the riches of the world. A harsh life too at times, no doubt, subject to the weather in unique and challenging ways.

Our second day’s planned walking tour was flooded out. We were very lucky in that the day before we came there was over a meter of water covering the square. We just had a fairly shallow layer that only lasted until noon. There are table-like pathways set up to get through the plaza, staff wear rubber boots and some brave tourists even take their shoes off and wade through the murky water.

Waiting in line to see the Basilica

Waiters in tuxes and waders

Instead of our tour we spent a couple of hours taking the audio tour of the Doge’s Palace, which we were very impressed with. The Gothic architecture is awe-inspiring and the artwork is brilliant. Our only problem was as we were ready to leave, I took a wrong turn and we was sucked down into the labyrinth of prison cells that span the cellars of the building. A bit disturbing. My photos weren’t great of the Palace, so here are a few images from the official website:

This room was full of historic globes and maps


After a tasty pizza lunch we walked towards another area of the city where the Accedamia is located. The museum itself wasn’t our favourite, although of course interesting, as it housed almost exclusively large religious paintings. We were, however, happy to see a bit more of a residential area of the city with school children and babies in strollers walking by.

Then more shopping, buying Murano glass jewelry and embroidered linen, two things Venice is famous for. The next time I go back I’m going to take a tour of the Murano glass factory. I’m sure I’ll find it fascinating.

Before dinner we went up the bell tower in St. Mark’s Square, which at the time I thought was too expensive and something we probably could have passed on. However, now that I’m home I’m happy to have the pictures of the spectacular view.

Bell tower

All that and not a single car!

Beautiful panorama

One of the Venitian Islands

After a rest at the hotel we found a very tasty restaurant to make up for the night before and then talked and walked down by the water. Beautiful with all the lights.

Friday morning we didn’t leave until noon, so we actually decided to check out St. Mark’s Basilica and I’m sure glad we did! It, like so much else in Venice, was different than anything I’ve seen. There is tile everywhere and the religious depictions are all made from mosaic glass. Stunningly beautiful.

Then back on the train through the pretty Italian countryside and home to recover from our adventure. What a great time! And Mom and I travelled really well together, which is important since we are hoping to spend a week in Scotland to check out our family roots sometime in the next year.

For all the ups and downs of the last two years, I won’t ever regret this time living in Europe because of the travelling I’ve done. I feel blessed and enlightened and a better person for it. And I also know that even if we return to Canada, I’ll be brave enough to keep experiencing more of the world and be able to show it off to Annie as she gets older. And that is a real gift.

Wild Beauty

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

The marketing line for Montenegro is “wild beauty”, and it is clear that this is a well-chosen descriptor on the first drive from the airport. The Black Hills are rugged with brush, cactus and the dusty green of olive trees. The roads are windy and steep, offering a spectacular view of the large lake, mountains and, of course, the ocean.

Annie and I went to Montenegro in the middle of August to spend a week with my friend, Ana. Ana was born in Montenegro, grew up mostly in Belgrade and lived the last 16 years of her life in Russia. (Her family knew the writing was on the wall when Milosevic came to power.) Ana has a place in her birth-land and kindly invited us for a holiday.

Ana has set her apartment up to have her own main living area and then a separate guest apartment with a kitchen, bath and balcony. What luxury!

Here is the view from “our” balcony, nearing sunset:

The beaches are rocky, instead of sandy. We did travel one day to a sandy beach and it made me appreciate the stones…no sand in clothes, food, or cameras (yikes! Thank goodness I was able to blow it out of the lens over a couple of days.) Although of course Annie loved the swimming and playground!

The first day we just enjoyed the beach near Ana’s place. We borrowed a car floaty thing that was perfect for Annie to swim around with. The water was colder than I had anticipated, which I was very thankful for as every day was between 33 and 37 degrees.

Ana in the sun

The next day we caught a boat and went to an area called Sveti Stefan (St. Stephen), which was near a small island that had been built out entirely for a hotel.

Sveti Stefan from the water. I love the way the rocks look layered.

And from the shore

Cute Annie and lookin' good Ana hamming it up.

