Wascana Park is the Place To Be on Canada Day

Saskatchewan Legislative Building

The Legislative Building with its gleaming new roof!

Wascana Park in Regina, Saskatchewan is often called the Jewel of the Queen City and that’s true. It’s a massive, lovely greenspace right in the middle of Regina, wrapping around Wascana Lake and anchored by the impressive Saskatchewan Legislative Building.  It’s beautiful, it’s all man made, and we love it.

But more often than not, the park is pretty much empty.  Cindy and I walk around the lake most days and we usually don’t meet more than a couple of dozen people on our hour long walk.

One major exception to this rule is Canada Day (July 1), when the park is full of people.  I walked down to the park in the late afternoon to check things out and see what was shaking.

I knew things were hopping before I ever got to the park.  There were cars parked up and down Regina Avenue all the way back to Elphinstone Street and along the side streets too, as people came from all points of the city to have fun in the grass.  Lots of red and white outfits, miniature flags and interesting coolers full of refreshments too.

Cool Cooler

Now that’s a cool cooler!

There was lots going on.  I avoided the Legislature at the start and turn left instead, making a clockwise loop around the lake.  The area around “the Leg” (with a soft ‘g’ please) was pretty loud.  I could hear a cover band playing the Canadian classic “Barracuda” so I gave it a miss for now.

Dickie Dee

There’s no chance of going hungry today.  Even on the ‘quiet side’ of the lake the Dickie Dee guys are there to help.

Instead, I walked around to Willow Island and watched some kids feeding the geese.  The goslings are already getting pretty big and  I’m sure they’ll get even bigger after getting fed so much bread today!

Feeding Geese

The south side of Wascana Park has lots of barbeques and picnic tables and they were all in use today.  Heavily in use.  The barbeques are a perfect place for a family picnic and it seemed like each bbq had a dozen or more people using it.  There were ball games and badminton games going on all over the place.   Lots of fun. I was tempted to pose as a long lost cousin so I could get a hot dog and some watermelon, but I chickened out.

Canada Day Picnic

The great thing about Wascana Park is that it’s so big, many thousands of people can come out and there’s still lots of space.  For most of the loop around the lake is still green and lovely, even if the path is a little more crowded than usual on Canada Day.

People Walking

Things are a lot busier in front of the Legislative Building, however. There are lots of food trucks and knick knack booths and activities for the kids. It’s a lot noisier than the rest of the park but there’s a vibrant energy to the area too.  Lots of activities for the kids and grownups too.

Canada Day Cricket

Regina’s a multicultural city, for sure.  But it’s going to take a while for these kids to get the hang of cricket.

Before I left for home, I found where all the music was coming from.  This year, they had a real live stage set up with a fenced off beer garden.  Being Canada Day, I’m sure the bands were playing Patriotic Songs of the Day, but I couldn’t quite make out the words.  Ah well.  Everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Canada Day Band

I’ll be heading back to the park later tonight for the fireworks.  Canada Day fireworks are Regina’s biggest, best (and some years, the only) fireworks of the year in the park.  They’re not to be missed.  2017 is Canada’s 150th birthday; I can’t wait to see those!

 

Anaheim Without Disney Is Still Interesting

I spent two interesting days exploring hot, sunny downtown Anaheim while Robyn was enjoying the air conditioned VidCon conference at the Anaehim Convention Centre. I’d walk with her for the first two blocks, then she’d head off, I’d stop for my morning cappuccino and then head north to the city centre.


A nice California ranch house in central Anaheim

The Anaheim Resort District, aka Disneyland, a city of hotels, fifteen Denny’s and a dozen IHOP’s isn’t actually the city of Anaheim. There’s a real town centre that pre-dates Walt’s Big Dream by 60 years or so, but it’s separated from the Resort District by the massive I-5 Freeway. Harbour Drive crosses the I-5, and so did I.

It was a long hike in the hot sun. It took me 3/4 of Blonde on Blonde to make it (all but Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands) and honestly, it’s just hot walking. I got to see the back side of Disney though, which is interesting in its own way. If I was ever making a James Bond film, I’d film it there; all the unmarked white vans, security checkpoints, severe tire damage gates and electrical generators would make a great villains lair.

Once across the I-5, I thought I was coming up to a light security prison, or a half way house maybe. I saw a cluster of low, long army-green barracks with a tall wrought iron fence all around it. I was shocked to find it was a school! Each building was two or three classrooms with private entrances and a asphalt playground in the middle. Whoo boy would it be hot on that playground! I know security is a big thing in schools these days but man, they are taking it a little far at Orange Grove School if you ask me. Maybe it’s colourful on the inside.

Cindy had done some recon for me and told me about a downtown farmer’s market on Thursday. So that was my first port of call. It was also my fourth port of call, since there was nothing going on at 10AM when I first arrived. I guess it’s geared toward the office workers and doesn’t really get going until noon. But it was worth the wait.

The market was laid out like a Y. The long bottom bit was the farmers; tables piled with melons and peaches and onions and strawberries. Lots of the fruit was spilled out cornucopia style, rather than the neatly stacked fruit at European markets, but it was all fresh and yummy and was all grown by the people selling it (which is rarely the case in Europe too.)

The left arm of the Y was the artisans; jewelry, knick knacks and designer kibble for your pooch. and the right arm was the food trucks. Yum! Fried chicken, barbecue, falafel, wood fired pizza and more.


The travelling pizza oven

Sadly, it was so hot that I couldn’t really work up an appetite, or a big sausage on a bun would’ve been my lunch. Instead, I bought a baguette from the bread booth and a basket of strawberries and ate them in the shade. It was the right call; I still had to walk back over the I-5 to get back to the motel.


Don’t stay in jail. Jail sucks!

The next day, I hiked back downtown. After stopping at the public library to write a post and flip through a few books, I walked one block further than the farmer’s market site to the Anaheim Packing House. This huge building was once the Sunkist citrus packing house, where oranges and lemons would get packed in crates and put on trains. Now it’s a gourmet food centre.


Anaheim Public Library


Instead of shipping oranges on train cars, now you can sit on a train car and eat

There are 20+ food stalls inside, selling everything from sushi to ice cream. There’s even a booth dedicated to variations of grilled cheese sandwiches. I walked around both floors twice before buying a barbecue chicken sandwich and a local beer, and then an ice cream cone for good measure.


