Meet Shaun, a 5th generation Lexingtonian who knows everyone who’s anyone in horseracing. He’s been to 30 (count them, 30) Kentucky Derby’s, and runs a poker table attended by those who desire not to be mentioned, but pretty much dominate horseracing. He’s the man who drove us around, sharing the wonderful details that require an NDA, but oh, I see a suspense-thriller taking shape.
About every question posed has an answer where Shaun starts by saying in a low, rolling drawl… “Let ol’ Shaun tell you…” then we get a fantastic ditty about a person, place, event or whatnot. About an hour in, I learn he has the mind of a booky, and started testing him~~
– What happened in the fifth race at Belmont in 1983? – Who won the Kentucky Derby in 2009?
Not only could he recite the winners, but what happened on each corner, who came in second, third and so-on. When I said I didn’t understand the economics behind racing (ergo, with all the costs, does any farm really make money?) he proceeded to give me the PhD-level breakdown on the cost per breeding (actual mating expense) what the newborns then yearlings sell for, how many are sold per year, (by Farm!!), who they sold to, the gross amount per farm, the expenses then net profit. My mind started to melt half-way in. It was like me pretending to be a hedge-fund professional when all I see on the screen are ones and zeros.
The best part? He’s got three sons and a daughter who got her masters and is currently working on her doctorate at Oxford. Can we just say wow—and here he is, giving us the peek at the world behind the world.
It, and he, were, and are awesome.
The farm in this series is one where the owner breeds a variety of horses, but keeps the Clydesdales for fun–and when Shaun is calling a horse–its’ because so many of the thoroughbreds know him, they come when called. He got out just to show us–and sure enough, they came to the fence, and we took turns loving on them.
Another guy joined us who wasn’t much for talking. He was slightly disheveled, crumpled shirt, crazy hair–turns out he’s one of (if not the most) in demand horse trainers in the US. He came because he had a few hours to kill and apparently loves answering questions posed by racing Luddite’s such as myself. But I digress….
It’s not easy being in a city of refuge, for that’s what us “locals” have begun calling Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. When I arrived six years ago, those who’d moved in twenty years prior were still newcomers. Now, if you’ve been here longer than twenty-four months, you practically homesteaded the area.
In case your
grumbling about my grumbling, here’s a few sobering realities.
Finding healthcare is almost impossible. It took me over five months to find a provider for my mother, three months for myself, and when I did, my atheist-like husband literally proclaimed it was divine intervention. Name dropping and referrals from my close friends (surgeons to boot) were no good. The scheduling supervisor told me thirty people had called just that morning, and the previous month, 900 new families were trying to get primary care. (Of course the Kootenai healthcare center is close, robust and has a heli-pad, so that’s a bonus).
The hotels are at capacity. No, this isn’t because of the seasonal tourists. That doesn’t happen for another month. It’s because many residents decided to sell high when city-dwellers were in a panic, fleeing unrest and uncertainty. The prices quadrupled in many cases, the sellers pocketing the cash only to find everyone else had the same idea. No available apartments, condos or home rentals have pushed people flush with cash to the hotels. Those fortunate enough to get a room at the famed Coeur d’Alene Resort (with the floating green and host of American Idol where Katy Perry famously trashed the penthouse, and made it reek of pot), are complaining that they have to wait for room service–albeit with a nice view of the water. My heart bleeds for them. Really.
No contractors/builders available. Those who bought land and want to build are now in a pickle, the combination of no builders and outrageous lumber prices. In a town of 20K which swells to 40K in the summer, only so many builders exist–like six reputable ones. All the others are former landscapers—including the guy who dug out the hole for our pool five years ago. Last year he reinvented himself as “a high-end builder,” and within two months, had three custom home contracts. Yikes. Just last night (Thursday), a young couple who lives two homes from informed us they were selling their 10 acre property because their builder poured the foundation, then bailed to take a higher-end home build across the lake.
And let’s talk construction material costs shall we? A 14 foot 2×4 use to be $9. Now it’s $34, and if it’s available. A sheet of press board was $8. Now it’s $29. Our dear friends from Seattle moved over, bought land in Rathdrum, but their contractor didn’t use a materials (wood) contract. Their costs for wood skyrocked from $27K to over $75K in the four months it took for permitting and HOA approval. But with no end of price increases, they flipped the property and made a $40K profit for those 160 days of waiting. They also extended the contract for their lovely, 3,500 square foot rental home in Spokane Valley (20 minutes across the border in Washington), which is only costing them $2,000 a month.
Permits. When we constructed our out-building (a stand alone structure typically housing farm equipment, or in our case, snow removal rigs and toys), permits took two weeks. Two years ago, it was a three weeks, but twelve months ago, just around Covid hitting, it reached six months. Last month? Almost a year.
Dirt made of gold. Two years ago, a ten acre plot right next to us with 360 views sold for $100k. Today, a 1/3 acre is now between $695-995. Where are we, Green Valley Ranch in Las Vegas, living by billionaires and Celine Dion?
Homes… Five years ago, we looked at properties for my parents for retirement. CDA was a little slice of heaven: 2,000 square foot rambler on 3 acres was $125,000. Three years ago, that same property was up to $175K where homes of that sort hovered…right up until BLM and the “exodus.” That very home was removed, relisted for $375K and two days later, taken off the market and relisted for $600K. It sold. All the quaint little homes that were moderately priced are selling at San Francisco prices, owned by people who don’t even live here, but want the security blanket of a place of refuge. In another case, our engineer friend moved here four years ago from Sacramento California. The total cost for a three-acre plot and building a 3,200 square foot semi-custom home with a detached outbuilding for his toys was…wait for it…$410,000. He felt like he’d won the lottery. Mid-BLM, his neighbor sold his similar home for $1.8M. He’s now at the Best Western Hotel, out of his mind that he can’t afford to replace what he sold. What’s he going to do and where is he going to go? It’s a serious question. The outdoors, overall lower cost of living and safe environment haven’t changed. (To wit: Ghiradelli’s chocolate baking bar is $2.98 here. Over the border in Washington, that same bar is $4.35. Same store–Alberton’s, but different prices).
A few other tidbits: The area has one, count it—1- Costco. It serves about seven towns, because I’m just not sure little enclaves with 14K residents counts as a city. We have one—again 1, Target. Two natural grocery stores. A single drive-through car wash. The lone German food restaurant went out of business three years ago because business was so slow. Does this sound like a thriving metropolis? Now, when you go to one of the few marinas, the wait list is nearly three years according to the GM, who had too much to drink at his partners’ birthday part and was spilling the beans.
Am I annoyed? Not really. I’m more pragmatic than anything. Growth and moving are a part of life. I don’t begrudge people moving away to a better place that to them (e.g. Californians and Arizonians) CDA is practically free. I’ve directly benefitted in strange ways. The hot yoga studio I attend now has a wonderfully gifted yoga instructor from Portland. What irks me is that non-retired folks who own or employed in shops, are cops or firefighters, game wardens or nurses, are so completely priced out of the market forever more, they are being shunted to the middle of nowhere.
Even so, there are over three dozen lakes in a forty-mile radius of CDA, the Canadian border is 89 miles north, and if you get on I-95, you can drive straight down to Las Vegas, going through the amazing fishing and whitewater experience of Hell’s Canyon and other world-famous sites. Heck, just thirty minutes from our home in the St. Maries-St. Joseph’s recreational area which hosts international fishing and hunting groups every year. Hint: if you’re from out of town, call it St. Joe’s area–no one calls it St. Josephs. A sure sign your from out of town.
All waves must come crashing down
If you listen to the real estate agents (nearly 4,000 in a town of 20—yikes!) they’d love you to believe that you must buy now! But what’s to buy? The flood of properties on the market were snapped up at extraordinarily high prices. Today, twelve months later, it’s a different world. The homes are fewer, in less desirable areas and for those of us who watch the market, a definite downward trend of prices is evident. It’s as though the buy-and-hold mentality is being augmented with a realization that a) cities are not burning to the ground with Biden as President, b) a second home near the Canadian border isn’t really required and c) it’s darn cold and lots of snow here in the winter.
The rest of the community members (ergo, those not in real estate) are likening this to what happened in 2008/2009. That’s when many homes in golf course communities like Blackrock sold at record highs, where they remained until just this last year. We looked at a home listed for $1.9M sold and sold in a week for $3M, all cash deal. It was flipped and sold within another week for $6M. The general consensus is the panic-buying spree is over, everyone who purchased will never get their money back and in another decade, will eventually sell underwater.
But what about us, you ask? We are staying put, despite receiving unsoliticed offers of 12X what we paid for this place 6 years ago. One can always create more homes (given money and time) but not views and mountains. Besides, where would we go? We’d have more money in the bank and be homeless.
So to all those still looking to escape to a gorgeously wonderful, safe and amazing area, I say come. Just make sure you bring a tent, a water purifier and food storage and some reading material and lots of patience.
End note: As to finding a primary healthcare provider, I was told that me and Rog just happened to have small problems which apparently pay well but don’t take a lot of time (migraine RX and shoulder injury). In and out, otherwise we’d have been turned down. And yes, healthcare providers are now profiling potential patients, but that’s another blog.
Photos: feature photo- the floating T at the Coeur d’Alene golf course. Photo gallery left to right: a pic from Silver Mt. Ski Resort, elk in our back yard, fly fishing, and a bunch of deer that were tired from trying to swim and rescued by a local fisherman.
An unforgettable experience at the one-of-a-kind Destination day spa
Within the heart of the Villa del Palmar resort in Cancun resides an untouched jungle of magic, Mayan and modern, soothing yet sophisticated, the Spa at the VDP is unlike any other spa I’ve experienced anywhere. In Kyoto Japan, the lines are clean, wood pristine, services and treatments quiet and inspiring. In the hills of Ireland, the experience is rough and real, deep and pressure-filled, but satisfying, like the food and the people. Every culture and experience is unique and unforgettable, but in 32 countries and multiple more resorts just in Mexico, the VDP Spa should be considered a destination of its own, even if you aren’t staying at the resort.
5 star & my top 10
When I love, I mean truly l.o.v.e. a place or experience, I’ll create a short vid. This is my own concoction from materials, and if it looks like a marketing piece, I guess it is, because the place is a destination not to be missed. More on the resort and surrounding areas in future pieces.
Looking down from a top floor room (or any other balcony in the U-shaped resort) a jungle is visible below, but the activity within is shrouded in secrecy. If you weren’t told what lies beneath and within, you’d never know. Never before have I descended into a jungle, the sounds, sights and distractions of the surrounding buildings and boisterous activities evaporating within the silent darkness. I didn’t need to think Zen, it happened without me knowing it. I haven’t personally traveled to the Amazon jungle, but gained an immediate appreciation for the noise-proofing of the arm-length leaves from towering trees, or the short, thick pedals intertwined among the indigenous wood treatment rooms. The check-in reception area is welcoming and gives a sense of privacy, even though it doesn’t have doors or windows. It is literally one with the jungle, as if the designer intended the visitor to begin the transition from the outside, real world to one where indigenous life began.
That pathway from the rest of the resort is just off a main trail. If you don’t look for it, you’ll miss the entrance entirely.
Let the pampering begin
It starts when you sit in the reception area. Well, actually just prior, because a personal attendant walks you to the chair, offers you several options for cleansing/refreshing drinks, places a towel on your head, essentially takes your cell phone (I hid mine, bad me) and lifts my feet to an ottoman. Whether this five-minute respite was to get me into my Zen zone or not, it worked. As much as I wanted to capture pictures and record every step of the experience, removing my device in a clandestine-type of way seemed to defeat the point of relaxation. But I wasn’t ready to disconnect—not yet.
Keep in mind that my photos were clandestine, taken from my cell phone. Any lack of clarity is due to my pics not the place. The reception area.
After two cleansing glasses (of different tastes and consistencies) I was led to the changing area. Replacing my (hotel provided) robe was another, softer version and upon exit, my assistant awaited, leading me to one of several secluded, garden and waterfront areas. It’s special in size and feel; only a few tartan recliners with plush cushions were positioned in front of three different soaking pools, each one different in temperature and design. Beyond these, and to either side is the wall of jungle, the cozy treatment buildings—which are more like luxury huts—were to be seen.
At this point, I was given a face mask of my choosing (lavender with some herb mix) then my assistant placed head and neck herb sacks in position, lifted my feet and proceeded to give each area a bliss-filled rubbing (see the foot sacks in photo above). I was extremely disturbed about five minutes into this when a woman with a thick, southern accent had no such compunction about talking on her cell phone, and it was impossible to tell the attendant to ask her to stop talking in front of her. I endured it, but mentioned this later. Her constant yapping killed my desire to be there a moment longer or use any of the soaking pools. It was a total kill-joy and hopefully the spa becomes militant about a no-cell phone rule.
The good news is the moment I indicated I was ready to leave, we did. My attendant walked me through the jungle on the wooden lanes, the canopies above continuing to block out both the visual and noise of the surrounding hotel. Had I not known where I was, it would have been impossible to tell we had a thousand guests within a quarter mile radius. Each luxury cabanas offer unique services, and I was led to one at the end, the significance made clear. I’d asked for the most “traditional” holistic-Mayan treatment, and this particular cabana was designed for just that. I was introduced to Leticia, a small, warm-skinned woman who smiled broadly, offering that she is in fact, Mayan, and this is a special, sacred experience. I was prepared—or so I thought.
Cabanas (service/treatment rooms) line the walkway, marked by small signs and thatch huts.
We didn’t go in immediately. She asked me to stand still and close my eyes. Other Mayan rituals I’d been a part of require a smoke cleansing. In this case, Leticia softly brushed different parts of my body with specific sand/herb mixtures, chanting/repeating words I couldn’t understand but felt her emotions as she did so. Arms, legs, face, belly…I personally love the smell of indigenous smoke, having been born in Costa Rica and living in Honduras, so it felt familiar and comforting.