After a couple of hours in the sun we took a walk over to the former royal summer residence, also now a hotel. It was a beautiful walk through a more lush woods ending in the manicured lawn and sheltered cove that was well-chosen by the royalty.

Me in my cover up and big floppy hat to ward off that evil sun. No wonder I have to take vitamin D drops!

Former royal summer residence with private beach

The following day Ana’s mom and niece, Zorka, came to visit. Zorka is 5 years old and Annie was happy to have a playmate. Zorka’s family lives in New York but they spend the summers at her grandparents summer home on the other side of the shore from Ana. The girls had some squabbles (Zorka has three older siblings and Annie isn’t used to being teased) but overall it was awesome for her and me that she was occupied with a friend.

A rousing game of the Serbian version of Ring Around the Rosie.

Ana’s mom is absolutely lovely (although we really couldn’t speak to each other) and an amazing cook! I now know where Ana gets her culinary skills. Did we ever eat well over the week. (The other reason for the full body cover up!)

We also took the opportunity to learn a few words in Serbian, which of course Annie picked up much easier than me and could pronounce with no problem.

Zorka and Ana's Mom

The last night we went for a drive around some of the shoreline. We decided to go for dinner at a restaurant that Ana has been going to with her family since she was a child, called Stari Mlin (Old Mill). It is nested in the trees by the water and specializes in, as expected, fish. There is a trout pond that elicited a delightful story from Ana. Many years ago when someone ordered the trout, the father or mother would call to their daughter “Marica, two trout.” Marcia, as wee lass at the the time, would run to the trout pond, grab her net, scoop out the trout (never missing) and crack their heads over her knee. Now that is fresh fish. The trout pond is still there, but I understand the on-request catching no longer happens.

Trout pond

We had a spectacular meal and then headed off to walk through the lit streets of Kotor. On the way we passed the old mountain wall, 16 km snaking up the hill.

Kotor is a city with roots back to 168 BC. The buildings and walls and narrow streets are from the Middle Ages. It is best to go at night with the lovely lights sparkling off the water. My step-father Drew also went to Kotor on a side-trip during a volunteer stint in Belgrade and has very fond memories. Sometimes the awe of what is man-made can grab me just as much as natural wonders.

On the other side, though, there are parts of Montenegro that are still very much developing. The shoreline is well built-out, especially in the last few years with Russians purchasing a great deal of property. But the local people are still coming to terms with what it means to live in a free market economy. They sell land off, mostly to Russians, and then take the money and build large three-storey homes more in-land. Except the money runs out before the house is finished. We frequently passed these half-finished homes, obviously not worked on for months or years. (Oh wait, spending more money than you have? Maybe they have caught on exactly to the free-market economy.)

The rest of our trip was relaxing on the beach, going for late-night walks on the very bustling boardwalk, and eating amazing food, both home-cooked and at restaurants (totally delicious pizza! As good as anything I’ve had, even in Italy).

Ana, I hope we didn’t wear out our welcome, as we would love to come again next year!

The Secret to a Successful Visit

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

For several months I dreamed of going home to celebrate my mom’s birthday. I was more than ready for a visit to the homeland, and I also thought that this would be a nice acknowledgment of all my mom has done for me over the years.

We only had about two weeks, as I was going to a wedding in Paris at the end of May. Last summer’s visit wasn’t as smooth as I had hoped, and I figured that one of the challenges was trying to pack visits to Winnipeg, three cottages, Victoria and Vancouver into one long trip. Turns out, that was about right.

This trip was so much fun. Both Annie and I had an abundance of time with grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and good friends.  The pace was relatively relaxed and except for a tumble off the bed that resulted in an uneventful check up at the hospital and one quiet day (sadly missing a visit with elementary-school friend Karen and her family) everything went well. Mom and Drew volunteered loads of babysitting time, so I was able to see almost all of my friends who still call Winnipeg home. I even took some time to visit my old high-school, St. John’s Ravenscourt, after not setting foot in the place for 24 years. It was really fun and I ran into 4 or 5 teachers from my day. Very nostalgic.