Hey Robyn! Grilled Cheese!

It’s not easy to get to downtown Anaheim without a car. But if you need a break from Disney and can’t handle yet another trip to Denny’s or IHOP, it’s well worth checking out. It doesn’t take me long to need a break from Fantasyland, so I’m glad I went exploring.

In Search of Sambo’s

I’ve been to Anaheim before, but it’s been a while.

Aside from weekend fishing and camping trips, I only took two family vacations with my parents. The first, when I was 10, was a three week trip to Windsor and Detroit (via Bemidji Minnesota and Niagara Falls) for my cousin Mary Catherine’s wedding.

The second was to Anaheim and Disneyland.

We came in March, when I was in Grade 7. I remember just how green everything was; from the moment we left the airport I couldn’t believe all the green grass everywhere. Even the school fields were lush and green! We had prairie scrub at Ruth M. Buck school. Mixed with gravel. If you fell on the playground you were guaranteed a scraped knee and quite possibly some embedded stones. And anyway, it was St. Patrick’s Day; my playground at home would be covered in snow for at least a month yet.


ahh, vacations… This way we have room for Granny!

There were five of us on the trip. My Aunty Donna, mom’s youngest sister, was still single and flew down with us. She was the most important person in my 12 year old world; it hadn’t been that long since she’d been living in our basement on Bruce Street and then in her own apartment in Regina. We’d watch the Carol Burnett Show together on TV every Thursday night and laugh like crazy. And she’d let me read her old Mad Magazines and listen to her Donovan and Beatles records. She was so cool. But now she lived in Calgary, which would become the exotic escape for my sister Wanda and me for years to come. So we were thrilled she was coming on this big vacation with us.

Donna had a job working in PR at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, and she brought along a small bag of promotional material about Calgary. Since it was 1978, 10 years before the Winter Olympics would put Calgary on the world map, promotion was a big deal. But also, since it was 1978, it was still funny to roll up a fact sheet about Calgary, written in a tiny font on a small piece of paper, and put it in a clear plastic capsule. The fact sheet was titled “DOPE About Calgary” but all that showed on the capsule was the “DOPE” part.

That’s right, my hip, cool Aunt brought a baggie of white plastic capsules labelled DOPE on our family trip to California. You know what happened: she got picked for a random search at the airport, was asked about the baggie, and said “That’s my dope!” Our time at the airport was a little longer than we planned.

We did everything you’d expect on a 70’s romp through Southern California. We went to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm and Universal Studios. We took the bus tour to San Diego and Sea World, stopping at the mission at San Capistrano to see the swallows. We took a tour of Hollywood, saw the Walk of Fame and the Chinese Theatre. It was a blast.

Back then, Disneyland was a single park, ringed with tiny motor hotels and there was one big fancy hotel called the Disneyland Hotel. We stayed in a little motor inn, right across the street from the main Disneyland parking lot. The motel we stayed in wasn’t all that different from the Alamo Inn that Robyn and I are staying in now, in fact. Although the this area has changed a lot in 35 years.


Our motel. Good beds, great air conditioner, horrid WIFI

Now there are two Disney parks side by side; the original Disneyland and a park called Disney California Adventure. Between the two parks are at least four huge Disney hotels and a shopping street called Downtown Disney, where you can buy mouse ears and a shirt even if you can’t afford a ticket inside (a whopping $160USD per person per day now!) And while there’s still several classic motor inns around the park, there are also Hiltons and Marriots and Hamptons and all the other chains too.

I think California Adventure is where the old parking lot used to be. The parking lot for visitors is several blocks away now; there is a “Toy Story” bus line that constantly shuttles people to and from the parking lot.

And they do a lot of shuttling! Disneyland is still a massive draw from what I can see. Every morning, the hotels around us empty my 8:30AM. Half the folks head east to the convention centre, wearing their red, purple or blue VidCon badges. But far more people head north one block to Disneyland, in groups of four or six or eight, typically pushing a stroller, often with grandma in tow, and always, always wearing mouse ears.

The fashion is amazing, including the mouse ears. Disney sure has diversified since the 70’s. No more black Mickey Mouse ears; now, everyone is bedazzled! Sequins, fur, sparkly bows, and even leopard prints are the rage. And every type of Disney t-shirt imaginable is being worn too. They even combine logos now. I saw Mickey as a New York Yankee, Mickey as a LA Dodger, a Laker and an Anaheim Duck. Oddly, not as a Saskatchewan Roughrider, but I’m still looking.

Watching the dads and grandpas is my favourite pastime. Dad’s tend toward being sun-conscious or sports-conscious. That is, they either have the largest sun hat of the group (sensible and much needed if a little dorky) or are draped head to toe in the colours of their team. I saw all blue Dallas Cowboy fans, including hat, shirt, pants and socks and Cardinals fans who even had red shoes. It’s awesome.

But my favourite beyond all others is the matching family vacation outfits. I saw a family of six wearing bright orange t-shirts with Snoopy silk screened on the front and “Marshall Family Vacation 2016” underneath. Brilliant! Others wore all pink or all yellow or all green. It reminded me of the stag and stagette crews all around Amsterdam, but these folks were off to Disneyland and good for them. Robyn’s quite disappointed that we didn’t get matching outfits when we did our trips to the Maritimes and Vancouver Island and maybe she has a point.


Go Team Pink!

The other vivid memory of my first trip to Anaheim was the food. My dad is a very fussy eater and that intensified on vacation. On our first vacation to Ontario he insisted on only stopping at Husky House truck stops and ordered the same meal every time. This carried on to California.

I remember walking twice a day, in the morning and evening, south from our motel, alongside the massive Disneyland parking lot, to the southern corner of the park. There, on the corner, was a small family restaurant with the unfortunate name of Sambo’s.

We walked to Sambo’s every day for breakfast and every day for supper and Dad ordered the same thing every single time. Bacon, eggs over easy, white toast and coffee for breakfast and hamburger steak, soup and coffee for supper. When our waitress asked Dad if he wanted ‘the usual’ on Day 3 he beamed. There was no way we were going anywhere else now.

I took a few circuits around the Disney Resorts looking for Sambo’s yesterday but I couldn’t find it. I wanted to take Robyn and order a hamburger steak for old times sake.

I’m sure the name changed long ago but the building might still be there. My best guess is a place called Coco’s which is right beside our motel. It’s the right size and on the southwest corner of the current park, just like I remember.