I asked to see where the pedicure services were done, and got a peek into this treatment cabana. It was as private and cozy as the others.
At this point, I took a few final photos and put the phone away for good. It was spiritually and emotional at odds with the intent of the spa. It was also required, because we proceeded inside where I laid down and Leticia proceeded the first phase of the treatment. She ran her fingers over my body, feeling the bones and tissues as a good specialists will do, seeking to understand injuries or issues I might have.
The traditional smoke and herbs awaiting for me outside the “Fire” room
At this point, she touched my belly, and it hurt, but not overly so. Leticia mumbled something, but I said it was fine, and she continued (I’m a woman after, and women-things happen. That was all). After this was the scrubbing and cleansing treatment not unlike those in other countries; this difference was this version was local, Mayan soaps and sands, the textures and smells unique to this spa alone. As an aside, I was given a disposable pair of panties and wrap around bra, both easily discarded during the washing stage.
Just one angle of the large interior of the Fire room. Incense was already burning when I arrived, the bed warm and my anticipation high.
The scrub-down was a complete massage in itself, the abrasive texture perfect. Each section was subsequently wrapped so I was kept warm as Leticia transitioned to the next area. When it was complete, she conducted yet another body-pressing exercise, and then a period of quiet silence ensued. It felt like the products were seeping into my skin, my pours and my muscles. I actually thought the massage was going to end there, but no, there was more!
At this point, we were about forty minutes in, and I was on the verge of stressing out because I didn’t want it to end. Leticia didn’t give me time to go worry as she led me to the cabana’s shower where I rinsed off, then resumed my position on the table. If I thought I was on my way to heaven before, when Leticia resumed touching my body, I was sure I’d arrived in Paradise.
The private relaxation area for my cabana, perfect for individuals or couples.
The herbs and oils, lotions and
smoke were a blur, because I didn’t want to keep asking her questions. Muscle
from bone, my body gave way under her skilled fingertips, the thirty minutes of
expertise divine. Only when she turned me over did I experience pain, and that
again between my pelvic area.
“Something is not right,” she
said, her accent thick, but tone concerned enough I cracked open an eye. I’m a
woman, I thought, nothing is ever really right. “This is swollen. It should not
be here.” Now, as much as I admire and think highly of trained experts, I’ve
always been a healthy woman, no uncommon issues plaguing my life, so as
politely as I could, I thanked her, but dismissed her concern. I wanted to get
back to the massage.
“You are tied up,” she said in
somewhat broken English. “Knots and stress,” she said. I almost started
“Oh, no,” I said, “I’m not
stressed out. I just exercise a lot.” Well, then I had to bite my inner lip on
the comment. Recently I’d gained weight around my waist and hadn’t thought much
of it. More writing, less working out, a tummy roll will happen, but I
certainly wasn’t concerned.
Yet Laticia wasn’t letting this
go. She pressed again and I squirmed, asking her not to touch it further. “This
is not good,” she reiterated, lips downturned.
After that, I promptly forgot about the incident, falling right back into the bliss of the moment, enjoying the final sacred aspects of the treatment, the smoke and candles, her chanting and then my final moments of silence. The attendant appeared like a ghost when I was ready to leave, escorting me back to the changing cabana. The checkout still kept the Zen feeling alive, the area dark and quiet until I reached nearly the top of the ramp, where the wood meets concrete, and I was reminded that yes, I was in a resort, but a special one at that.
It’s easy to forget that five minutes away is the beach, where you relax in front of the beach that’s made the Gold Coast famous.
The after effects
Another piece details what occurred three months later. I was in Europe for a six+ week vacation with my husband and two daughters, my stomach feeling progressively tighter, or sort of upset. Going back to my prior comment with Leticia, I just thought “I’m a woman, this too shall pass.” My husband noticed I was eating less, but I attributed this to my monthly cycle. Three weeks in, I was barely eating a thing, and we’d made it through Switzerland and Germany, spending a week in Lake Como as well. As we left for Verona, the pain became crippling, and by the time we arrived in our villa I was seeing spots. As my husband frantically called the doctors, I went fully blind. To keep it short, I ended up being diagnosed with massive tumors, along with a rabid infection. The tumors had been inside me in April, but were much smaller—so much so I didn’t even realize they existed. In Italy, they were the size of an egg and avocado respectively. Six weeks later, when they were removed in the US, one was the size of a cantaloupe, the other a grapefruit. At the spa, I’d simply looked overweight around the middle. At then end, I looked seven months pregnant!
No more of that now, as you can read it elsewhere. The message is this: if you are under the care of an observant, skilled, trained professional, and he or she indicates something is not quite right, don’t be dismissive as I was. The surgery was invasive, the removal producing massive trauma, and while I wasn’t going to have children again, I now no longer have that option, and several vital organs were so damaged due to the severity of my condition, my health will never be the same. Let my experience be a lesson to you, while at the same time, acknowledging the power insightful people could (should?) have on your life.
Two different views of the resort: The pier on the left is where a.m. yoga is held (glorious and free), the right is the many shades of blue. More photos of the resort itself in other articles.
My massage is called the HEALING
RITUAL / TULUM , and you already know Leticia was my therapist.
Others came highly recommended as well, but she was the only person working at
my requested evening appointment (about 5:30 p.m.).
The cabana is called the FUEGO /
FIRE / K´AAK´
Cost: $295 USD. Group discounts are available, and 15% off service specials of $50 dollars are more. For special events, two days advance reservations are recommended as the spa will often create unique give-aways.
What to bring: your best zen-like attitude
A view from one of the upper rooms over the near-invisible spa below. Beyond is a cooler pool with bridge, a dedicated children’s pool and play area. To the left is a secluded, adults-only pool area, and in the center, and to either side, a main, multi-aspect general pool. That’s where the swim-up bars, games and aquatics are held. Beach front cabanas and infinity pools both in private (members-only) and public areas stretch the entire length of the resort.
This is the kind of spa experience I’d recommend to individuals, couples, special occasions (showers, birthdays or other celebrations). Consider it a destination and one-of-a-kind experience on its own and make the effort, even if you are staying at another hotel along the Gold coast in Cancun. I can guarantee you that none other than I’ve experience or heard of even comes close.
As a professional novelist and experienced traveler, I write about places I’ve experienced because I choose to do so, not for hire or payment. My content, visual and written, are independently produced and copyrighted. For info on my books or articles visit sarahgerdes.com, or my author page on amazon.com.
My theme for the
first week of January is the relationship pyramid, because really, isn’t it the
perfect metaphor for a long-term relationship? It’s hard. It makes you sweat. Starting
out, you’re on even ground, optimistic and know with certainty the view from the
top is going to be beautiful. A little bit into the journey, your lungs burn,
eyes dry out, muscles seize up, and quite honestly, those around you are
jostling and cranky; the external influences on your perfect couple-dom diminishing
the moment. Yet you think—anything that’s worth it is hard. It’s the mantra
preached by every therapist and parent around. You keep going…up and up, and finally,
There you are, relationship nirvana is the top of the pyramid. The view is…glorious. For about one minute. The heat is overwhelming, the water bottle has run dry, the noise from others is really loud and you look down, because like love, what goes up inevitably…you know. Goes down.
Life imitating pyramid
Little did I know this creative visual would spring to life on a trip to the Coba Pyramid in the Tulum Ruin region of Cancun. Located about two hours drive south of Central, Coba is one of the few remaining pyramids which are open to climbers. Chitzen Itza and all the others were placed off limits several back, and once there, it’s easy to see why. Beyond the steep incline, the rock is worn down from thousands of visitors. It’s steep. It’s slippery, and even after a great picture taking experience, the journey down is far more treacherous than the climb up ever thought of being.
To give a bit of detail, the road to Coba has long, desolate stretches, yet dotted with a few interesting bits–the trees and local towns unique, even if not inspiring enough for a closer look.
Past Tulum and into the area of Coba is the parking lot, which is close to the entrance, but the pyramid is a couple miles into the jungle. Its dry and arid, unlike Chitzen Itza which is hot and moist. One can cheat and rent a bike (and actually peddle) or rent a taxi, wherein you can sit while someone else peddles. The third option is you walk…all the way in.
Door number three
is what Rog chose, because as you well know from our travels, the motto is: why
take the easy route when we can get exercise? Now before you slay me with comments
about being lazy, you need the context (if you have forgotten). I have walked,
climbed, hiked and sometimes been on my knees around Gods-green-and-lovely-Earth
with this man. And for once, just once, I wanted the easy way. We’d arrived
late (3) which meant we had an hour to walk in, climb and get out. There was no
way. I begged for the 4 bucks US—this still required us to do our own peddling,
not be “full-lazy” as Rog described.
Of course, we were walking as we argued, moving further inland and away from the actual rental zone, all a part of Rog’s evil plan to get us there and make it a moot argument. A third of a mile in, I just went silent, knowing I’d lost the argument. This made Rog go quiet.
We kept walking. Nice trees. Cool ant formations and birds all around us. Trails and paths aside from the main soft-dirt road provided a few options and variety. Yet none of this mattered, by the time, we were half-way in, Rog gave me the silent treatment right back, found a rock and sat down. He refused to budge, and I looked at the time. He wanted to turn around (as I mentioned in the video) and I was having none of that. I told him he could sit and spin if he wanted, but I was taking the girls and going on without him.
To the pyramid
We arrived at the
base, being warned by security we had limited time. They clearly underestimated
the Gerdes girls. Up we went, scurrying like the termites we probably
resembled. It didn’t take ten minutes, mostly because it wasn’t busy at all.
Word to the possible visitor: if you go during rush hour, 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. it’s
so busy you don’t even have the option to hold on to the thick rope in the center,
which makes the climb rather dangerous. Definitely come right at opening or at
the end of the day so you can have room to climb, the ability to hold the room if
required, and lastly, take pictures at the top without the risk of being pushed
off. (Note: no bathroom, water or anything else and the platform area is quite
Instead of enjoying the moment, we look around and see what’s missing. Rog. Dad. Husband. Partner in all things good and bad. It was like winning the argument and losing the relationship, how one can feel victorious after the heat of battle but getting so badly burned you should have thrown the white flag.
At the moment, we realized it was worth nothing, because the three of us wouldn’t ever be able to talk about the “remember when we climbed Coba?” since Rog wasn’t a part of the memory. The heat. The steps. The rude visitors. We all agreed we had but one choice—race down as fast as safely possible, run/jog back to where he was an convince him to come with us.
Relationship–round two (que Rocky theme)
My IG handle is
laughterwithasideofchocolate because laughing gets one so much further in most
circumstances that yelling. So that’s what the girls and I decided to use as a
relationship strategy. To laugh about the fact he was still sitting on the rock;
laugh about not having water and climbing the x9!* pyramid not once, but twice,
laughing about how funny it would be to laugh about this around Christmas time
as we create our annual card. Everyone was laughing, except Rog.
For five minutes.
When he realized he could sit and regret the decision to dig in his heels, or
appreciate the fact that we could in fact, make it without the assistance of a
bike or rider, he stood. But he started walking the wrong way. We stood there
and—laughed. We were going back to the pyramid, and by gosh, he was going to
come with us.
Now isn’t that just typical of a marriage or serious relationship? The moment you think you’re back on an even playing field—the fun isn’t quite over yet. You go along for a bit (which is hard because your still annoyed), then it hits. Up the pyramid you go. Forgiveness is hard. Admitting you’re wrong is equally hard. In fact, it’s quite possible you may say: weren’t we already here once before?
So it was with Coba. But strangely, it was sweeter the second time around. The pyramid only had a handful of people, the sun was going down, and the view was amazing. Most of all, we were a family, having gone through the fits and starts which are so typical of daily life. The smiles were genuine, the forgiveness real, and the memories all that we predicted. We laugh about the rock, recall how we thought we were going to die of heat stroke, how slippery and rather dangerous the slick rocks had become over time.
The top of the pyramid has a small (but closed off) building
But like working through all relationship issues, we were glad we lived through the burn, pushed as hard as we could and endured. And if you choose to go to Coba, you too will be glad you did. Heck, you might even want to do it twice, just for the fun of it.
We made it–as a family, the way it’s supposed to be.
Arrive early or go late
Bring a water bottle with a spray if possible. Water is sold at the entrance and at one other station midway.
Double check on the latest time to start your walk/climb so you don’t arrive overly late
When Rog told me we weren’t going to make it to Poland after all, due to changes in our schedule, the girls and I were seriously disappointed, so he wanted to cheer us up by offering Aquaworld. After three days walking all over Budapest, and having previously visited Legoland, Tripsdrill, and multiple water-oriented destinations in the last four weeks, my first reaction to Aquaworld was nope. Not interested, especially when my visual was me chasing the kids all over the park when relaxing was more on my agenda.
“Come in,” he encouraged. “It will be fun, and if you want, I’ll run around with the girls and you can relax.” Huh. Didn’t sound so bad after all.
Multiple pools indoor and out, for adults only and families. Lots of grass, umbrellas and bars so no one goes without.
Close and convenient
Aquaworld has several locations around Hungary, one just ten minutes outside Budapest central. Since we couldn’t extend our stay at the apartment downtown, Rog took advantage of the package for a stay in a suite, plus four passes to the waterpark, buffet breakfast included (not continental, but full breakfast) for 235 Euro, we were in.
Massive and amazing
Straight and a few rights took us to Aquaworld, the passes are magnetized wristbands that resemble a round Applewatch. It grants access to the areas- which include the full children’s playground and child care (you must register separately but no additional fee) the waterslides, multiple indoor and outdoor pools–in fact, Aquaworld planned for all seasons, because the designers replicated every feature indoor as available outdoor, including the jungle-like high walkways.