But of course, the most important part of the trip was celebrating Mom’s birthday. Drew, Mom, Annie, Aunt Judy and I went out for a celebratory lunch on the actual birthday, and then Bruce’s family came over on the Sunday for dinner. Mom didn’t want a big party, so we had a lovely, relaxing time with the family.

Happy Birthday Mom! Have a most wonderful year.

Making wishes.

Making wishes.

Annie gets in on the action opening Nana's gifts.

Annie gets in on the action opening Nana's gifts. I love how they choose the same colour outfits to wear!

Throughout the trip Mom had some fun adventures with Annie…

Buying books at McNally Robinson.

Buying books at McNally Robinson.

Touring the hands-on children's museum at The Forks

Touring the hands-on children's museum at The Forks


Going to the zoo with cousins Paige and Devon

Going to the zoo with cousins Paige and Devon

And, of course, eating ice-cream and that most famous Winnipeg spot, the BDI. As you can see from the clothes, it wasn't that warm...but what has that to do with eating ice-cream?

And, of course, eating ice-cream at that most famous Winnipeg spot, the BDI. As you can see from the clothes, it wasn't that warm...but what has that to do with eating ice-cream?

Grandpa Drew had lots of time with Annie, much to her delight. They had an especially great time digging, both in the garden…


…and at the playground.


I was very thankful that my dad and Jocelyn were able to spend some time with us as well. They had just returned from wintering in Phoenix and were off to open up the cottage at Lake of the Woods. But we did manage to connect for a meal and a walk around The Forks.

Annie hamming it up with the grandparents.

Annie hamming it up with the grandparents.

Since we focused on staying in one place, we were able to visit good friends Lori, Shawna and their little one, Matheson, a few times. Annie is great with smaller children and we all enjoyed the time together. Plus the girls are adorable! Must be that red hair.

Matheson and Annie bonding.
Matheson and Annie bonding.
I love this photo!
I love this photo!
Matheson, Shawna and Lori.
Matheson, Shawna and Lori.

By complete luck, my friend Dawn, who I have known since Kindergarten, was in town from Carnduff, Sk with her three kids. We hooked up with her family as well as her sister Tracey and her daughter for a good play in the park and yet another trip to the BDI. I forgot my camera for this one, so will have to fill in the shots later. But Dawn and her children did also come to the Norwood Community Club where we were having a Mother’s Day Pancake breakfast, so we got another chance to see each other.

Dawn, Annie and Leah

Dawn, Annie and Leah





Annie also had round one of her birthday. (Round two with the class was on the actual birthday, round three with Austrian family is this week and round four with the friends is next Friday. Needless to say I’m going to figure this out better for next year.) But the party did let Annie and I have another good time with family and friends.

My brother Bruce's family (Sylvia, Bruce, Paige, Devon with Annie and I...and new favourite Dora doll.)

My brother Bruce's family (Sylvia, Bruce, Paige, Devon with Annie and I...and new favourite Dora doll.)

Mom with two of her three children. Now that I'm a mom who loves picking up Annie every day, I realize how strange it must have felt when we all ended up towering over her.

Mom, Bruce and I. Now that I'm a mom who loves picking up Annie every day, I realize how strange it must have felt when we all ended up towering over her.

Annie gets her cheer on with her new pom-poms Sylvia and I found at a discount warehouse. (Where perhaps some scrapbooking supplies were also purchased.)

Annie gets her cheer on with her new pom-poms Sylvia and I found at a discount warehouse. (Where perhaps some scrapbooking supplies were also purchased.)

My wish and goal is to make it to the West Coast before Christmas to visit friends and family there. Here’s hoping for another fantastic Canadian visit.

Simply Lovely Days

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

As things head into a time of major change and uncertainty, (six weeks to go before we have no income and nowhere to live. But who’s worrying?) I’m trying to appreciate my non-working status a bit more.

Last week the warm winds blew in and so, after dropping Annie off at Kindergarten, I decided to go for a hike. I strolled by the river and then wound my way up one side of the mountain. It was just stunning. After only about 15 minutes hiking the view of the river, city and the breathtaking Alps were all before me. That is one of the insanely spectacular things about living in a valley; you hike up one side only to get an even better view of the range on the other side. Snow-peaked and ragged and awe-inspring. I was only gone about three hours, but it felt like a real break.