Sambo’s? Is that you?

If I’m wrong, then the building and a ton of other places have been torn down to make a new employee parking lot. It all depends on whether California Adventure extends further south than the 1978 version of the Disneyland parking lot.


Noooo!!! Hopefully not, anyway

I’m going to pretend that Coco’s the old Sambo’s and will be sure to go there. Gotta keep the old memories alive.

But I’m keeping my mouth shut at the airport.

Off To Anaheim, California; This Is Travelwear? ; Finding Calm, and Something to Eat in a Sea of People; Buddy, Can You Spare a Screen?

The travel bug is incurable. Once it’s in you, any daily routine that doesn’t involve leaving the house early and exploring new surroundings just doesn’t cut it. So after 3 weeks of trying to find something new in the city of my birth, I jumped at the chance to cash in some air miles and head for the airport again.

My favourite daughter Robyn is heading off to VidCon, the annual YouTube conference in Anaheim, California. Her friend and travel companion couldn’t afford the trip this year but Robyn was determined to go. She’s not really comfortable travelling alone however, so I’m going as a roommate and Chief Transportation Officer. My main role as CTO is convincing her to walk around Anaheim even though it’s 30C+ every day.

Because I booked my flight two days before leaving, I couldn’t get the same flight as Robyn. Not the same airline either. Or even the same connecting city. So while Robyn flew to Los Angeles via Calgary, I took the longer route and headed east to Minneapolis. I had the opportunity to go to the airport at 4AM to catch my flight too. Take my word for it, Regina sure is lovely and peaceful at 4AM.

I still can’t get over the difference in how people dress in North America vs. Europe. My frumpy shirt and baggy pants make me the well dressed one here! The plane to Minneapolis was full of ball caps, t-shirts (not always covering bellies) and shorts. There was one guy in his 50’s wearing pale khaki short shorts with a black Motley Crüe t-shirt stretched over his belly. At 4AM! But at least he has a black leather bag.

I got caught up listening to 4 younger folks talking before we boarded. Two are off to Detroit to watch 3 baseball games in 2 1/2 days. Another man (in a suit, by the way) was off to Calgary, while a woman was going to her second house in Phoenix. She was 45 at most. She and her husband sold the house and now they were putting the furniture in storage while they looked for a different house. Flip and grow, I guess. I seem to have chosen a different path. Ah well.

I can’t deal with either fashion / lifestyle extreme, to be honest. The race for stuff and houses to put them in, or the general “I Work On The Rigs” look. I know I’m being an anti prairie-ist, but there were very few people on the plane with whom I felt comfortable striking up a conversation. Maybe I was just tired and missing my partner in travel.


Missing my travel companion. A seat was available too!

In Spain, everyone dressed like an architect or an industrial designer. They couldn’t all be architects, but still. I’d much rather talk to someone who is well dressed than hope against hope that the Gold’s gym gorilla boarding behind me sits down before my row.

The thing is though, I really love travelling. I even love airports, so long as I have a lot of time. I love wandering around the shopping area, buying an incredibly expensive coffee, and people watching. And you’re not going to find a more diverse and eclectic group of people than at a major hub airport in the USA.

Harried mothers with a bevy of young babes in tow, all eating a messy chocolate donut and then rolling on the ground.

People of every nationality with fashion proportional to the distance from Minneapolis (the further away, the nicer the clothes.)

Young sales types, looking dashing and serious and trying to exude success, walking with their middle aged mentors, who still have the dress but have softened significantly around the edges.

And everyone, I mean everyone, either sleeping, “doing business” on the phone or gazing, deep and unblinking, into the blue glow of their smartphones. If, heaven forbid, one is too poor or too forgetful to bring a phone, all the seats at the gate have tablets for some last minute deep gazing before boarding.


The gates in Minneapolis have tables with tablets, just in case you forgot your own.

I had a three hour layover in Minneapolis, but when I booked my flights Cindy noticed that the connection home is very tight. I’ll have 30 minutes to get from the LA plane to my plane home to Regina and Minneapolis is very large indeed. So I checked arrivals and departures board to get the lay of the land. If the gates are consistent (and these are daily flights so I bet they are) it’s going to be a challenge to make my connection. We’re talking two opposing wings of the airport.

Having time to kill, I did a dry run and timed myself from gate to gate. Through a combination of one flight of stairs, moving sidewalks, a tram and speed walking, I made it gate to gate in just over 9 minutes. So if I can get off the plane in 10 minutes, then run like hell with an empty bladder, I should make it before they close the gate with a minute to spare. To be safe, I tried to upgrade my return ticket to sit near the front, but it’s not allowed on my Air Miles redemption. I shall have to try over the phone.


Many, many hallways like this between my gate from LA and the one to Regina

I blame my overly polite Canadian-ness for a mistake I made on the second leg of my flight. The flight was full, and the overhead bins were going to be over stuffed, so the gate attendants asked for people to volunteer to check their bags. Since I had two hours to kill at LAX waiting for Robyn’s flight to arrive, I volunteered.

The problem came when I went to collect my bag before finding a place for lunch. Once I arrived at the baggage carousel I realized that I had passed out of the secure area. The secure area was also the area with all the restaurants. A slice of Banana Bread from Starbucks was my lunch and early supper until I hiked across the airport to find Robyn’s terminal, she landed, we found a shuttle bus and made our way to our hotel in Anaheim. I made it, but will be packing an apple with me for the rest of the week.

Oh, and just in case I was feeling too cozy as the new Hemingway of the travel scene, ready to run with the bulls or get into the ring to wrestle Mickey Mouse, the young lady at the Starbucks called me sweetie. I don’t think my hunky action hero appearance is working here.


Made it! Welcome to Anaheim.

The Way Back Is Shorter

People do it all the time. I know that. And yet our 8 hour flight to Europe was one of the longest and most difficult journeys I’ve ever taken.

It was hard on the mind and body to fly all night, trying to sleep while sitting upright, then finally landing in a bustling major airport in a foreign country. You’re tired, sluggish and disoriented. The signs don’t make a lot of sense. Everyone’s in a rush, but it’s unclear what they are rushing toward, or away from.


You’re here! Figure it out!

When we arrived in Lisbon, it took us at least 20 minutes to figure out how to buy a train ticket to our apartment. How hard can it be? Money can only go in so many slots, after all. But the first decision in a new country takes on a ridiculously huge importance. I’ll easily blow five euros on the wrong drink on Day 10, but spending a euro too much on the first train is not allowed.