Dome covered indoor area guarantees you don’t get sunburned in the summer and stay toasty in the winter
Indoor waterball (we call them garble balls) are in the wave pool, the Aztec designed theme an interesting yet fun choice. Separate adult-only areas exist both indoor and out, and the full-service Spa, hair salon and gym are located one floor above, with a stairway connecting to the lower area for easy access. Towels, robes and slippers are provided for the whole family. To top it off, the bar opens promptly at 8 a.m., so for those early risers who just want to get going, the bar makes smoothies and sells pastries as well as adult concoctions.
My pictures don’t do the food service justice. I missed taking the shot of the bread bar, where baskets or stacked chest high, to encourage families to load up and take as many as required! Where does that happen in the US? Another full bar was all for pastries, yet another for eggs, another for meats–about twenty different kinds. Hungarians love their pork, and I’m pretty sure an unwritten rule exists about how many must be offered to be considered legit.
Regardless, I couldn’t eat anything except liquid on this particular day, so I can only say the hot chocolate was thick and divine.
What I liked best and least
This was one easy. I liked it all. Nothing to “not like.” I even found a superior bathing suit at the gift shop–designer quality, fabric and style for 40 Euro. What more could I have asked for?
Starting from our apartment, it’s five minutes to the main square. Instead of giving you the blow by blow, this is my blog through pics.
Historical buildings surround a block-wide park with Ferris wheel- a bit hot during the middle of the day because they are enclosed, but fun and a great way to see the center of town.
Past the Cathedral, the Four Seasons, Sofitel and right in front of the Intercontinental where Rog first stayed 20 yrs ago. He reunited with his best friend–this is right on the waterfront, the railroad right in front of all the waterboards below.
Two views of the bridge- to the left is looking back into the city and the right is up at the Parliament building.
The bridge is a five minute walk max, a center turnabout and then the tram which one can take you straight up to the Parliament. We walked (of course) but the switch back is easy–another 10 minutes. The steps to the main landing (UR), and a quick turn around to look at the bridge.
The prominent statue in front of Parliament, a big part of which is not a gallery open to the public. Behind the building (which is open but deserted) shows a different face–one that’s deteriorated, not painted, but where the government workers have offices. The view to the city this time of day is glorious.
Beautiful from every angle–no wonder we saw three different wedding couples taking pictures on the grounds.
While most visitors stay up top in the newer part of the Hungarian Parliament building, we explored the back, original parts which were far more interesting, and offer views to the hills and “other” side of the city. The herb gardens had thyme pushes my height, along with lavender and rosemary spread to the size of cars.
This is the back part of Parliament. It’s not closed off, nor do they hide the wires strung outside, haven’t cleaned/washed the walls in decades, lawns aren’t cared for, plants are overgrown, but it’s majestic, authentic and interesting. In fact, a stone deck stretches around the entire backside, and you can walk it!
An original tower and entrance that’s not even visible from the town, river or current front entrance.
From the Parliament building is this stone castle, the next rise over (about 1 mile between the two hilltops)
One of several panoramic views from the top of Parliament in Budapest, Hungary
When doing a search for old ruins and castles, Slovakia came up as the number one spot. By number one, I mean oldest. Devin Castle, on the corner of Slovakia within the township of Devin. The castle is widely considered to have predated any other structures still standing. Overlooking the might Danube on a jutting piece of rock, Devin Castle is also thought to have been visited by Christ during his ministry, but some ruins have been traced back to the 5th century BC, 400 year before the celts arrived. We visited it several years ago, and wanted to take another look, as well as eat at the same restaurant at the base of the entrance.
Slovakia itself is a shocker to the system if you’ve been used to seeing the colorful, modern (or old) buildings of the surrounding countries. Cold war-era high-rise apartment buildings are stacking together, side by side and austere. Some are fainted bright colors, but most are grey and lifeless. It’s not until you see the women pushing strollers or the road bikers peddling along the sidewalk does the city of Bratislava warm up. One left off the A4 and one is right in town, another left, following the signs to Devin and the scenery changes once again. Suddenly, the road is waterside, the trees arch over the street and it becomes positively suburban, homes hidden behind gates or dense bushes on both sides of the two-lane road continue until the small town of Devin is reached.
Cold war era buildings are dominant in the skyline upon entering Slovakia. This changes immediately when leaving the city center.
Parking, country fair and food
The parking/entrance for Devin Castle can be reached two ways from the main street and Google maps provides both. If you miss the first left, going a half a mile through town gives you another opportunity to turn left, but the visual of the castle above you nearly enough for self-guidance. This year, a county fair occupied the open grass fields. Pony rides, farm animals, games that I can’t describe in local terms occupied an area half a football field in length and width. It was a warm day, so many were in bathing suits, taking advantage of the inlets of the Danube River just feet away.
The transition from city to suburb is immediate and profound. About ten minutes of this lovely drive and you are in Devin, Slovakia.
Devin is your classic, quaint small town.
The entrance fee is consistent as most of the other castles, about 30 Euro for a family of four. The walk up is easy and takes about twenty minutes, but may be longer due to the goats on the hillside who know how to play the visitors for food. Entertainers dressed in period clothing sword fight, sing and play instruments alongside a few store fronts, also in period. Word to the wise: bring cash because credit cards aren’t accepted.
Not much further is the protected area where Christ was thought to have taught. After 2,000 years, it’s not much more than the stone foundation where a building once stood, but this is preserved by a new building that’s been built around it so visitors can enter and take their time in the area. A fence bordering the area provides one more measure against future degradation.
A short walk from the parking lot and you arrive at the ticket & main gate entrance.
Exiting this structure, it’s another five-minute walk to the main castle. Unlike the majority of castles we’ve been to in our travels, the road up has nary a tree to provide relief from the heat. The great news is also unlike other castles, this one offers free, cold water at the top thanks to a fountain and beautiful (also free) bathrooms! What a relief, figuratively and literally. From the center courtyard (and well, which is impressive itself because somehow they dug down hundreds of feet, through rock), you can go left (west) to one of the ramparts and look across the river and valley beyond. To the right of the courtyard is the larger structure, though much of it is off limits. Just last year, a new metal walkway was added, allowing for an unobstructed view, which previously was availably only from the other tower. The distance between the two is less than a five-minute walk.
Building on the highest peak, the tallest rock never fails to get an appreciative picture.
Time for food
Notice how all my castle write-ups include food at the end? While we have a meal in the morning, castle exploration is hard work, especially since it nearly always involves some sort of climb, further walking, then the descent. Is it any wonder we eat like bears coming out of hibernation at the end of it all?
Readers will often make quirky faces when remarking on my choice of photos, until I call them out with question: you mean, why don’t I always post glamour shots of places? It’s because I personally am so sick of seeing “the perfect shot.” I want to know what a place looks like when I drive up, or am walking, or looking down. And I have no interest in brushing my hair, standing the right way or whatever. When it comes to food, I whip out my iPhone (usually), not my Nikon, snap and eat. I’m a focused girl; I want my meal warm. It helps when it’s pretty, but I’m not going to spend a moment worrying about it.
The reward for visiting Devin Castle is (name here) located riverside to the Danube. You can’t see the river through the dense trees, but it’s there because you just saw it, and the water can be heard. We’ve had the pork knee (sounds gross, but it’s a pound of goodness) Slavic burgers, goulash, their version of cheese sticks and several types of soups. The portions are monstrous and the prices are McDonalds. A $100 meal in the US comes out to roughly fifty dollars, including drinks.
Double boar meat hamburger with cucumbers (Rog and Porsche raved), my Slovakian goulash and previous picture–chicken wings, Slovakian style.
Drones are allowed, and Rog flew his from the parking lot. I forgot to note that he was able to fly his drone in all the castles we’ve visited (hence the shots), because they aren’t regulated in most of these areas. How wonderful!
If you’re going to make the trip, be sure to stop here. You may be tempted to try the hotel across the street, but this is “more local,” if you will.
What I love about Devin Castle
It’s the only castle I know of that mentions Jesus in the historical records. For a person who’s never been to Israel, it may be as close as I get to being in the same vicinity as Jesus. The view is unreal, and the food at the bottom of the castle shouldn’t be missed.
Parking lot, restaurant and Devin Castle, in that order. See, wasn’t that helpful?
What I don’t
Nothing really. It’s so modest, there’s nothing to give tours over—so natural beauty and ruins are there to be enjoyed.
Want to spend the night, go hiking, biking or rent a boat on the Danube? This hotel is the one and only at the base of the castle.
If you are within 100 miles of Bratislava (which means lots of places stretching from Hungary to Austria), put it on the must-visit list.
When I’m really happy, I look slightly possessed. Sorry about that, but not sorry about being really happy. Note: if you see the upper right castle-that’s the part mostly closed due to instability. It’s the left hand side that’s one of two areas open to tour.
Feature photo: taken on site. If you want to see the areal view shot from the drone, go to my Instagram account at sarahgerdes_author. It provides a much better view of the castle grounds and surrounding area.
If you only skim my blogs or books, you will understand two things about my approach to food: use real butter and if you’re going to take in a lot of calories, make each one count. The town of Cesky Krumlov (and overall, the CZ culture) abides by both of these rules. As we’ve returned time and again to Cesky, we eagerly await the next new place we’re going to find culinary nirvana. This trip didn’t disappoint.
A waterwheel, a bridge and the literal sound of music
The same bridge, across from the waterwheel. Streams flow to and through the town, each one a picture-perfect snap opportunity. The Krumlovsky is just the right, opposite side (not pictured).
We heard the music first, drawn across the famed waterwheel bridge. The first image was a ten-foot diameter wood, wheel lighting fixture. Just below him and to the right was the source of the music, a silver haired man with a crooked back played piano, to his left, a medieval oven with its clay vent stretching to the ceiling roasted several times of meat (entire pig included) and we took a seat at an open bench. The Hungarian waiter, who we learned speaks six languages, including English amazing well, helped us out, but it was somewhat unnecessary. The menu offered both Hungarian and English; common enough in the town overall.
Big, warm and cozy. Riverside dining with views directly to the castle also available (not pictured), although I took a few snaps from the castle, looking down to the restaurant.
The Krumlovsky restaurant is mid-photo, dark roof. The bridge is to the left, just past the pinkish building.
Hungarian goulash (UR), the house special of pork meats, sauerkraut and potatoes (LL) and the dessert of potato pancakes with lingonberry syrup (LR). The steak tartar was incredible but we ate it too fast to take pictures!
Proud chef, happy customer
Stuffed beyond comfort, we agreed to walk for a while. As we made our way through the narrow streets, (only the main road allows for cars) Rog and I agreed the majority of shops in and around the most castle zones are geared towards tourists, e.g. shop owners think we will be affected by some euphoric haze of stupidity, willing to spend twice as much for the privilege of saying: I got this at X castle.
The largest street in Cesky Krumlov. The rest are carriage-wide lanes.
Thankfully, the town of Cesky does not swallow this pill of delusion, in fact, one is hard pressed to find the souvenir shops with the standard postcards, keychains and country pins. The town has kept the retail stores authentic, consistent with our last visit four years ago. One example is a shortbread retailer, who uses a 600-year-old recipe to produce cookies so intricate that could be framed and placed on a wall, not eaten. We didn’t feel morally right about spending eating a five-dollar work of art, but did indulge in a 1 dollar (all equivalent currency, for they use the CZ krona). It was divine.
Shortbread and liquors- one I tried, the other I didn’t; both proudly displayed by their creators in boutique retail shops.
Next to this is a honey and wine provider, with a wall full varieties
to be tasted for a krona each (about .25 cents). It’s so much fun to wander
along cobblestone streets when the people who sell the product make the
product. No, this isn’t true 100% of the time, but it’s dominant. You aren’t
going to find big retail chains here, although several boutique stores did
offer Fendi, Prada and a few other name brands. I stepped in to one, just to
check it out. A pair of slip on athletic shoes I happened to be wearing
(Michael Kors) were $140 in the states. Here, at this shop, they were the $260.
Clearly, they didn’t get the memo about not jacking up the price.
But that was anomaly, and I don’t come overseas to purchase items we can get back home. The whole point is to think and be different.
She looks awfully happy for a mannequin.
The street performer and the kiss
If you are in Prague at the Astronomical Square, a dozen different street performers fill the air with their acts. Here, there was one amongst the dozens of narrow streets. An older man spun his metal lever, drawing in kids and a few adults interested in playing the centuries-old device. I’m always up for a new experience and went for it. The man was so cute, reminding me an elf with a squish, wizened face of happiness. My laughing made him giggle (thought in the picture he looked unsure). I gave him a kiss at the end, the girls shocked by seeing me landing a plant on another man. The next ten minutes as we walked down the lane was trying to explain why kissing the mushy face of a seventy-year-old and did not qualify as cheating on my husband. My nine-year-old pointed out that the man blushed at my kiss and smiled. “Doesn’t that count.” Oh, to be so wonderfully naïve. It wasn’t until we rounded the corner, walking along the rivers edge did the girls tire of the subject of mom kissing a complete stranger.
He’s definitely uncertain about the American girl, but I warmed him up nicely with a friendly smooch.
Following on my piece on the Gardens of Cesky Krumlov, now it’s time to continue the tour of the castle itself, but before I pick up where I left off, I’m going to back track to provide several views of the lead-up to the main entrance.
From any direction, you must cross the waterway at some point to reach the castle. This bridge is right in from off the parking area and where we walked. The grand, multi-storied bridges.
Two hillsides? No problem. Let’s just keep creating rooms and hallways.
To the right is the actors areas attached to the theatre, and the left is the staff (seamstress etc)
If you are at the gardens, head to the upper most level (the maze). To the north, you can view the fields beyond, to the south is the main castle area.