And then on Sunday I got a Skype message from my friend Nicole. The last time we had gone skiing together she had grabbed my skis by accident. (Not really that surprising, as “my” skis are Nicole’s old skis that she had for a number of years.) So now her and her husband were away on a week’s ski holiday without her skis. She was going to take the train back up to Innsbruck and switch, but hey…I’m not working, I have time, so I offered to drive them down.  Great, she exclaimed, I’ll by you a day’s ski pass and we can all go skiing together. I was so in.

Nicole and Tom were down in Italy at the Dolomites, about one and a half hours south of Innsbruck. After getting a wee bit lost, I met them in the parking lot and we layered up (it is cold again this week) and hit the gondola. The Dolomites are the perfect ski area for a sort-of beginner like me. Most of the runs are on wide bowls, not too steep with no danger of death-defining edges to fall off of.

But what was really great was how very, very beautiful it was. I must have said “What a view!” about a thousand times. Enough to make Tom want to hit me, I’m sure. The mountains are more rugged at the top than the Austrian Alps, with more rolling hills in between, so it was different kind of beauty for me to experience.

I didn’t have the camera (cameras and winter sports are not compatible, we discovered a couple of years ago) so searched for some shots of the area on Google. Here is what I found that was closest to what I experienced:

Dolomites, Italy


And just to add to the Rockwellian picture-perfectness of it all, every few minutes we would pass Haflingers pulling traditional sleds with tourists bundled in woollen blankets.


Skiing with Tom and Nicole is also very civilized. After about an hour we stopped on one of the gazillions of mountain-side Hütten and had a drink. Hot tea with rum made the rest of the morning pass by with a warm glow. For lunch we skied to a restaurant Nicole had scouted out the day before. I ordered house-made pasta (we were in Italy, so of course) with sun-dried tomatoes, Speck and a pile of fresh Arugula on top. Yum, yum and yum.

We talked about how pretty the Dolomites must be in the summer. So I poked around and found these images of the area in warmer weather:



Yeah, I think I’ll be coming back.

After a couple of more hours of skiing I headed home to sort-of make it in time for my evening German class. That is the kind of spur-of-the moment experience that makes all of the challenges of living in a foreign country so completely worth it. And it is these kind of days that remind me that life can be very generous and that it will all, eventually, work out.

Markus Joins My Tick Box

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

As my 40th birthday trip was such a success, we decided to try another to celebrate the start of Markus’ 5th decade. Since my mom was not on hand to watch Annie, we made it a family trip. (Seriously, this post is mostly about Annie, but that is the way it goes with a very cute 3-year-old around to take pictures of.)

Markus scouted out a ski region in the province of Salzburg called Ski Amade that had reports of excellent snow and hundreds of ski runs to choose from. We originally were going to book a package at a hotel that included breakfast, dinner and two 3-day ski passes. But after more internet-poking around, Markus discovered a small apartment on a hobby-farm about 10 minutes from the lift. So instead of €900 for a single hotel room, we paid less than €400 (including ski passes) plus food money that wasn’t much different than we would have spent at home. And that was for a much larger space with a kitchen as well as separate living and sleeping area.

It was a bit of an experiment, this farmhouse accommodation, as they are very popular all over Austria. If this worked out it would be a great and relatively inexpensive option for our family vacations throughout the year.

We drove into the town of Wagrain on Wednesday afternoon, which is an absolutely adorable village with the proud claim that Joseph Mohr, the writer of Stille Nacht, was perish pastor there during the early 1800’s. On arriving at the farmhouse we were greeted by the owner who showed us to our room with this view from the balcony:



The Austrians have a phrase for this kind of snow-covered wonderland: “kitschy-beautiful.” I think it is fitting for this almost over-the-top scene.