Thank goodness for adrenaline. The physical fatigue of a sleepless night is more than balanced by the excitement of a new adventure. On the way out, pure adrenaline goes a long way to getting you where you need to go.

After the first few days, we’re settled in to a new routine. Get up, eat, walk around. Every few days, move on. It’s a wonderful, invigorating, sustainable groove.

However, as soon as our route faces home again, a switch flips in my brain. Living in the present is no longer enough. Thoughts of home and the future flood in and time speeds up. When we returned to Amsterdam for our final leg of our trip, I felt like I was killing time until our plane left in four days.


I don’t know how, but this had me thinking of home.

And time just kept speeding up. That same eight hour flight home felt like a drive to Saskatoon, except with two meals. Just like that, we’re home.

But this new accelerated pace is all in my head. I’m jacked up, I can’t sleep, but all around me is slow. The grass grew, but not that much. That pile of laundry is still sitting in the hamper. There’s nobody out on the street. It’s hot like an August scorcher, but the peonies haven’t even bloomed yet.

image

It’s taken a week to get over the time travel and match the pace of the world around me. To get a good night’s sleep; to not just bolt up at sunrise and pace about. To hang out in the afternoon like the dog and the cat.

And then, in the evening, to plan out the next trip.

*Hat tip to the wonderful Carolyn Mark for inspiring the title. I sing her songs often and with gusto.

Welcome Back, again

I just realized the photo and video were messed up on yesterday’s Welcome Back post. It’s fixed now. Sorry.


My second favourite square of the entire trip.  In the Gracia neighbourhood in Barcelona.

At least I learned another thing about how SmugMug privacy settings works.  It’s a very good service even when I mess up the settings.

Welcome Back


My favourite square in the whole trip: Square Alfalfa, Seville, Spain. I still dream about living here.

We arrived home safe and sound on Monday night and aside from stronger than expected jet lag (I’m still getting up at 5AM then collapsing in bed by 9pm,) things are good. We’re heading out for walks every day, Cindy’s putting our house back together and I’m either lining up meetings and visits with people or generally worrying. Back to normal all around.

But one thing has been happening consistently that is taking a while to get used to again. Everyone, and I mean everyone, who we pass on the street says “hi” or “good morning” to us. Every single person.

On Wednesday I was walking alone down Argyle Road at 7:30AM, when the only other person on the street passed me with a hearty “Good Morning!” I was shaken awake and found my manners in reply at the last possible moment before I could be classed as rude.

I’ve slowly had my manners worked out of me in Europe. Even when we were cycling in Holland and would pass another cyclist, they wouldn’t even make eye contact. Not even if we were the first person they passed in 10 minutes.

Way back in March, our host in Evora, Portugal told us about a trip she took to Calgary. She asked if it was our “costume” in Canada to say hello to strangers on the street, because that’s what everyone did to her in Calgary. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about Maria as I get used to our customs again.

We’ve also had several people replace “Good Morning” with “Welcome Back” which has been very disconcerting. I mean, when I recognize the person it’s one thing, but this morning two men passed us in the park and said “Welcome Back” and I had no idea who they were. But one fellow said he was following this blog so knew we were home.

As we continued the walk, I muttered something about how I was surprised that people I don’t know well were reading this blog. At which point Cindy hit me and said I just needed to stop worrying and keep writing. She does that a lot.

I started this blog for one person. Our friend Deborah asked if I’d be writing about the trip and I thought it would be fun to send dispatches home. But I never imagined so many people would be following along. Thanks for reading and commenting and emailing and everything else.

And thanks, Deborah. We’ll come visit soon.

I’ll keep writing, here, there and everywhere. I’ll keep you posted.

PS. I just realized Cindy filmed that crazy hand-crank Dutch bike ferry I told you about. Here it is…

Holland: Rime of the Ancient Cyclists

“Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”
Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Holland is the land of the bicycle. I read it from home, read it again on the plane from Venice, but learned it first hand at David’s Burgers in Leiden, Netherlands on Saturday night. As we waited for our burgers to get grilled up, I sat and watched the cyclists negotiate the T intersection; left to the train station, right to the University, and right then left over the bridge across one of the many canals that striped the city centre. I watched groups of young boys, young women in pairs and alone, old couples, families with two kids in the front. I even saw several riders hauling a friend sitting side saddle on the back rack. One girl straddled the front rack, facing the driver.


Leiden, Netherlands

My favourite was a young couple who were clearly on a date. Both were impeccably dressed, although the boy (who was driving) had a large pack on his back that his date needed to avoid, since she was sitting on the back rack, holding her purse on her lap and eating a banana with her free hand.

The bike parking is hilarious. There are way, way more bikes already parked than there are people in the town. There are racks everywhere. Many are double decker racks too. Rows and rows of them, throughout the town. And at any point in time they are 80% – 90% full, so people just park their bikes in the general vicinity of the racks. Most Dutch bikes have a quick and easy wheel lock that renders the bike useless when locked, so you don’t have to actually lock the bike to anything.

So with all these bikes around us, picturesque towns all close together, and hundreds and hundreds of kilometres of smooth paved bike paths around us (over 7000km in the Netherlands as a whole), you’d think it would be easy to rent a bike, right? Not for us, anyway.


Leiden

We were looking for bikes and saddlebags to carry our clothes while we rode from town to town. But while bikes are available at every train station, they don’t rent bags. And the places that might have bags to rent or buy were closed for their May long weekend. Argh.

We did find one place in Leiden that could fit the bill. Budget Bikes (now there’s a warning for you) was open on holiday Monday and had bikes and bags. At least I think they had bikes to rent. It said so on the window. But when we went inside the nice but shockingly dim young men had a really hard time coming up with two bikes to rent. They pulled one out of the back garage, and finally went through their stock of questionable used bikes for the second bikes. The bikes were old and clunky but the chains weren’t too rusty so we gave them a go. But they were way too small, no matter how high we raised the seats. After a couple of hours of riding my knees and back were screaming at me as, hunched and dejected, I finally found the bike shop again and gave back the bikes. No way could we ride these for a week.


The knee breaker

So we explored Leiden on foot. It’s an extremely picturesque little university town, 30km or so southwest of Amsterdam. Brown row houses lining cute little canals. Lots of good looking young people too.