The royal lands are still being farmed- this is to the north, just outside the gardens.
That’s the way we went, coming to the castle theatre. The ticket office is a remodeled building, attached to an extended, low-ceiling structure that’s the performer quarters. A lane for pedestrians’ splits that building and another on the left for the staff, wardrobe and such. From here, a visitor has multiple options to tour the inside or explore the open (free) areas on every side of the castle.
One of the side entrances leading to the castle, not the main gate.
One of the back entrances leading to the castle.
A castle-shaking entrance
Batman must have had a bigger impact on me than I’d care to admit because I’m always so completely fascinated with castle entrances. It’s not just the size and ‘grandness’ of the entry if you will, nor is it the number of barriers put in place. It’s also the length and ceilings. Just as one driveway can be printed stone and fifty feet, another can be a mile in length, tree-line with water and lighting effects. Some, such as Hohenschwangau, were both straight then circular roads, leading up and up to the main castle.
The actual carriage house where the horses were prepared and stabled.
In the castle of Cesky Krumlov, the road taken by the former rulers is long, steep, imposing with four different barriers, entirely covered with curved stone ceilings, barred windows providing views to the valley below. On the right (the inner wall) are periodic cell-like rooms with bars. Were these for prisoners begging to get out? What about goods necessary for the road maintenance during the winter, but what was the point of the bars? These questions didn’t get answered on our first visit and weren’t satisfied this time around either.
In case you get lost–and that’s a not hard to do in this expansive set of buildings.
What we remarked on then and now is the sound of the tunnel. We were talking low as we made the walk up, but we could have been shouting for all it echoed. Imagine a team of eight or twelve horses racing through, clanging on the stone, whip cracking. The entire castle might be rumbling from within, and surely the townsfolk below would be alerted the rulers had made it home for the night.
One of the disembarking areas for the carriages–this is the lesser of two areas, but has been updated for outdoor festivals.
With the occupants out of the carriage, the horses were led to one of two horse carriage houses, the first one being the grandest. Life-size replicas of the horses and carriages are within the house, which accomplished the task of allowing us to visualize the magnificence of the experience of those ruling the castle and town.
Even the peepholes have incredible views.
Authentic artists in the castle square
Not all castles have a gift shop for selling products, but if they do, it’s usually overpriced trinkets. Not so here. Eight stalls set up in medieval, square coverings showcase artisans, no two the same. With the exception of two, each were demonstrating their craft as they made products. A weaver worked at his loom, creating a shawl. A jeweler set stones in sterling silver, a woman crushed lavender for her satchels and a glass blower delicately created small objects.
The most impressive was a two-person team of iron work. Pumping a pedal with one foot, a man kept his small fire going as he insert metal, melted it to the right temperature before removing it. His work wasn’t just knives, as we’d seen in the past, but objects useful and not. When we arrived at the area, he was making a cup. The second time, a detailed iron rose, the kind you’d place in a vase. His partner worked behind the counter, adding additional touches to the works, such as leather, beading or an embellishment appropriate for the item.
The artisan and his craft.
You can probably tell we got sucked in by the skill of it all, purchasing a sterling silver ring with woven details, a lavender pouch for traveling and a few other unique items as a memory of Cesky Krumlov.
Cesky is interesting, because they offer mini-tour/sections are available for independent payment and viewing. You want to go inside the carriage house? Sure, it’s a little fee. This is another wine cellar, charged a’la cart. Don’t hit your head on the way down.
Two times a charm
Because we arrived in the late evening our first night, we had the chance to explore without crowds. Day two, our visit was about 90 minutes, giving us the rest of the afternoon to wander the town, which was our hope. That’s up next, because skimming the town really does it a disservice.
My favorite part of Cesky Krumlov Castle
The waterway around the castle, the entry and incredible view of the town from most any point. A close second is the town and culinary extravaganza that is the town of Cesky Krumlov.
The castle is long, it connects around the entire curvature of the river below. Photo taken from yet another ledge.
My least favorite part
That the renovation and remodeling required has gone a little cheesy. It’s one thing to resurface a crumbling wall, and most of the time, care is taken to at least try and make the application of paint appear more than five minutes old. The paint here doesn’t really match tone or color, but it’s looks almost cartoonish in more than a few places. We tried our best to overlook it, or at least not take pictures with the faux application in the background.
On the middle-bridge overlooking the town of Cesky Krumlov below.
Even though we are now up to three times to this castle, I know we’ll come again…and again. Perhaps not for the inside tour, but outside absolutely, and the town—always and forever. More on that next.
One of many garden areas for the court modified with atriums, benches and cafes (not pictured).
This spectacular town and castle warrant a few different
pieces, starting with the gardens.
“What is Cesky Krumlov and why is it special?” I’d asked a man at the Karlstein Castle during our last visit. He asked if we’d been, I replied no, and he fervently told us that any plans we had for the Republic needed to be altered so we could take it in. He was so passionate, we followed his advice, but only had a few hours to see the castle and town before needing to leave for our next destination. For four years, we looked forward to the time we could return. That day came today.
The first level of the three-level gardens. Wide, pebble lanes with plenty of shaded areas.
Fortunately for us, we’d arrived around six p.m., the tour
buses were already gone, the grounds largely unoccupied. From our bed and
breakfast, the walk was less than ten minutes, the air cool and a little
sprinkle of rain, but not enough to justify coats.
Taking a right off the street and walking one hundred feet brought us to the moat, bridge and inspiring view of the multi-story (and multi-level walkway) that defines Cesky. Remembering our last visit, we chose a different path up (and my now long-suffering feet feeling the effects of castle steps). While it didn’t lessen the grade of the climb, our entrance was in the castle gardens area, not the courtyard.
Each level has openings to the main castle areas for easy in and out.
Size and simplicity
One word: wow. This is not the Palace in Brussels, where hundreds of thousand of flowers in perfect order exist. It’s quite the opposite. Cesky Gardens have multiple levels, several larger than football fields but modest in flowers, using color for accents. The focus is on perfectly trimmed hedges and plenty of walk room on several levels. The first is open in the center, with massive trees shading the perimeter. Grand stone steps lead to second level, this one with more flowers, as though the designer was saying: we were starting small, working our way up.
Level two has a bit more color and detail, although the length is the same, the width is much deeper.
View from the top/third level down to the second, giving you an idea of both size and also detailing of the flowers.
After this level is yet a third, and it’s twice as long is it is wide. Standing at the edge gives views of both gardens below, then turn around and it’s a maze! A one-person, wood platform exists for an observer to gave over the maze-hedge, presumably to locate the poor souls lost within.
As I went to load the photo of the maze, I couldn’t find one! I must have completely spaced it, and feel awful.
North and south are entrances, one to the fields beyond, the other to the main castle area. Next up, Cesky Castle proper.
Outdoor activities isn’t always on the minds of tourists who are dead-set on castle hopping, but when we see an adventure that just can’t be passed up, the Gerdes family slows down, pulls over, accesses the Internet and change on the fly. That’s what happened when we were making the journey from Salzburg, Austria to the Czech Republic, destination the town of Cesky Krumlov and the castle therein.
One of my goals through in travel blogging is to give you the visual of being in the car with me (as frightening as that may sound). I’m starting off with a little flavor of the change in scenery as you head out of Salzburg. Modern blends with colorful, styles and vibe just miles from Salzburg.
Yet another modest castle in a town thirty minutes outside Salzburg–it didn’t even make the castle list on our GPS. We walked around but had to get on our way.
Three turns down from the castle is a waterway and our first sign of river rafting.
Taking the backroads: tee-pees, eats and reservations
As you’ve read in previous blogs, we tend to go off the A4 when we can afford the time. This was one such occasion, and because the road was curvy and empty, we took our time, Roger slowing or stopping upon request (don’t I wish he’d do that back in Idaho? Hm…) As we crossed from Austria into the Republic, the landscape changed pretty dramatically, and I could have easily been in Oregon, because the trees were densely lush and meandering rivers were rarely out of sight.
Who says Europeans don’t camp? They have this down.
We stopped at one riverside location to grab a bite to each and learned the popularity of river rafting is so high, booking a month in advance is required. Come the middle of July, school is out, family holidays have begun and slots are full. Cancellations rarely occur, so be it rain or shine, people are going to be on those boats, but we weren’t going to be one of them.
Meal eaten, back in the car we went, now admiring the fly fishing and river rafting from the only perspective we’d get, at least on this trip. We’ve mentally added the two activities to our future-state to-do list.
We’d never seen this type of deer-which is hard to see on the upper left. The antlers are flat at the top, like Dumbo’s ears. I tried to get another picture but they ran within an enclosed area. Then I realized they were fenced, the farmer having a pond and several sets newborns nearby.
Then we came to it–the fly fishing streams. Rog pulled over, got out and stared longingly at the scene before him. Two men, wading the stream together, communing with the fish in the most wonderful of ways. All he could do was sigh as I took pictures. Once in the car, we spent at least forty minutes pulling up the best streams in the area (many), local fly shops (many more) and how painful it would be to carry his entire fishing gear on a European trip. Maybe next time, just like the river rafting.
How the locals do it in the Czech Republic
Feature photo: taken about 90 minutes outside Salzburg, in the Czech Republic
What more can be said about Hohensalzburg than is already out there? Not much, in my opinion, other than the brutal review I’m going to provide you of the inside tour, which has been dramatically reduced to five rooms out of hundreds available. It’s not often I want to be Nicole Kidman or someone famous enough to get me access to floors and buildings off limits (not likely to happen in this lifetime), so all I can do is essentially grumble about paying the 30 Euro for our family, getting squished at the top of the tower with bodies, all jostling for the perfect selfie, then down again. On the bright side, we parked and took the ‘locals’ way,’ which made for new views and a quiet experience we enjoyed going up and down, which somewhat countered the lame experience in the middle.
Join me on this, our second and what is likely to be our last trip to Hohensalzburg.
Parking, right downtown in the locals’ area, the backside of the castle. The path is behind homes that lead to the castle-the occupants more than happy to chit chat as they water their beautiful gardens.
The road up and grounds
Neither have changed for four years ago. You can ride the tram up, saving yourself approximately 3,000 steps up, or you can take the leisurely route, which is longer, but in the shade and completely deserted. We encountered 4 other walks besides ourselves, two couples, both of whom stopped to grab a bite to eat on the bench and smooch.
Where the homes stop, this open grassland with bike/walking paths begin. A large home in the distance (UL), the start of the path to the castle (UR) and the four-corners path connecting multiple blocks.
Both tram and step walk are at the base of the castle; the steps are what we did on our first visit. This time, we parked on what I’d call the backside of the castle. It’s on the southwestern side, street parking for 4.50 Euro. The streets are quaint, full of locals, the paths to the castle occupied with families going through the parks. One right at an almost hidden sign lets you know this is it—the way up.
The trail up is paved and well lit, benches spread along the way. Since it’s not the main entrance, it’s quiet, offering plenty of stopping points to take photos. Nearly at the top, a view one can’t see from the front appears, which is an armory.
Seriously love the homes at the base of the castle (UL), the final walking rise to the castle (UR) and the tram in castle neither steps or path are your style.
The entrance and free areas
We beat the throng of visitors, arriving at 10:30 a.m. As we
looked down the hill, bus after bus was dropping of streams of people who went
single file to the steps. We were glad to already be at the top. The main
courtyard and restaurants haven’t changed, and I will say my preference is the
eatery on the second-floor landing which overlooks the valley.
Even though we’d seen the inner and outer courtyards, we walked in and around again, stopping to purchase our tickets for the tour. As we waited, we were bummed out to see the plethora of dogs that were on leash, but defecated all around the courtyard. While some castles have allowed dogs in the main courtyard area, few give dogs the general run of the place. This one does—and good for the owners, (we are massive dog lovers and love them). But seriously, responsible dog owners pick up the pooh, but not here. We were dismayed to be walking behind several who just dropped and walked—my phrase for the owner wasn’t going to bother and pick it up. What has happened in the last few years?
One tall set of blocks (UL), the first of many gated entries (UR) and my favorite–four different defensive entries, each another barrier to an invading force. What you can’t see is that each gate is an 18 inch thick rock–the doors have been removed.
The unguided tour
Our bad experience started at just after the ticketing desk. We paid, stood in line to receive the translation device, only to be told we’d have to wait for those in English, which wasn’t a big deal, but they had a hundred just sitting there. Worse, the man set “Get going,” as we waited for one to be cleaned and provided to us.
The last stretch to the inner courtyard (UL), a view from above (UR) and the main courtyard, unchanged from our last visit.
We just stared at him. Go where, exactly? One foot to the left so others receiving the French version?
Translators in hand, we went to the first room, the most interesting. It was a room with replicas of the cardinals who oversaw construction of Hohenzollern, accompanied by miniature models of the castle at various points in time. After that, we visited what would have been the salt room, for preserving foods. Then a long corridor, and a peek into the Organ room, housing the “Bull organ. The clergy ruler would have the organ play 3 notes alerting the townsfolks it was time to rise and get to work, and again in the evening, when it was bedtime. Talk about ruling the day.
It was interesting seeing the models representing each stage of completion over the hundreds of years–this is a great example of old meeting new(er).
The downside of this of this piece of history was the cramped 3-foot space where everyone fought to take pictures and keeping their ground while the throng behind us were pushing forward, trying to keep up with the auditory tour guide.
The first room of the tour, with rulers and to scale replicas of the castle at different points in time.
After that, we walked down a long corridor and into the torture chamber. That was more bark than bite, because our virtual tour guide said the room wasn’t actually used for torture, but to display the weapons to put fear in to the prisoners, who were actually held in a room below (not for display).
The pseudo torture chamber– the stones have been resurfaced and painted (poorly) but at least the grate to the left and below my daughter appears authentic.