All in all we had an absolutely wonderful time. We decided to ski only two days so that we could visit a wellness pool driving back to Innsbruck. We put Annie into half-day ski camps, which she loved. Markus stayed with me for the first couple of hours on the first day making sure I didn’t kill myself with my pathetic ski skills. But the hill he set me up on was very forgiving and the snow was perfect, so I did my own thing for a bit after lunch while he explore more challenging options. The second day I took it a bit easier while Markus went off on his own for over 3 hours of skiing bliss.

Getting ready for a day on the slopes.

Getting ready for a day on the slopes.


On the second day after skiing, Annie was tearing up the floor with her moves at the apres-ski restaurant. (As my friend Nicole often says to me regarding Annie: “Hillary, you’re screwed.”)

Shy she ain't

Shy she ain't

The Solid Gold Dancers live!

The Solid Gold Dancers live!

The birthday itself was rather low-key, as suited Markus. We had cake on Thursday for the official birthday and Annie and I made a card.


Blowing out the candles. (Annie as usual, is featuring her no-pants look frequently seen these days.)

Blowing out the candles. (Annie, as usual, is featuring her no-pants look frequently seen these days.)

In terms of the farmhouse aspect, Annie adored feeding the ponies and bunnies as well as sliding down the snowy sidewalk on her plastic disc.

Crazy kid

Crazy kid




Feeding the rabbits while wearing her ski participation medal, which she didn't take off until...well, she's still wearing it.

It looks like both ski holidays and farmhouse vacations are going to be at the top of our list for the rest of our time in Austria.

Happy 40th Birthday Markus and here’s to a wonderful year ahead!

Ryan and Renata Return!

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

I’m very happy to say that my friends, Ryan and Renata, have returned to Innsbruck from Victoria for another visit. (Actually, I should say Winnipeg, as they came direct from there where they are working on a contract.)

I picked them up in Munich last week and we decided to spend a couple of hours looking at the town. Although we were there only for a short while, we managed to have some glühwein, walk though the old town (which was very busy despite all the stores being closed on a Sunday) and have dinner at the famous Hofbräuhaus beer hall (the epicenter of Oktoberfest and home of the giant beer stein). A nice diversion.

Ryan and Renata in Münchin

Ryan and Renata in Münchin


Keeping warm



As we were reviewing what we wanted to do, it became apparent that I would have my work as guide cut out for me, as we fit in an awful lot last year: Christmas markets; cross-country skiing; downhill skiing; tobogganing; Salzburg; Sud Tirol, Italy; Trento, Italy; hiking; and lots of walking around and shopping. As it is also fun when I get to experience something different, Markus suggested Kitzbühl, which I have yet to visit and only know from the photos of stars skiing there in gossip magazines.

We didn’t see any celebriaty, but enjoyed the town nonetheless. I was expecting an over-the-top place, like Aspen, where every other store sells designer labels, $10,000 watches or trendy art. But, as Markus explained, there are just too many ski resorts in this area to not offer at least a range of prices and options. (Although we did spy a gated community which obviously housed those who could afford the very best.) Overall, a very lovely town.

Old church and graveyard near the city center

Old church and graveyard near the city center

Ryan and Renata in the ancient part of town

Ryan and Renata in the old part of town

The town is highlighted by the Ache river and of course the surrounding mountains.

Kitzbühl is highlighted by the Ache river and of course the surrounding mountains.

Where the wealthy hang out.

Where the wealthy hang out.

For lunch Markus suggested we check out a new hotel, called the Grande Tirolia, which cost €70,000,000 to build. The decor was very trendy, taking inspiration from both its Austrian location and Russian owners, including an entire wall of schnapps bottles, one for each member of the golf club. The Michelin-rated restaurant wasn’t opened for lunch, so we ate in the golf Bistro. Although the design was interesting and relaxing, the food was unfortunately quite bland. But an interesting experience anyway. And the drive around Kitzbühl to reach the hotel was pretty.

Grand Tirolia hotel entry

Grand Tirolia hotel entry

Reception lounge area

Reception lounge area

Ryan and Renata in front of the open kitchen.

Ryan and Renata in front of the open kitchen.

View from the hotel driveway

View from the hotel driveway

I really look forward to going back someday to ski!

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.


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.





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.