One of the shocking aspects of Holland is how expensive everything is, from food to clothes to accommodations. Especially accommodations. In Leiden, we stayed at a minor hotel so far out of town that it was right on the border of the next town and it was still our most expensive stay so far (it would seem cheap in a week.) It was a good long hike into the city centre, but there was an intercity bus that ran straight past the hotel, along the highway to The Hague, so we caught that if the weather threatened rain.

In all, we found that things in the Netherlands cost 1.5x to 2x what things cost in Italy, which was already 1.5x the prices in Portugal. Bus and train fare was double. Meals? Double. That 6 euro breakfast for two in Lisbon was 15 euros in Leiden. Lunch ran 20 – 30 euros. And supper? We tried to avoid restaurant suppers when we could, or did our ‘two appetizers and a shared main’ thing to manage our cash. We were here two weeks and had to make our funds last.

Accommodations were a challenge throughout. Not just the cost (which was routinely 50% – 100% more than anywhere else bar Paris), but availability. The Netherlands in general, and Holland in particular, is booked. The days of carefree Mediterranean travel, where we booked a room the night before arriving, and paid half or less than our benchmark (the Park Town Hotel in Saskatoon) were over. Now we paid like the Park Town and stayed in the Super 8. But there were a few lucky exceptions.

Back to these bikes. After the long weekend had passed, we took the bus to The Hague, figuring that the larger city would have a place that rented bikes and bags. But after a day of walking from bike shop to bike shop and finding only one shop that rented bags as well (a hippy run coffee shop whose owner insisted he had ‘great bikes’ in the basement), we decided to loop back to Amsterdam and go to the first bike shop I’d emailed from Italy. They had bikes, bags, and would store our suitcases while we toured. So the next morning we took the train to Amsterdam, got the bikes, and took them on the train back to Leiden. Then we rode the bikes back to The Hague, experiencing the Netherlands bike route junction network for the first time.

These are the coolest thing. As I mentioned, there are over 7000km of paved bike lanes all over the Netherlands. The larger paths are part of the junction network, a spider web of paths that connect every town and village in the country. Armed with a map of South Holland, we could trace a path anywhere we wanted to go.

Here’s how they work. Every major bike path intersection is given a number. There’s a sign at the intersection with the number, plus arrows giving directions to the next junctions. For example, if I’m at junction 70, the sign will say go left to get to #68, right to #53, and keep going straight to #71. So all I have to do to get from Leiden to The Hague, for example, is write down all the junction numbers I need to pass through, in order, then connect the dots as I ride along.

It’s not perfect; some of the sign are vague, like when a single arrow points in between my two options at a fork in the road. Or when a low post is buried in extra long grass. Or when road construction, usually around a busy train station when we’re leaving a city, forces a detour around your junction.


Blink and you miss it!

But we found an app for Cindy’s phone which had the paths marked, if not the junction numbers. So when we left the path we could at least figure out which way to ride to get back on it.

For our first ride, from Leiden back to our apartment in The Hague, we retraced the bus route we took the day before for a while, before heading west to the coast. The Hague is very close to the Atlantic Ocean, so we cycled past gorgeous farms, then private villas and mansions, before hitting sand dunes and the coast. Rain was coming quick so we didn’t linger, and we certainly didn’t swim, but it was great to see the ocean, the long sandy beach, and the huge barges off on the horizon.

The Hague is a beautiful city, one of our favourites on the whole trip. It’s the seat of government in the Netherlands, (although Amsterdam is the capital; quite different from home) so you’ve got fine government buildings and lots of attractive, prosperous people on the streets. And there’s also a lot of very stunning, unique modern architecture, from the massive, all white City Hall and public library to the funky, new De Resident neighbourhood right beside the historic main square. De Resident is extra cool; they got a different architect to design each apartment building, so each building is unique. But each building also ties into it’s surroundings as well. They act as a bridge between the old city to the west and the modern skyscrapers to the east.

We were extremely lucky to find a cheap studio apartment right in the De Resident neighbourhood. We had a great modern flat, with these stunning buildings on one side and the old town on the other.

We would’ve easily stayed two more days there but, alas, it was booked. So we spent another half day walking about after our ride from Leiden and headed out the next day.

From The Hague, we rode south and east to Delft. It was a great ride, but cold. Although the clouds threatened all day, we stayed dry for the most part, riding on smooth, straight roads, along beautiful canals and past tidy little farms. Of course, we realized too late we were on the wrong side of one particularly long canal, so rode a few kilometres extra before finding a bridge and doubling back to our hotel. It was a modern place, The Shanghai Hotel Holland no less, but it was an easy ride to Delft town centre once we dropped off our saddlebags.


Delft

Delft is small and charming. It’s known for its blue glazed pottery, which guarantees some tourists, but it’s also a university town, so there’s lots of energy to the place. We spent a delightful afternoon and morning wandering up and down the streets, crossing every bridge and sitting down at as many cafes as we could handle. We found a great mom & pop bakery for coffee and pastries, and also found the square where all the students went for evening coffee. Great fun.

Just as we were about to leave Delft, we stumbled across one of the best experiences of the trip. We were crossing the main square, between the large church at one end and the hall at the other, when a newly married couple left the church and cycled over to the hall, followed by the wedding party and all the guests. All were dressed up, carrying blue and white balloons, and all were riding bikes. The lovely bride was in a cart in front of the lead bike, pedalled by the groom. In the background, the church carillon played wedding melodies while the bride and groom did two loops of the square then led the entire procession into the hall. It was elegant, teary-eye romantic and very, very Dutch.

From Delft we rode on to Rotterdam, one of the largest modern port cities in the world. But you wouldn’t know it from the ride; we spent a cloudy and rainy morning cycling through *polders*, the low fields that are completely surrounded by canals and are actually lower than the larger canals that run along side. Most of the polders had two or three cows, or some sheep and lambs, or maybe a few goats, all lazily grazing on the lush green grass.

The canals were a blast. I’ve never seen so much wildlife so close before. We cycled past families of ducks who had nests in the middle of the water, or wedged into the bank. We saw huge white swans, many geese and even several great blue herons, just doing their thing in the water. They weren’t scared of us at all. Heck, I got scared when we’d ride past some tall grass and an unseen duck quacked right by my foot!

Rotterdam is another of our very favourite cities. The combination of waterfront and crazy modern architecture is exceptional. It reminds me of a quiet version of Vancouver.