A few pictures and off we were led to the highest point of the castle. Three flights of narrow stairs for the crowds going up and down, and then you arrive. A square area of stone, providing 360-degree views and in the center, a wooden platform (now reinforced with stone and metal). This can’t be larger than a 15×15 space, if that, including the stairs. Shoving, pushing, self-driven crazies. No time to really enjoy the spectacular prospect of Salzburg below.
Was it worth getting scrunched at the top of the platform? The juries out. I like Roger’s drone videos better.
I was so annoyed, me and the girls looked around, took it in, then got out of the madness. Rog fought his way up to the top, took a pic of us below and called it a day, vowing to get better shots with his drone, which is now up on my Instagram account.
A view on the back that never gets seen if you enter from the front.
Whew. It’s over. Time to eat
After that hour of our life, we were hungry and stopped at the Stocker which we’d seen while parking. The meal we ate made up for the latent grumpiness we experienced at the castle. Over amazing cold shrimp and cucumber salad, pork roast and schnitzel, we analyzed what went wrong.
Unregulated tours for starters, trying to pump as many
people through as fast as possible was the culprit. Unlike Hohenschwangau,
where the tour guide walked us our group of 10 through each room in the entire
castle, and even the larger Hohenzollern
Castle, which is infinitely larger, even there, the personal tour guide
took our group of 12 through multiple rooms. Each tour was detailed, fulfilling,
personal and guess what? The exact same price! Even the more visited Neuschwanstein
Castle has a tour guide, granted, with 60 people, but at least that one is
longer, detailed and fulfilling.
We get it. Castle tourism is a business, and Salzburg is a convenient destination outside Vienna. Mozart’s house is a draw, and many day trip visitors are trying to get both Mozart and Hohensalzburg in at the same time. But to those of us who desire a deeper experience, it’s pretty clear that only fame or a whole lot more money than we possess is going to fulfill that dream, at least with Hohenzollern.
The best part of the visit was the food afterward- or am I being too harsh? Okay, maybe a little, but the food at Stocker is really to die for.
What I liked
The grounds are lovely, and the back path to the castle calm and easy. I also must call out one new room we found which was free and unique–it’s the puppet room. These are life size recreation of puppets that kept the rulers happy. These are shown in a cave-like area within the castle.
The marionette area was pretty cool in it’s own batcave area.
The town below—be sure to go on the locals side—offers incredible food and shops.
What I didn’t
See the paragraphs above. Too many people. Touristy and unfulfilling.
Even with our disappointment, I’d suggest you go at least once to see the grounds and explore the area. If you are early in the season and have twenty minutes to spare, sure, do the tour. You’ve made it all that way. The best thing to do is set your expectations accordingly. Otherwise, save your money for a castle where you can have an incredibly rewarding experience that you’ll remember the rest of your life, and for all the right reasons.
Feature photo: taken from the perch atop the Hohensalzburg, and not with a selfie stick!
Sometimes, taking the scenic route reveals the most interesting of destinations. As we traveled from Italy to Austria, we’d inadvertently requested the shortest route in distance, not in terms of time to our final destination of Salzburg. We didn’t realize that meant up and over the hills of Innsbruck, the largest city in the Tyrol province of Austria, and the countries fifth largest. We’d already rounded a curve coming down the mountain and there it was, looming in the distance. Despite the rain, we jumped out to get the best view of the Bergisel Ski Jump Tower. The futuristic tower has hosted two Olympics and many international ski jump competitions.
Summer is road construction time, and that includes multiple bridges. This is right outside Innsbruck.
We missed our window to go up in the tower and have a meal, worried that we’d miss our check in time in Salzburg, so on we went, having no idea the A4 would have saved us about an hour of driving. It was good luck, however, because while our road paralleled the major highway, we saw all sorts of global manufacturing headquarters and outlets we’d never have seen from the road.
Because the Tyrolean Alps sit high, even when descending town into the valley where Innsbrook is located, you get an idea of the massive size of the Bergisel ski jump. This photo was taken just off the road.
From pharmaceutical companies to high-end ski wear such as Bogner
(oh! But it was closed!!), our favorite was the Swarovski
corporate headquarters. We missed several of the attractions by minutes,
but were able to see the grounds, the carousels, the expansive play areas for
children, and of course, the shopping. One has to appreciate the marketing
approach the Swarovski team has taken: lure them in with free or very inexpensive
attractions and entertainment, making it a destination for an entire day or
weekend. Kids clubs, summer camps and a hotel are also on the corporate campus
(have you ever seen this type of thing at an Amazon campus? I think not).
My favorite image is of a massive crystal on the main entrance, glowing at night. It’s a literal beacon from the side road.
At the base of the Alps in Austria, off a non-descript road that parallels the A4. Who knew? Now you do!
Continuing on are dozens of bike manufacturers and other sporting retail brands we’d no idea were located within driving distance of Innsbruck and a few hours from Salzburg. If I spent much time in the area, I might have definite spending issues, so it was just as well the drive-through was short and it was past closing time for many of the facilities.
The Tyrolean Alps
Part of the fun on this stretch of the journey was going up and over the Tyrolean Alps and the associated small towns. Just on the other side of Innsbruck is Igls, overlooking the city and valley. Just five km outside the city edge, it has a handful of restaurants, a few massive homes, two grocery stores and a church, all within walking distance of several small hotels. We tried to get in for dinner but alas, it was a Friday and all the eateries were booked until closing. Next time!
It’s not always easy to capture the majesty of looming rock formations, but as a visitor, it’s hard not to take yet another snap when the rock faces, type and coloring change within a few miles of one another.
Our biggest mistake of the drive between countries was misjudging the closing of restaurants because each country is so different, we’ve had to remember or learn for the first time. Whereas Italians eat all day and late into the night, the Austrians shut down by 6 p.m. for grocery stores and eight-thirty for restaurants, unless the establishment is a bar or takes restaurants. Back in Hungary, it was late again but Germany and Switzerland were on the early side.
Right outside Igls is Patsch, and it was here we saw our one and only Polizei (police) car in Austria. A mini-mini van stuffed with six officers in uniform, who we later passed by as they ate outside a deli.
That meant we…yes! Stopped again at a McDonald’s café, where the girls have continued their love affair with ham and cheese fries, croissants and hamburgers made with organic meats. I tell myself we didn’t really come to Europe to eat at McDonald’s, but I’m not being fasicious when I claim their food here is an improvement on most restaurant food in the U.S. It’s all about the requirements for fresh and organic, two elements demanded by the Europeans.
The one and only church we saw in Igls, where members of the congregation were streaming out in the misty-rain after a session.
Feature image: a picture of the Swarovski jewel in front of the corporate headquarters.
Our adventure to Venice was planned with the intent of determining how much more existed to this famed city other than the Grand Canal and island hopping to Murano. Because of my stint in the Verona Hospital and recovery time, our schedule was cut radically short, so we knew going in this was going to be fast and furious. We needed focus. We needed energy and we needed good walking shoes!
One view from the top of the first canal as you leave either parking, train or cab drop off
Arrival and parking
If you arrive between 11 and 3, you are unlikely to get parking in the main drop off area, so be safe, park, and walk the quarter mile over the bridge into Venice. If you arrive late afternoon, then you’ll likely get parking right in the center, which is what we did. Two structures exist: one for short term (2 hours) and the other for long term. A single lane road is the only way to access both, but it’s short, about one feet in length. It’s a bit of a bottleneck, but an attendant stands to guide traffic, and if you want the two-hour, zip right and you are in. Payment is made when you leave, at the counter located at the entrance, so take your ticket and go on your way.
Nary a gondola or waterway taxi to be seen, and this is about two canals away from the drop off point.
When you arrive in Venice, either by car, train or boat, it may take a moment to notice the absence of bikes, a common site around Europe, not just Italy. In Venice, two-wheeled vehicles aren’t allowed, nor cars, which must be parked in one of several structures either outside the primary bridge to the island. Once off the long bridge to Venice, you will see a multi-story building, and parking spaces are identified by a space counter. We head others complaining about the lack of transportation on Venice, evidently expecting bike or scooter rentals and/or cabs, so I thought to write a note about this for the uninitiated.
This is actually the best shot of “the first” canal bridge in the upper right–you can see it leads several directions, and then down on lanes on either side of the canal proper.
The train service is crazy good, although we didn’t need to take it. Multiple trains coming and going drop and pick up throughout the day, directly to this main area, where people in streams unload. One aspect that’s nice (and little known) is the cruise ships are on the other side of Venice, unloading at the docks. This means those arrive by car or train enjoy a much less crowded experience and more leisurely pace than the hoards of cruise lines passengers. The downside (isn’t there always a downside) is those of us in this area must walk a greater distance to reach the Grand Canal, if that’s the ultimate destination.
Less than 5 minutes from the cab and train drop off is this one and only gondola offering in this area. At 6 at night, it’s walk right up and in.
Walking the blocks
If you want to start off with a gondola ride, it’s less than five minutes from either the parking or train station right down to the only gondola. It has two slots, but when people are waiting, gondolas seemed to magically appear, leading us to believe a radio operator is ever ready to call in reinforcements. If a water tour is more to your liking, you will have to search elsewhere, for while many go by, the pickup/dropoff points aren’t in this zone.
To the right is right where you walk after parking/taxi or train drop off. Across the water are tables filled with evening diners. Not all streets have cafes next to the water–only some, and why the reasoning is a mystery.
With our feet as our guide, we started from the parking station to the first intersection of two canal bridges and a canal pathway. Our first stop was gelato, a must-have on a journey. One block down, another canal, turned left (because we could) and continued forth, zigging and zagging down every alley and main street, up and over a multitude of canal bridges. Going back to the no-bikes rule, even if they were allowed, bikes wouldn’t be much use: the bridges are steps, not smooth surfaces like Chioggia. Food services and goods deliveries are all done by ferry, mostly in the middle of the night and early morning when the tourists have long gone.
One block in, and on the right is a regular lane with more cafes. What you don’t see (or hear) was a man singing Italian tunes and playing a guitar rather romantically.
Another eatery partially hidden behind a iron gate, but open to the public.
Gyms and graffiti
Where do you walk down a canal, under the red brick archways into an open-door gym? Venice, obviously. And any respectable gym must have hip hop music blasting in order to use the weights and cardio machines located five feet from the front desk. It didn’t hurt the visual that the setting sun made the entire street and canal an orange red. In fact, it blended right in with the coloring within the gym itself.
Ok, really? Have you ever seen a blog on Venice post a picture of a gym? Neither had I, so this is it, and a rather glamorous looking one at that, don’t you think? And yes, about a half dozen folks were working out.
Around another corner and through an incredibly narrow street, the avenue opened into a triangular shape and a soccer ball came hurling towards my legs. A boy darted in front of me, kicked the back to his friend, the impromptu soccer game between four youth between ten and twelve seemed strange until I looked up and around. The buildings were decidedly familial, bars and crusted paint falling off and mail-slips. It was a neighborhood, like any other, except on a world-famous island in Italy.
And this! It shocked me more than the gym, because people want to look good, but the city fathers can’t take the time to remove graffiti, and worse, people desecrate the area? I’m all for artistic murals, but this doesn’t qualify.
As we continued the journey, a single avenue changed the entire experience: backstreet soccer game, graffiti-covered metal grates then a beautiful canal with upscale restaurants, then and open square full of hipsters and chill out music and back again. All this still a half a mile away from the Grand Canal main drag, and nary a non-Italian in view (except us). Because we arrived at about 6 p.m., our day spent in Chioggia to the south, the freedom of movement allowed us to cover a lot more ground had it been wall-to-wall tourists.
Think of this as the Venice outskirts, still good real estate with boats outfront but perhaps without the murals on the ceilings.
Just like every other big city
Where one lane is merchants, another is residences, some grand, but most not. Short, narrow doors are not images of Venice blasted around the world. If you’d not been to Venice before, it would be natural to believe every home is a three-story villa with hand-painted mosaics on the ceiling with gold leaf encrusted chandeliers. We watched a woman holding a bag full of groceries pull out her key, open and enter an unassuming door, her attire professional attire resembling a bank teller or shop keeper.
Like any city, different canals showcase a different style of property, probably reflective of the value.
Where in the world was the grocery store? I wondered, becoming completely distracted by the visual of how many canals she had to cross with that single bag. Second to that was imaging the size of the biceps on the average Venician residents. Yes, that’s the kind of thing an author thinks about, or at least, what this author thinks about.
The canal neighborhood where the kids were playing soccer.
Another home where we saw professionals entering and exiting.
This leads to touch on the subject of shopping. Whereas Chioggia had Italian brands with a smattering of name brands, Venice is the opposite: the majority of mercantile are well-known by the average consumer. Of the little overlap I saw, Venice easily had a 40% premium over Chioggia.
Just one street over is shopping and wide lanes, hotels and eateries.
The take away
If you have the time to take in the famous and not-so-famous areas of Venice, definitely do it, otherwise, it’s like thinking all of New York is Broadway, when in fact you have Central Park, Brooklyn and Park Avenue, each one providing a completing different perspective of a grand city. Whereas Chioggia was all Italians, (we didn’t hear another language spoken) Venice was the exact opposite. The streets were packed full of diverse ethnicities and languages with helpful tour guides translating, many also wearing translating devices around their necks.
I’d like to see those well-fed Merchants of Venice squish themselves down this lane.
Unless you are coming in from a boat, the ideal day trip is the morning for Chioggia and afternoon for Venice, thereby missing the worst of the crowds. You’ll be able to compare and contrast your impressions of the most famous seaside town in Italy, and perhaps the least, all in the same paragraph.
Not the Grand Canal, but a regular office buildings where staff park their boats on the water. It gives new meaning to the phrase underground parking.