Out hotel in Rotterdam was right downtown, on the canal, on a converted barge no less. We were right near all the action and breakfast was included. Excellent! We locked up the bikes and spent the next few days wandering around this beautiful city.


Even the drawbridges are funky!

Our first stop was just up the road at the Markthal, Dutch for Market Hall. Holy Cow, what a place! Cindy read that at one point the Dutch were concerned that the European Union would outlaw open air markets (as if!) so in typical Dutch fashion they fixed things by building a massive, 10 story tall dome and put the market inside. The ends of the dome are just clear glass, but the sides are 10 floors of apartments and restaurants, that curve around the dome. I still can’t get over this structure; I can’t even decide if it looks better from the outside or the inside! But the food inside is amazing and the restaurants are very good too. There’s even a Jamie Oliver Italian restaurant there that seems very popular.

While the Markthal has permanent stalls inside, there’s still a massive twice weekly outdoor market on the square beside. So as it was now Saturday we checked that out too. Lots of fruit, meat, fish and cheese, along with all the household items and clothes that fill out these markets. I chickened out though and passed by the haring (herring) stand, although I watched a few locals eat the cured fish, smothered in raw onions, in two big bites.

Across the square from the Markthal is the Rotterdam Public Library, one of the best libraries I’ve ever been in. Even better than Bologna. Not only are there a ton of books and other media, but there’s a pretty good coffee shop too. It’s full of cookbooks so you can read while enjoying a drink.


The yellow building is the library!

You may know that I’m a big fan of libraries. 10+ years after stopping the planned shrinkage of the Regina library system, I’m worried we’ve stagnated a bit at home. I was encouraged by some of the cool modern libraries I saw in European cities big and small, but especially in Rotterdam. It’s in a great location, is in an amazing building, and has a ton of places to sit and work. And you know what? It’s busy! We could barely find a seat to read and write in the six floors we checked out. I guess if you make a comfortable space to read and work, people will use it. Time to get busy at home…

For one day on our stay in Rotterdam, we left the city via the water-bus and travelled just outside of town to Kinderdijk. It was time to figure out windmills.

Much of the modern architecture in Rotterdam is because they had to rebuild the city after bombing in World War 2. But the bombs missed Kinderdijk and there are still rows of windmills dating from the 1740’s there. We walked along the polders and went inside two windmills to learn more about how they worked and what it was like to live in one.

The windmill operator lived in the mill permanently, with his family. In one windmill, the operator lived with his wife and thirteen children! It was a tough life and things changed only recently. Windmill operators lived in the windmills up to the 1950’s.

Now here’s how they work. Remember how I mentioned that the polders are lower than the surrounding land? Well, the windmills help keep the polders from filling back up with water. A row of windmills sits on a narrow strip of land between the polder canals and a higher canal. When the wind blows, the windmill turns a big wheel that literally scoops the water from the lower polder canal and throws it up into the higher canal. Then, another set of windmills throw the water from the higher canal up even higher, into the Lek River.

That’s right, all the land is lower than the level of the river! It’s fascinating engineering, but it really brings home how the Dutch have literally built their country. Most of Holland would be a large inland sea if it weren’t for all this moving water.

Monday morning was rainy, but we had booked rooms up the road, so we bundled up and set out for our next destination, Gouda. Land of cheese, but with many more names than just ‘Gouda.’ The ride was hard; even though there’s a finite amount of ‘wet’ one can get, it’s pretty cold riding. But after around an hour and a half of riding, the rain stopped and we slowly dried out.

The highlight of the day’s ride was just outside of Gouda, when we rode past a community garden. But this was much more than a collection of garden plots. Each plot had a large shed/small cottage that was clearly made for the gardener. A place to hang out as he tended his crops. Many of the plots looked more like small yards than a mere vegetable patch. We wandered around and checked things out and took pictures of the sheds. Hopefully I can build one at home and turn it into a writing studio. With a day bed.

Gouda was yet another picture perfect little town with a shop lined centre, lots of canals and in this case, a very ornate old town hall right in the middle of the square. While it looked pretty large to me, the hall is too small for a town as important as Gouda, I guess, so they built a new town hall just outside the centre. Surprisingly, it’s designed to remind one of a stroopwaffel. Not cheese. That’s because the cinema, right next door, already looks like cheese.


The old town hall


And the new one


The cinema in the background

For all the cheesy time we had, we did actually find a very, very good cheese shop in Gouda. We got some lessons on how to pick a good cheese, ate far too many samples, then picked up a few wedges for our packs.

From Gouda, we headed north and west to another University town, Utrecht. It was a fun ride – no rain – but the clouds were threatening all day and we were buffeted by a strong crosswind. The land wasn’t a lowland polder fest, instead it was much more park-like, and it was as green and as full of wildlife as ever.

We just kept tracking our junction points, stopping for a snack now and then, and in a few hours we were at our new apartment. But not until we negotiated some major construction work, right around the train station, of course, and at rush hour. In Holland, rush hour means a lot of cars but even more bikes, so it was a very, very crowded bike lane for a while.


high speed trash net!

Utrecht was a really fun town. We rented a traditional Dutch home, a very comfortable, narrow row house with steep, twisty stairs and a small back garden. It belongs to Solveig, a very nice young woman who is studying at the University. We had a great visit when we arrived and learned a bit about the Dutch post-secondary school system. There are three types of Universities depending on the type of courses, which explains how everywhere we went was a ‘University Town.’

The architectural highlight about Utrecht, aside from the excellent library (why are all Dutch libraries so awesome?) is the Dom Tower. It’s the highest bell tower in the Netherlands, even though it’s no longer attached to a church! It used to be connected to a very large cathedral, but a large storm in the 1600’s destroyed half the church, right in the middle. The Protestants, who ran the church at the time, figured it was a Sign that the church was too gaudy, so left the centre in ruins. Now the centre has been cleaned up and is the delightful Dom Square, an open square between the tower and the remaining church.

They give guided tours of Dom Tower and we took one. It’s very good. The tower is so big that we stopped on three levels to learn about what was going on. Not just up then down like in Siena. The first two levels are private chapels, and the top two levels contain all the bells. Both 14 large bells, of which seven still remain from 1502, and a 40+ bell carillon that can played like a very large organ. The carillon can be played by a musician, but is also connected to a large wheel that plays a melody every 15 minutes. The melodies can be programmed much like a paper reel on a player piano, but with large metal pins and the tune changes over the year. We were told that the new carillon player in town is young and modern and will even play rock tunes on the bells when she has a concert!