When the architect and owner of the villa you have rented in
Verona says you must visit Chioggia instead of Venice, you listen. First in
disbelief (we’d never heard of it), then skepticism (until his architect wife
chimes in, agreeing), and finally with an open mind and consideration.
“It’s only forty minutes south of Venice,” Stefano explained,
“you must go.” As if sensing our reticence, he and his wife peppered us with
the reasons. “It’s older than Venice,” he started. “And it’s a fishing village
with real, working people.” Stefano added that Chioggia has the longest beach
in Italy, better food and is far cheaper.
“It has the oldest clock in the world,” added his wife. “You
will have a much better time in Chioggia. Trust us.”
The oldest clock in world, and in a town we’d never heard of? That sealed the deal.
Off to Chioggia
From Verona, Chioggia is about an hour and forty-five minutes. Long, flat marshes on either side of the low-lying bridge extend until it hit landmass. Coming off the ramp, the first images were…unexpected. Faded paint blended with clothes hanging on windowsills, the boats in the canals long past their prime, fish netting along the sides of the marina.
The main road off the freeway starts to resemble Venice a teeny bit more, only by virtue of the color of buildings, but the style, age and use dramatically differ.
Two rights and we were crossing the first canal bridge. While we’d heard all Stefano and his wife had said regarding an older Venice, we were still expecting….an older Venice.
One of the first views of Chioggia off the freeway. Unexpected, to be sure.
Chioggia is in no way an “older Venice,” if looks meant anything. The buildings aren’t newly painted and bright, but worn with age. Instead of canal boats with a black and white stripe-shirted rower, it’s ocean vessels worthy of a sea storm. The clothes don’t hang just from the window, but lines over the alleyways as well. If you’ve been to Venice, most of what visitors see is bright, perfectly painted and ready for the tourist. It’s only when you get off-off the main drags that you see graffiti (absent in Chioggia) but the homes are still a cosmetic upgrade from Chioggia.
Yes, Chioggia has canals, but it is a regular city as well as you can see.
Then we began to see the other side. Parking was free and plentiful right in the heart of town, exactly twenty feet from the oldest clock in the world. (Venice requires one to park, then walk). Across from the clock, stretching to the water and a mile in the other direction is what Italians call a Piazza- a shopping district. Like Bellagio, outdoor tables, under extended awnings lined the length of the Piazza. The shops are directly behind, the sidewalk totally covered in shade to allow a leisurely shopping experience. Bikes are welcome (not so in Bellagio) and the canals bridges are angled (not with steps, as with Venice) which allows for bikes.
Does this resemble a gondola from Venice to you? It’s so Seattle, I loved it.
The differences in the two towns were becoming apparent.
The world’s oldest clock and two girls from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Clock admired, photos taken and education gained as we learned a replica of the internal mechanisms are in the museum in Verona, but the clock itself is going like a champ.
Not the Grand Canal of Venice, but the intimate, working canal of Chioggia
Time to explore
As we walked, we waited for the beautiful canals full of tourist-filled boats to appear. Nope. Not a one. The canals of Chioggia are not what I’d describe as pretty. They are a bit murky and green. It’s the ocean, seaweed exists and this is a living system, not contrived into a fantasy environment. Bikers rode up and over the canals, fishermen trolled their boats out to sea, and as the sun set, the villagers living in the town began to come out of the homes.
Buildings are further apart, some canals have been modified and the styles are old and new, just like any modern city.
Watching the activity was like going on a first date with a short individual dressed in their parent’s hand-me-downs who was late for the date, only to notice the smooth skin of the face, bright, blue eyes and happy, embracing laugh.
Another working waterway heading to the ocean.
Along a side street, my girls spotted what turned out to be a couture children’s clothing shop at Target prices. We spent about 150 Euros on clothes that would have cost two grand in the States, if we’d been able to find them at all. More shopping followed until we joined a growing number of seniors taking places under the awnings. The crowd was a wonderfully mixed bag of what Dominic Dunn would have called “mature women” in full makeup and big, black and gaudy glasses sitting beside others who embraced their natural, wrinkly selves. They talked as much with their hands as mouths as their husbands in press shirts smoked, making way for continual additions to the group.
A young man, about 14, coming in from a ride, giving it all he can. Not something you’d see in “that other city with the canals.”
It’s not always easy to take photos of strangers, and sometimes, I prefer to sit back and observe, which I did, requiring to you visualize the experience. Yet as I removed my camera to take images of the food, I sensed a weirdness and looked up. Sure enough, a woman, leaning out her window was observing us. It had become a common sight across Italy; an open window with a look-e-loo taking in the scene. Of that, I did take a photo.
The Italian pastime — looking out the window to the piazza below.
A meal worth driving 90 minutes
The Sugar Cafe
Caught that morning, Rog ate a half dozen whole mini octopus, heads still on. It was mixed in his seafood salad, a sight my father would have crawled over shards of glass to sample. The girls had pasta dishes and Rog also ordered a fish carpaccio, which he’d never had before. Different from sushi, the white fish (we never did learn the name), Rog announced the platter size portion to be heaven on earth and consumed the entire thing himself.
Fresh and delightful– caprese (UL), fish tartare (UR) and seafood salad.
Dessert followed on a side-street, everyone having double
helpings of gelato in different flavors. By this, our fourth day in Italy, the
girls had a fair idea of approximately size and cost. Imagine their delight
when the portions were about half again as large, and roughly a third the price
of Verona, Soave or San Briccio.
What had evolved from an unexpectedly good first date was now an engagement-level passion with the town of Chioggia.
At the Sugar Café–note all the older folks closest to the storefronts–little groups of 3-5, all gathering, community style for their evening dinnertime social.
The famed beaches
Famous to who? We wondered as we drove the mile from our eatery towards the coastline. As you can see from the pictures, famous to the rest of the world of Italians, not to visitors such as ourselves. From one end to the other, thousands of umbrellas await the flock of crowds expected to descend in the next week as school gets out, then absolute mayhem in August. As we drove along the beachfront, we wondered about parking. While the streets were empty of cars at this time of year, and the inside/beach area parking also practically vacant, it wasn’t hard to image the brutality of high season. For grins, we checked out the parking fees, recalling how the last parking fee we’d paid in downtown Seattle was $12 US for an hour, this had to be comparative, or so we thought. Two hours here on the beach, roadside and 100 feet away is 4.50 Euro. No wonder the Italians in Verona love this town.
The beaches of Chioggia. I had no idea it was Miami, Italian-style. Although, I haven’t seen hundreds of cabanas, umbrellas pools like this in Florida.
We’d fallen in love with Chioggia, and didn’t even know it. As a family, we agreed to go back the following day, conduct more serious shopping and eating, which ultimately, didn’t happen. We all overslept, because we darted up to Venice to catch the setting sun and wander for a few hours. You can compare the two cities by reading the blog on the experience.
Definitely take the few hours to enjoy this essentially unheard of, overlooked and /or ignored town. It will open your eyes to a different side of the Italian world, one truly authentic and in its own way, inspiring and charming.
After three days in Bellagio and Lake Como, we were ready to
head out of town. Because of the location we chose and the general road
challenges that exist on Bellagio (no cabs allowed, only car and driver,
walking or bike, and of course, parking limitations) we grew fatigued of trying
to avoid getting hit as we squished ourselves against the walls as cars zipped
by. And while I don’t mind a periodic good look at the rock wall now and then,
when I can make out individual strands of grass as Rog tries to avoid oncoming
traffic, it’s time to go.
The drive to Verona from Bellagio, Italy a straight and easy one, with the exception of several road construction projects that weren’t identified on either Google maps or our internal GPS system. It wasn’t a serious problem, but annoying when you lose ten minutes here and there.
In the San Briccio valley of Verona, heading up to our rented villa. This is a northwest facing view.
The heart of wine country
Located on the outskirts of Verona, both towns of San Briccio and Soave (pronounced So-ahh-veh), are both identified as Verona, and a suburb within. As such, the town is listed, and as a (VR) behind it. It would be like saying Russian Hill in San Francisco and the signs reading: Russian Hill (SF). The Italians make it easy so locals and foreigners alike understand where they are at all the time.
San Briccio is about fifteen minutes outside the center of Verona. The owners of the three-story villa we rented are both architects, and lived in this home as they raised their two children. When the kids became teens, the family moved into Verona proper, the “scenic” drive through the mountain roads too much, especially during high traffic times where the drive is more like forty.
The hilltop homes of San Briccio offer a 360 degree view of the valleys below–stretching northeast of Verona, pictured above.
Winding up from the valley through acres of non-stop wine fields, to the mountain top offering a panoramic, 360-degree view of the San Briccio valley below. We could see the neighboring town of Soave, and the fortress castle in the distance.
Free parking on the street (hurray), walking over a canal (upper left), the mainstreet at 4 p.m. in the Castle Soave township (upper right) and the walk to the end of the street. The building at the left is where you turn right, walk up a 1/16th of a mile and you are at the caretakers home.
On both sides of the hill are miles of wine fields, the area producing dozens of brands of vino. The surrounding hills have been cultivated in stair-stepped manner to provide the largest yield. We can appreciate the effort and beauty even if we don’t drink the stuff, but our wildest culinary dreams were met with the food, so don’t cry for me Argentina, we haven’t gone without.
From the caretakers home (left) and the less-than-steep walk from the lower village (right).
Today, the privately-owned castle has a caretaker who lives on the property in a converted sentry house with his German shepherd. The entry fee for four, two adults and two children was 24 Euros (adults 8, children 4). The walk up from town is short and steep, but not too bad compared to all that we’ve ever done thus far. Once at the entry station, it’s less than a hundred feet to the primary entrance.
Set on the highest hill, Castle Soave’s fortress walls extend around the town of Soave proper, which is now converted shops and restaurants, although it’s home to several thousand full-time residents lucky enough to live with castle and wine country views.
Why it’s called a castle is unknown to all of us. The lone attendant within the Captain’s private chambers told us Castle Soave was used for centuries a military fortress for several reasons to protect the town from the neighboring community. It was originally built in the 10th century, the twenty-five-foot-high, two-foot-thick rock walls were built around the town to defend against an attack. Within the highest reaches, two floors exist; one for the Captain (the Italian version of a General) and then a lower level, rather small room for the guards. The remaining part of the rampart was all watchtowers and fighting stations.
From this areal view shot by my drone, you get an idea of the size of Soave proper, the fortress wall a clear line of demarcation.
The armory and guards station is rather small, with attendant saying the room slept only five guards at a time. The rest were on duty around the clock. The Captains private floor has four gracious rooms, the foyer, where he received his soldiers and visitors, his table and three-seat bench in front of a floor to ceiling fireplace. To the left is his bedroom, the ornate bed, armoir and facilities far fancier than the Prince’s rooms in Germany and Switzerland. The Italians knew how to carve a thousand years back! To the right of the foyer is the eating area then library. Up the steps from the library is the Captains private garden, a spot of greenery where he could presumably plot his next battle plan. To the left is the escape door which isn’t concealed at all. If the man needed to use it, speed was the factor, not illusion.
This is the Captain’s escape door off his private garden. It’s thought never to have been used. Little factoid: the last Captain murdered the ruling family in cold blood, ruled himself for 20 years, then was killed in battle with the sword. Served him right.
My favorite part
The best part of this inner military area was the prison. Approximately 100 feet high, all capital punishment was conducted in this chamber of death. The top three floors (each with levels) were designated for nastiness (beheadings, dismemberment etc.) and the bottom floor was essentially the pit where the castoffs, sometimes entire bodies, were thrown down. Then every so often, they’d light the fire, but nary a phoenix would rise from those ashes. The tour guide told us that when the castle was opened to the public, human bones dating from the 1300’s were found.
It was a bad day for a prisoner who displeased the ruling Captain.
The weather in wine country
We didn’t know the afternoon rains so common in Switzerland were equivalent in Italy. We were up on the ramparts, looking down to the valley when it started dumping. From the highest rampart, where we walked the Captains private gardens and escape door leading directly out of the castle, down to his entrance, we were soaked through. But it was so warm that our clothes were dry and hair frizzy when we reached the car.
The upper courtyard, and steps leading to the Captain’s private quarters. The door below is for the soldiers who rotated eating and sleeping shifts in groups of five.
With the weather once again cooperating, we walked the streets, enjoyed our second serving of gelato and appreciated yet another town that seems to have been passed over by every tourist, “influencer” and Trip Advisor writer.
The Captain’s private dining room (upper left) the guards rooms (upper right) and the first courtyard leading to the upper courtyard.
What I’ve loved about the area
Finding a castle that’s rarely written about, seeing miles and miles of Verona, the old and new, past and present.
The Castle less-visited: with tourists sparse, no ticketing agent, metal detector or guide. Just walk up to the care takers office (where he sits with his dog on the floor) Upper left. The second doorway has a downgate, not a drawbridge, but includes a standard door for good measure. Me squatting so you can see the better view of the town behind me.
What I haven’t
The bugs! Oh. My. Gosh. Why hasn’t a single person in the history of man written about the ‘no-see’ems’ that come out when the heat of the day starts to ebb, changing from blistering to merely humidly hot? It’s so bad that in the thirty seconds it took to walk from my car to the front door, I got nailed by seven little wizards of torture. When we were at the pharmacy to pick up my prescriptions (from the next blog on the unexpected Italian hospital visit I had to make the second day here), the pharmacist asked if we’d been bitten at all, and we nodded vigorously. She produced a tube of cream that I have carried everywhere for three days, applying to the red dots of purgatory on all of our skin.
You don’t need to be a lover of wine to enjoy and appreciate Verona. It’s centrally located to zip down to Milan, over to Venice and not far from Lake Como. We are headed next to Salzburg, Austria, which is about as far as either Milan and Lake Como at three and a half hours. Definitely plan a few days, perhaps at a bed and breakfast or home to really soak up the local culture.