The purpose of this leg of the trip was cycling, so we didn’t linger for too long in any one city. But we did get a full day and night in Utrecht, which meant we walked back to the centre that night for a ‘Utrecht by night’ walking tour. Students have set up light displays throughout the centre that run after sunset (around 9:45pm in May) and there’s a walking route to see them all. Some lights are on buildings, some in the trees and others are under bridges along the canals.

While the light displays aren’t too spectacular, the walking loop is a lot of fun. Tiny illuminated arrows are placed in the cobblestone sidewalks every so often, marking the route. They are far enough apart that you really have to look for them, and on quiet, nearly deserted streets in a Medieval town centre, it can get a little spooky. And there was a big payoff at the final point of the tour: the Dom Tower was lit spectacularly, right at the very top of the 95 metre tower. Right at the top of the hour, the lights went out, then the carillon played for a long time as the lights came back on and swirled and danced over the face of the tower.

For our final ride of our Holland loop, from Utrecht back to the bike shop in Amsterdam, we finally got some sunshine. Eight days of cloud and intermittent showers, plus one day of just plain rain, was making the bike rides a bit of work. But this day the sun was out and the sky was blue (well, blue-ish) as we set off on the bike path. Our route took us away from the highway and even away from farms; today we were in cottage country. We rode along large lakes filled with small yachts and lined by very fine cottages. Some were all out villas. Ahoy, rich folks!

It was our best ride of the trip, even though it was the longest. Only 30km by car, the windy bike path is much longer, but much more beautiful, so it took us five hours to get to Amsterdam. But it was lovely.

Some of the canals seemed completely dedicated to cyclists. At one point, there was a manual ‘bikes only’ ferry to get us across the canal! We loaded our bikes on, then turned a crank again and again to pull the ferry across the canal. What fun! At another crossing we once again needed a ferry, but we were now crossing the Amstel river so there was a proper boat and driver.

And then, there we were. Amsterdam. One second we were riding down a country lane, then we crossed a bridge, turned a corner and saw a stack of glass skyscrapers. We made it. By this point we blended in fairly well with the locals, screaming down our bike lane, turning corners without flinching, and cursing out tourists who kept walking in ‘our’ lane.

The final three blocks to the bike shop, deep in the heart of Damstraat and tourist central, was a little hairy, but we made it, returned the bikes, reclaimed our suitcases, blended in with the hoards and found a tram to our final AirBnb.

Amsterdam has a tourist problem, and they know it. The ‘Old Town’ area between the Central train station and Damstraat is completely, utterly clogged with tourists and weed smoking hippies. It’s not a lot of fun down there; maybe 25 years ago, but not today.

They had a great display at the library (another winner – what is it with Dutch libraries?!) about the tourist problem in the Old Town. They see how tourism is only growing and they have to choose between being like Venice (the city as museum and nobody can live there anymore) or New York (lots of tourists but people live and work in Manhattan too.) And they have the building plans to change things too. It was cool to see such forward thinking about their city.

But as crowded as it is, get outside this 5-10 block area and the city opens up amazingly. Literally, just go from this block where you can’t even see the buildings for people, walk across the bridge and go one block and it’s peace, quiet and locals. So that’s what we did. Even when we had to go ‘across town’, we steered around the centre instead of going through, and had a delightful three days in Amsterdam.

It still took a while to warm up to Amsterdam though. Too many thoughts about heading home, too many realizations that this would be my last good coffee, or Cindy’s last poffertje (tiny pancake treat) to enjoy what was in front of us. Plus I got a nasty flu bug on our first day and was too dizzy to ride the tram into the city; it took a day to get fit enough to walk around. But finally, on Sunday, our last full day in Europe, we figured Amsterdam out.

It started in Vondelpark, a large, pedestrian/cyclist only park in the middle of the city. Seeing so many people out enjoying the day shook the gloom off my shoulders.

Then the good vibes continued as we walked along lovely tree-lined streets, with a canal in the middle and tight, narrow, crooked row houses running the length of the block. We stopped in bakeries, took a good look at what everyone was eating for brunch, and window shopped for shoes and a new suit.

Finally, we turned the corner and fell in love. We had reached the Museum Quarter, with a gorgeous concert hall at one end, the massive Riksmuseum at the other, and the ultra-modern Van Gogh Museum in the middle. Beside the Van Gogh museum was a huge green space, and behind that, an exceptionally cool open air antique market. And within the market, was the coolest trio of street food vendors ever.

Poffertjes, made fresh and served hot. No syrup, just butter and powdered sugar.

French Fries, fried twice and served in a cone as the Good Lord intended.

And finally, a French stall serving grilled sausage, on a slice of toasted rye bread, with one swish of mustard. Simple and perfect.

Oh yeah, served with a glass of wine too, because we’re in Europe and it’s a civilized place. Not only will the world not end if you have a glass of wine in the park on a Sunday afternoon, but maybe your Sunday afternoon will be just a little better. A little more awesome. A little more perfect.

It was for us. So perfect that we enjoyed every bite, savoured every sip, and felt a connection with every soul who was sitting in the park with us on a cool, grey, gorgeous day in Amsterdam.

Then we cried a few happy tears, went back to our apartment and started packing. Tomorrow we go home.

Veneto: Great Food and New Friends

I’m from where food is grown. Maybe not all the food I want to eat (I love a good orange), but still. Meat, grains, vegetables. We feed people here.

So there’s a special place in my heart to visit places where the food is grown. And in Italy, it’s grown everywhere. But nowhere more than in the Veneto. Our friend and baker Giacomo was from the Veneto and told us so many stories of his homeland that we just had to go check it out.

Our first stop was Bologna, which is actually a little south of the Veneto, in Emilia-Romangna. It’s known as the food capital of Italy, genesis of the entire “Slow Food” movement. It’s the home of tortellini, mortadella (aka “baloney” at home), tagliatelle and, of course, bolognese sauce.

That’s all true, but I’ll remember Bologna as the City of the Portico. Most all the buildings in the old city centre have porticos on all sides; arched coverings that extend over the terrazzo sidewalks. If it’s raining, and country this green must get a lot of it, you can walk all through the centre without getting wet. One portico is over 3km long. Legend has it that it was built to transport a statue of the Virgin Mary between the church and the square; after years of it always raining on festival day, the town fathers built the world’s longest portico for a permanent fix.