As we hit the hills around Lake Como, the longer switch-backs now single-lane, curvy roads requiring a whole lot of skill to avoid either rock wall or another automobile. Now that we were officially out of the Alps, into Italy, I downloaded the photos of the Alps onto my computer and started fresh, as is my protocol, then started a new.
Shortly after crossing the border from Switzerland to Italy, this fixture on the horizon appears – and you know you’re in Italy!
The size and scope of the lake usually takes first-time visitors by surprise; Menaggio, Lugano and other inlet towns dotting the lake have their own unique vibe and attraction. We’ve gotten to know each more intimately during our travels, which changes if looking through the lens of having teen and pre-teen children in the group.
The waterfront road in Menaggio; wide, relaxed and the vibe easygoing.
Menaggio is the first town you will reach, its small waterfront area having a street or two of shops, as well as restaurants. One of the four ferries used for reaching Bellagio is in town, but be warned; the ferries only allow about eight cars, so you will be waiting an hour if you don’t get your place in line. My favorite aspect of Menaggio is taking the short walk (or drive) nearest the ferry because the waterside villas are massive, ornate and the grounds worth writing about. In my novel, A Convenient Date, Rick and Kaitlyn are in Switzerland for a business meeting, have a free day and he takes her to his childhood home in Lake Como. A few of these photos are the ones I used to inspire my descriptions. During that original trip, I neglected to take photos, but this time around, I did.
The villa directly across from the ferry in Menaggio
Lugano, further down the lake, is larger, the residents
spread in the hills and has a denser downtown area, yet because of that, it
loses a bit of the small town feel. On the upside, it has fabulous high-end
shopping at half the price of Bellagio, so unless you want to say you
specifically purchased your Hermes in Bellagio, do your pocketbook a favor and
purchase it in Lugano.
If you are a first-timer, check out Rick Steve’s commentary on which city to visit first, and how to get there from your starting point.
Notice the slight difference in road width from Menaggio vs Bellagio? The above is a typical road in Bellagio, and what my daughter is doing was what all pedestrians must do–hug the wall so as not to get clipped by a car.
The scenic route around the lake or the ferry?
Once we decided to explore the lake and drive around the southern tip in order to reach Bellagio. That was a hair-splitting four and a half journey we’ve not made since. The ferry ride for 4 in a car was 28 Euro and took ten minutes, which we learned on the return ride after we’d spent the day on the peninsula (which is how Bellagio is typically called).
Lake Como from the sky as we took the ferry ride to Bellagio.
Today, we were second in line for the ferry, allowing Rog to send the drone up and over to our intended destination, and me and the girls to chat up a wedding party of girls. Sometimes, ferry’s with short rides don’t allow auto passengers to get out. This one does, and we took advantage of no-rule rule to walk around.
This is a view of Menaggio from the air. We shot it while waiting for the fery, which you can see is docked about mid-way in the photo. the villa I used as inspiration is right behind it.
Parking and walking off the ferry all happens in the same area, providing you with options. To the right, can walk down the quarter-mile, two lane white gravel path to sit under the blossoming white and pink trees nearest the water or on the grass, the shade provided by massive beech trees. City architects have made this picture perfect, as the center islands area bunches of colorful flowers and half-circle walkway extensions over and into the lake allow for the perfect pictures of either Menaggio in the background or the Bellagio center. This ends at the entry point of the expansive Giardini di Villa Melzi, and if you want to reach the other side (where our flat was located/the market square for locals), its faster and flat. Otherwise, you are walking on the road, up and around, taking your life in your hands.
A large villa overlooking the town of Bellagio and the main square
Now that we’ve been a few times, Rog and I have a different perspective than the first time. Whereas we were overwhelmed with the quaint main center, steep paths leading through the narrow buildings, gelato and shops, we now realize something so obvious it’s a little embarrassing to admit. The “picture-taking-tourist-zone” consists of literally two roads, two steep paths and the waterfront path I just described. It’s basically a big U-turn you are going to walk. These are relatively crowded, everyone with a phone in hand, taking selfies, eating gelato and buying scarves.
The shops close at 7:30–this was taken about 8:30 p.m. The restaurants are still open, but gelato and all the other stores closed. It being July, the crowds were manageable. That won’t be the case in another month.
We watched (and then did it ourselves to revisit our first experience) tourists disembark from the ferry. Instead of turning right, you turn left of Via Lunga Lario Manzoni and begin your exploration of the inner Bellagio. If you are following a map, continue on Via Lunga Lario, and assuming you have the strength not to imbibe on pizza or gelato, take a right on Salita Serbolloni, and up you go until you reach Via Guiseppe Garibaldi. This is the only road paralleling Lunga Lario, and it’s a T. You can go right, but the shops end about fifty feet down. The only course is to turn left, enjoy the tiny wine, meat or cheese shops, pause and take a picture at the most crowded place on the peninsula (because looking down, the image offers both narrow street at the lake beyond). After that, you turn left down Salita Bento Conzi Di Cavour, the second steep steps and you are right back on Via Lunga.
Yet another villa on beautiful Lake Como.
From there, you head back on Piazza Giuseppe Manzini. This is the same road as Via Lunga; the reason for the name change is that shopping districts in Italy are have the name Piazza in the front as the designation to identify it’s about shopping. Awnings extend from the buildings which offers a welcome relief from the heat of the day. Tables are set closest to the street but still under the awnings, the pedestrians walking between the tables and heading into the shops. Yes, we’ve purchased leathers and watches in Bellagio, because some good deals and lovely items are to be had, but we know when to wait and when to purchase.
The narrow path in Bellagio less traveled. This is totally common outside the “U-turn” as I call it.
No, not really. Bellagio offers many more restaurants and shops, but the truth is that tourists are usually walking and don’t bother explore either.
With the two main hotels a hundred feet from the ferry, and waterfront restaurants, you can literally spend your entire time within about 5,000 square feet of the Hotel Excelsior’s front door and be completely satisfied with your trip to the famed Bellagio shops on Lake Como.
This building is adjacent from the marina above, one of the many hidden marinas not far from the glitzy Via Lunga, but taking a few side streets open up the gems of every day Bellagio.
Ever the contrarians, we went for the anti-Bellagio experience this time around. We rented a top floor flat in a Bellagio neighborhood full of locals about two hundred feet from the waterfront, about half a mile from Bellagio center. This required we walk through tunnels, up and over bridges, using the 700-year-old lanes so narrow I could touch the rock walls on either side when extending my arms.
Unless you want to pay 10 Euro to walk one-way through the Villa di Giardini di Villa Melzi, you will be walking on the road to Bellagio. This is about 1/4 of a mile from the center.
Butcher shops in a space no bigger than bedroom at home provided hand-cut prosciutto for our breakfast, a kitchenette size restaurant in an alley filled served diners on metal chairs and a table the size of my lap, all that was needed for two plates and lots of wine glasses. Laundry hung two and three floors above us, out of sight until we looked up, hearing the squawk of birds. Three babies in a nest were being fed by their mom, which made us wonder about the cleanliness of the clothes hung out to dry. It doesn’t get much more real than that.
One of the many inlets we found simply by wandering our neighborhood in Bellagio. The water was brisk but swimmable–the wind invariably picking up around 3 p.m.
Marinas and waterfront bathing
One of the appealing aspects of renting a unit like we did was the community “square” right down our street. We’ve found so many squares in Italy are based either right of front of, or nearby, a large church. This held true in Bellagio. Our first night was punctuated with the sounds of a big party. We unloaded then went exploring.
The community church near our flat where the party went down!
Sure enough, in front of the church was a basketball-size square, with community tables set up and a massive buffet-style offering. A band played regional music on a temporary platform, the tanging white lights straight out of a movie set. As the adults drank wine and engaged in lively discussions, teens lounged against the thick, stone perimeter of the marina below. It wasn’t exactly ideal for our girls, but was fun to take in and experience.
This lovely beach is free (as all the hidden ones are free vs for pay elsewhere in Italy), and has an eatery steps away. Another area found by walking around.
A bit more walking (about two minutes) and we discovered a connected area of sloping gravel and pavement which had a t-shaped dock attached. The following day, we returned to find the area sparsely populated, even though it was about 95 outside. Our girls jumped the dock, then followed the locals by hurling themselves off the high rock walls in to the lake.
More steps! A short cut connecting the waterfront, local road to the (only slightly) wider road used by cars above.
Later in the day, we continued our waterfront journey, discovering multiple inlets where the water from the mountains met the lake. These were usually alongside villas hidden behind dense shrubs, but we saw enough of the bamboo trees and glistening blue water to appreciate the property.
Our favorite places
In Bellagio, we’ve had gelato from every shop in the main area, and yes, we do have our favorite. It’s under the Hotel Excelsior right on Via Lunga. While it’s .50 Euro more than anywhere else in the main area, the store also offers a broader selection and bigger serving sizes. Right across from this store is a marina equivalent, owned by the same company. The portions are smaller, same price and not as firm (as in, almost runny gelato). I know this is getting in the visitor weeds, but some people pay attention to, and care, about the little things.
Our favorite eatery…
Our favorite eater isn’t one of the waterfront restaurants. It’s on the first and most popular path the tourists take, including ourselves years ago. We love it for the homemade soups, massive meat and cheese plates, bean soup, and pastas. Despite our intention to branch out and not go here, no matter what we do and where we eat, this is our version of the pilgrimage to mecca. We can’t come to Italy and not go to this little hole-in-the-wall restaurant.
Another local hangout- I shot videos of the girls jumping off the end of the rock pier. They figured if the locals could do it, they could too.
One of my favorite elements of traveling is meeting new people. This is Svetlana, who was in front of us at the gelato shop with her dog. She’s from St. Petersburg, Russia, staying in Bellagio for the summer with her boyfriend, an art dealer. She was adorable, and of course, had great skin which she covered under an enormous white hat.
My new friend Svetlana, a beautiful woman inside and out.
This other side of Lake Como
Leaving for Verona, we took the direct path, which in reality, means the single lane, lake-hugging road. And when I mean single lane, that’s not one lane both ways. It’s actually a single—one—lane. Cars going either direction share it as best they can at speeds one can only describe as uniquely Italian. Turn outs are rare, buses are common, and it was a torturous hour to reach the other side. Once there, however, the pace of traffic slowed, the buildings, while less pretty, more functional and crammed together along the waterfront, wasn’t a turn off. In fact, we thought this was the where “the real people,” of Italy lived and worked rather than on the well-known west side of Bellagio.
Important tip for parking
If you are going to drive a car and rent a place with parking, be sure to dig for details. While our flat had parking, what the owner didn’t identify is that the 800-yr. old, single lane road was barely wider than my arms spread apart (we checked this). The Fiats, Volkswagens and other mini cars could barely make it through, and at the end, the parking was in fact, plentiful. Probably is we are driving a touring wagon, and it’s as wide as a normal car. We ended up parking a quarter mile away at a park, but only after we dropped our luggage by the entry to this small lane, and hoofing it like college students on a weekend getaway down to our place. It was an unpleasant surprise, but in our lives, we’ve never encountered this before. Lesson learned; ask about the proximity of the parking to the unit, and width as well!
I just love this photo- the boat reminds me of a massive whales mouth that will absorb everything in its sight.
Feature photo: a view of Bellagio from the drone as we rode the ferry
Outrunning rainstorms, motorcyclists passing on a blind curve, uphill in the sleet and more craziness from the Alps
Leaving Thun behind us, we were no more than a mile or two outside the city, on the windy road alongside Lake Thun before we started seeing a handful, then groups, then dozens of street bikes zipping by us, coming from the mountains in the distances. We stopped at Lake Thun to take a few pictures, test the water and grab a bite to eat, but we were being chased by storm clouds. They were already brewing beyond Oey, and by now, we knew the routine. If we were lucky, we had two hours before we’d get dumped.
Two different views of Lake Thun as you head towards the Alp passes. Lakeside eating, swimming and skiing all set in the world’s perfect location.
Scenery admired, pictures taken and more bread, cheese and meats eaten, we got back on the road, heading towards the skyrocketing peaks of the Alps. Grass fields replaced apartments and homes, trees giving way to grey rocks which appeared soft from the road. The number of streams and waterfalls grew with the size of the mountains, and at first, I insisted we stop at every waterfall. After the fifth, I realized taking a photo of every water effect coming off the Alps was unsustainable, plus, it would probably be boring to you, the reader.
Never one to disparage a good water effect, but this was the seventh in about a five-mile stretch and I had to put an end to the madness that I knew would befall me when trying to pic “the perfect shot,” for the blog.
The glaciers and restaurants
By the time we reached the top of Furka, the mist had turned to rain, and anyone on two wheels instead of four were in trouble. Then came the hail. I was seriously disappointed because the glaciers were now half-cloaked in grey clouds and my camera was pelted as I took photos, but I wasn’t the only one.
The windy, narrow road of switchbacks, underpasses and overhangs has multiple turnouts for stopping and snapping, or as we found, resting. These hardy pedal-bikers who have the stamina to climb for hours paused, stretched then got right back on their bikes, ignoring rain and hail, soldering on. It was impressive to say the least.
Riding on two wheels instead of four is impressive in my book; hills and sleet are dangerous and not for the faint of heart.
For those wanting a warm drink, a half-dozen eateries dot the road, all with indoor and outdoor seating. Although the rain was coming down, it was still quite warm the entire time, all the way to Gotthard Pass, which would take another hour to reach.
Two different restaurants along the way to Furka Pass, but both enticing to the worn out and presumably weary riders. The bottom picture is a very bored looking woman in front of her chalet, which is located directly across from the restaurant in the upper right.
My favorite Swiss cows–so soft and fuzzy, lounging just a few miles below this dam.
As we reached the top of Furka, the rock formations changed yet again, then it was suddenly green as we began a descent to the high valley. Here, we took a thirty-minute break, darted inside the eatery, waiting for a break in the storm before heading down and out on a peninsula to take a family photo. The rain momentary stopped, we snapped in the high winds, Porsche started singing in front of the fields while I recorded her and then bam. The rain came thundering down and we were soaked by the time we completed the short run to the car.
Descending into the town of Wassen
Through the high valley we drove, enjoying the town of Wassen, it’s church in the center of town and the gelato. Although we wouldn’t reach the Italian border for another hour, Swiss-German had ceased to become the primary language, Italian was now dominant.
Very quiet at this time of year, save for a few hikers who were in the outer lying areas, presumably staying in the quaint hotels located in Wassen.
Gotthard ski resort
We’d expected beauty and grandeur, tunnels and turns, but not the development of the town of Gotthard, near the top of the pass but not quite. What used to be a few moderately sized buildings in what I’d describe as a punchbowl community, encircled by high peaks, is now a Whistler-style hotels, connected and imposing. While the two areas are being built around a courtyard, and not far from the gondola, it’s still disheartening to see the transformation of the area, but such is life and progress. The train goes right to the center of the development, and for the thousands of ski buffs making the pilgrimage, ourselves include, it’s nirvana for residents of two countries on either side; Lake Como or Thun, Bern and Lucerne.
White and craggly, the rock formations change with each pass.
Up and up again we drove, then suddenly, the sign for Gotthard Pass announced we’d arrived. Our car identified it was about 50 degrees but dropping below 30 with the wind and rain. I donned Roger’s coat, grabbed my iPhone and recorded a short video for Instagram.
Just before reaching the highest part of the pass, the glaciers appear then are gone just as quickly.
The absolute highest part of the pass where I jumped out of the car, shot the video and jumped back in.
Now going down and down…the clouds are still following but we outran them!
“What a strange choice,” Rog remarked when I suggested we zip through Bern and Lucerne in order to spend more time in Thun. But when I showed him the pictures, he was in. Thun (pronounced tune) boasts a lake, canals, a castle in town, and another three on Lake Thune, Schloss Oberhofen, Schloss Spiez and Schloss Hunegg. Beyond that is another lake at the base of the Swiss Alps. What’s not to like? Thanks to our VRBO rental in the town of Oey, Thun was only a thirteen-minute drive.
What upgrades a standard street to a culinary mecca? Handmade chocolates, that’s what.
Lake Thun is large enough to boat, sale or swim, and the inlets have perfect glass water for slalom skiing. Homes, hotels and eateries, formal and casual dot the lake itself. It’s far smaller than Lake Coeur d’Alene in terms of length, but is wide and dramatically set in the basin of the alps.
Our first stop was downtown, where several parking structures are within two blocks of the canals and main shopping district. For a few hours is about 10 Euros, the walk through one main lane, across a canal, then another lane, another canal and then you are at the base of the Castle Thun. Be prepared to take multiple shots of both canals and streets, and the best picture of the castle (if not from a drone) is off the canal-road. Straight up and click.
One of three consecutive stairs. You can barely make out the steps due to wear over the 700 years. Slippery as all get out, even when dry.
Then you are off to the stairs the Castle Thun. You can take the uncovered set, or you have a choice of several covered with wood, reminding us all of a medieval movie yet to be made. Old, craggly stones and even older arches above us got us talking about the townsfolk required to make the pilgrimage up the up the stairs.
Entrances to castles dramatically vary, from grand and imposing, to efficient, short or long. Castle Thun’s entryway was in between, on the shorter side, solid but not overly grand.
Nearest the castle are several enormous mansions under reconstruction, the sweeping views and majestic courtyards nearly (or some more so) impressive than the castle itself.
Although the armory is closed off (e.g. non-existent any longer) a few pieces are placed in the small courtyard. Not pictured is a small café to the right of the cannon.
Castle Thun is rather small and unfortunately, a tad stark. My girls called it straight up boring, but that’s all about perspective. It’s been turned into a museum, so if you compare it to the three other in the region, yes, it’s not going to over coats of arms, silver-embroidered dresses or canopied beds of the other castles we’ve toured. The purpose of Thun Castle is to highlight the history of the town, and rotating exhibits. Even so, the walk up is worth the effort as the panoramic view of the Thun is lovely and the descent options of the covered and uncovered, narrow walkways are completely unique to this city.
The shot up from the main courtyard. Much of the castle has been turned into a museum, making the outside much more interesting than the inside–for kids, that is.
What is pure European would cause heart attacks in the US. Multiple bridges, a quick moving river, men, women and kids jumping, diving and backflipping off the bridges, heads ducking under the lowest bridges, then popping back up, eventually trying to get to the side of the final swimming area or get smushed against the grate at the very end of the canal, where a very placid “lifeguard” is on duty. All in full view of espresso-sipping watchers eating paper-thin crust pizza, usually a cigarette in hand.
A sight never to be seen in the US–jumping off higher, medium and low-lying bridges, no age limits, no rules. Just fun.
When Rog and Porsche returned from a grocery run, returning with tails of kids and grandmas hurling themselves of bridges, we were skeptical. The water had to be too cold, too dirty and an anomaly. Let me assure you it was anything but. The city charges a fee which is given at the formal swimming/grate area, for I’m not sure what else to call it.
Canal-side sunbathing, dressing rooms (unisex and as you can see, open above the waist.
If you don’t want to end up at the very end, you can jump off further upstream, then swim to the side of the canal and pay no fee. However, the end of the line if you will has changing stalls, washrooms, a café, slide and upper deck on an island separating both canals. It’s just a bit nicer than getting out on the grass—but here, the Swiss don’t even want your feet to get dirty. If you desire to save the 7 Swiss Francs, concrete steps are on the side of the water so you don’t slip in mud. How civilized!
In between the two canals of Thun is this main street where pedestrians own the territory, shops are plentiful and goods are relatively reasonable (for Switzerland, that is).
One night, Rog and I left the girls with the farmer’s wife and children and had a dinner on the canal. It was low-key and romantic, the neon lights of the restaurants on the other side classy and demure, unlike the canals and lights in Amsterdam, if you want a comparison. Here, the tenor during the day even in the shopping district is relaxed and slow-paced, although fun and upbeat. Certain towns have a vibe, and Thun is one I’d describe is calm and happy. We just adored the two days we spent exploring the inner parts of the city, as well as the lake side area.
Both sides of the canals in Thun are equally beautiful, offering many eateries of all types.
What I liked best
Thun is easy going, from the driving to eating and recreation. We chose not to visit the several large swimming pool/areas because the lake was surprisingly warm and it didn’t take long to realize we could have spent two weeks in this one town and surrounding area of Interlaken and still wouldn’t have seen a tenth of what the area has to offer.
Tree lined, gravel walkways line the canals of Thun.
What I liked least
Knowing that when I return home, I’m going to feel a slight depression that nothing we have is as well taken care of, protected and preserved as it is here. The Swiss are so fastidious, whether it’s the backyard, the pavement of a tunnel, or the common parking space, the grounds, walls and surfaces glisten. No graffiti, not desecration of public space; its divine.
Book more than four days in the Interlaken area. We had five and wish we would have had ten. And this blog only covers the town itself, not the Alps!
“Thoone? Toon? Thune? How do you even pronounce that?” Rog asked aloud. By the way, the name Thun is pronounced ‘tune,’ as in, singing a tune, we were informed by a local, making it clear we weren’t the first and won’t be the last visitors to woefully mangle the town’s name.
View from the top of the stairs, just below Castle Thun.
Not many people know that for my 50th birthday, I asked Rog to find us a place that was local (e.g. didn’t require a plane flight), unique (something we’d never done before in two decades of marriage) and not a lot of money.
“The impossible, in other words?” he asked. Pretty much.
When Rog came back to me a few weeks later, he was grinning
like a Cheshire cat. “I don’t want to tell you, but I’m worried you’ll hate it,
so as much as I want it to be a surprise, I have to tell you.”
Good thing I was sitting down, because he’d booked a newly-built farmhouse on an eco-farm on a hillside in Nelson, British Columbia (blog forthcoming). It’s owned and run by a Swiss family who’d emigrated ten years prior. The farmer had taken over a ramshackle, one-hundred-year-old home, remodeled it and proceeded to create three, descending ponds, create four garden plots, raise cows from which the wife made butter, cheeses and milk. The experience was so completely odd and wonderful, Rog felt that for this year’s trip, he’d do us one better.
“I found us a 500-year old farm house to live in!”
Wow. Didn’t see that coming.
The local market across from the rail line in the town of Oey, Switzlerand (the market was actually 100% alcohol, but then when one is stepping off the train after working in Bern or Thun, I expect a good stein is what people crave.
A day in the life
Located in the town of Oey, the Familia Herrman Farm is a working farm, which means they live on the output of eggs, veggies, milk, cheese, composts (jams) and other items they produce. The farm has been in the family generations, and is now run by the farmer, his wife Annagret and twelve-year-old daughter. A woman in her mid-twenties had a week off of work for summer break and answered an ad to help out during berry season. During our time, it was lingone berry season, so in addition to the daily routine of waking at 4:30 to be in the garden picking, pruning and cultivating, Annagret was also making jams.
Five hundred years old and looking sharp.
Of the three-story building, our temporary residence was on the top floor, about two-thousand square feet with three bedrooms, a living area, kitchen/dining room and single bathroom. One thing I need to remark about the Swiss, Germans and even Italians—one bathroom to three bedrooms is the norm. That said, the tubs are seriously long- my 5’ 10.5 frame can lounge out toe to head in each bath.
Like many Swiss homes, farm or not, a breezeway dissects the main residence with the outer building, which can contain anything–cars, shop, equipment etc.
Factoid: The Italian influence is felt across the
country of Switzerland. Below the arches or above the doorway on the outside of
homes is usually the inscription of the family, and its always Familia first,
followed by the name of the family.
As we were going to bed at one or two in the morning, Familia Herrmann were up with the sunrise, working until about 11, when Annagret would make breakfast, usually of bacon and some divinely smelling concoction that made our mouths water. The rest of the afternoon was spent indoors, or in the pool to escape the sun. It’s been very warm during our day, the temperatures in the high eighties and one day the low nineties, which is uncommonly hot for this time of year—early July. Those temperatures are usually reserved for a week or two at the end of August.
Another element of Swiss architecture is the use of covered walkways, this one comprised of apple trees trimmed to grow in a linear fashion, up and over the path, to the tree.
My girls helped collect the food from the garden that fed the goats, gather the 80+ eggs from the two chicken coops, played with the dozen or so rabbits and lounged with the two cats. While none of these acts are individually extraordinary, what we wanted them (and us) to see is the day-to-day authentic living of a family, on a farm, in Switzerland. The twelve-year old worked as hard at her prescribed tasks as her mother and father; each contribution vital to the good of the family.
I took to walking morning and evening, doing a loop that was realllllly long and uphill if I went in one direction or short and downhill if I went the other. You know what my lazier self-wanted to do, but the pragmatist in me realized my pants have been getting tighter, so I went counterclockwise to fight the battle of the bulge.
After the daily showers, snails come out with army-like precision, huge and small. We were in awe this little guy went up a six foot apple tree, out the branch to dangle on the leaf, which, by the way, I nearly ran into face first.
One thing I did have to watch out for was the afternoon storms. About 2 p.m. every day, the dark clouds collected, quickly covering the mountains with a dark charcoal. The cracking sound preceded the thunderstorm then the heavens released its watery load. Pellets of rain, hard and furious, drench the entire area. Between the heat and high velocity rain storms, it’s no wonder this region is so blessed with the bounteous crops.
One of four gardens run by the Hermann familia.
Factoid: Horseflies come out at night, along with these uber-sized flying beetles. With the setting sun and cooler air, these wing born carnivores seeking human blood hover near the green fields, and if I walked within about five feet of the fence line, I’d get attacked. Thus, it was that my path was straight down the middle of the road.
The quite-as-night rail line is a two-minute drive from the home, and ten-minute walk to Oey which itself has been a joy to explore. Two small grocery stores, a micro-bank, four local restaurants and two outdoor shops. Up the road out of town, we found two ski hills, one if for locals only, and I do mean, only. A small bus that goes up two times in the morning and the same down for the return is the only car that can get up the narrow road. It’s built on an individual’s private mountain.
A typical home in Oey, Switzerland, right off main street.
The other ski resort is would also be considered local, but
this at least has five different, two-story chalets, two restaurants and a
sports center. It’s running now, and the dozens of mountain bike paths occupied
with avid outdoor enthusiasts.
Heading the other direction from town leads you across the lone bridge (and only ingress/egress) to Oey. Turning left heads you to Bern and Zurich, turning right to Thun, to Zermatt (prominently featured in my Danielle Grant romance series) through the Alps and in to Italy. In and around we have toured for five days and we want more!
What I loved
Everything I described. Our five-day, four-night stay on the farm was 574 Euro, which we thought was a screaming bargain. Goats, a pool, rabbits and farm fresh food? Any time.
The Bern region of Switzerland, lush and warm, bulging with agriculture and recreation, skiing, hiking and climbing, Alps style.
What I didn’t
The internet service has been terrible. What I thought was poor in Germany was space travel compared to the automobile which, like any car, was periodically out of service or struggling to even start up. But that’s what you get in the middle of the mountains; a small sacrifice.
Definitely a must-do if you want the authentic, Swiss family farm style experience. What a blast of a time.
The hills are alive…wait, that’s Austria. Regardless, this is what staying on a farm will make you want to do: break out in joyful song, hands in the air.
Feature photo: taken from the grassland in front of the Familia Hermann farm.