Our apartment in Bologna was one of the best of the trip. A cozy rooftop flat tucked into the top corner of a large block, requiring us to pass through three iron gates and cross two passages with open views of the centre courtyard to get to our door. But inside we had a modern kitchen, a low ceiling sitting room, the most comfortable bed of the trip, and window that opened to the sky above. Even with all the sights in Bologna, I needed two afternoon naps in that cool, breezy bedroom.


Temporary bakery set up in the square beside our flat. Baking traditional cookies and bread as a fundraiser. I found it by smell!

Our flat was right beside the main food district, the Quadrilatero, so we walked down there straight away. The narrow four block area has been the food hub of Bologna since Roman times and it’s still going strong. It’s filled with fancy shops selling perfect fruits and vegetables, fresh pasta, cheese, oil, meat and fish. We saw our first butcher specializing in horse meat (a delicacy in northern Italy) although we didn’t have the guts to try any.


Read the label!

The food here is the most expensive we had seen in Italy, but it was so fresh, and presented so well, that we didn’t have any objections to loading up our shopping bags and cooking this great food in our apartment for two meals. There are also many excellent restaurants in the area, but when the food in the shops is that good, I just have to cook. Bags of fresh tomatoes, garlic and zucchini, plus lovingly wrapped parcels of fresh pasta and wedges of the best parmigiano made their way up to our room. We feasted that week.

It’s awesome just how many of what you think of as ‘Italian Food’ came from around Bologna. Aside from pizza, almost all of it. The city of Parma, home of parmigiano reggiano cheese and Parma ham, is just down the road. Modena, where all the best balsamic vinegar comes from is right there too. What a delight.

The city is beautiful too. We explored it in depth thanks to Robyn’s “Walking in Italy” book. Setting aside the miles of porticos for a moment, Bologna also has a huge, interesting main square, anchored with a massive statue of Neptune in the middle (even though the city is far inland.) It also has two huge towers in the city centre, so tall, so narrow and with such drastic leans to them that I was too scared to climb them. Although Cindy braved the climb and took some great pictures to prove it.

The main square also has the best public library of the trip so far. It sits inside the Sala Borsa, the former seat of the civic government, and you can see even older ruins through glass floors on the main level. It’s popular with readers and a major tourist attraction as well. Come on, Regina, get going with the public buildings already!


The public library!!

On our last day, we left the centre of town for a walk in two local parks. Two, because we started off in the wrong direction and found an open ‘wilderness’ park high on a hill outside the old town. It was nice, but a little too remote for our lazy day plans. So we headed back into town and found the ‘city’ park very close to our apartment, but in the opposite direction from where we started the trip. That was OK though, because the detour took us past our new favourite lunch Cafe. We dined on sandwiches, wine, with fresh strawberries and ice cream for dessert, all from a high patio beside the street. It was a perfect venue to hang out and watch the world drift by.


I made two new friends with my paints

We left Bologna after stopping at our new favourite gelato shop for breakfast. Hey, when you make unique flavours, in house, from organic ingredients, and get recognition from the ‘slow food’ folks, and when you’re right across the street from our apartment, you are a perfect gelato shop for breakfast! Gelato then a walk to the train station – talk about leaving you wanting more…


Our favourite gelateria in the world! #1 of a series

We stayed in Verona on a whim. Our friend Giacomo, who is from the Veneto, sent us a message that said “Verona is nice.” That was enough for us! And you know what? It is nice. Very, very nice.


Verona

The train ride was very short but intriguing, because the landscape looked a lot like home. We sped through flat, green farmland, just like at home if we still had trains. Sure, many of the farms had grape vines and orchards, but there was wheat too and attractive vegetable gardens. And mountains! The start of the Alps, with Gran Paradiso and the Italian Lakes off in hazy blue distance. They’d have to wait, but on a clear day they set off Verona’s buildings beautifully.

You may know Verona as the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There’s a bit of recognition here; a balcony with a sign “just like Juliet’s” etc. but not too much. What Verona had for us is the Holy Trinity of Awesome European Cities: rivers with lots of bridges; a castle; and a Roman Arena. We spent two wonderful days strolling along the river and trying to figure out the best view of the castle, and touring the local cathedrals. When that got tiring, we’d sit in the town square, sip Spritz (the local specialty) and gaze at the Arena that was smack dab in the middle of the square. It’s in good enough shape that the Arena is still used for operas in the summer.

I don’t want to gloss over the beauty of Verona. It’s awesome. But by this point we were settled into a gentle Italian groove that was so relaxing and so satisfying that I could keep it going forever. Our toughest decisions were selecting the right gelato shop from fifty options, or whether to dine at a small family run pizza shop or the neighbourhood Osteria (we did both!) We found a lovely square near our apartment, and away from the tourist loop, which had enough bars and restaurants to keep us occupied for a week. So long as you knew the Italian words for ‘horse’ and ‘donkey’ in order to navigate the menu, it was smooth sailing.

It was bliss. I was in a beautiful country, with amazing scenery and delicious food that was reasonably priced, with friendly people and just enough chaos to keep things interesting. I was with the woman I love. The sun was shining and the river was blue.

At this point we didn’t think things could get any better. But it did. It got better because we got to meet Giacomo’s mom.

Giacomo grew up in Padua, east of Verona, but his mom Alessandra recently moved to Malcesine, west of Verona, along Lake Garda in the famous Italian Lake District. So on Saturday we packed up and took a train, then a bus to Malcesine to meet her and her partner Angelo.

Malcesine is beautiful. The whole lake is, really. It’s a resort lake, for sure. A deep blue lake, surrounded by tall mountains and full of sailboats, windsurfers and very few powerboats. The single highway along the lake was crowded with cars and hundreds of cyclists. Everyone was out in the sun and having fun. The lake is very popular with Germans; most of the signs were in Italian and German and the owner of our hotel spoke better German than English. We even saw some German bakeries in the town. But there was enough pasta and gelato available to confirm we were still in Italy.

Alessandra is a delightful lady, who misses her son very much. Cindy and I were her connection to her boy so we have many hugs to give him when we get home. And she fed us enough that I’m sure some of the food was for Giacomo too!

We had a lovely day together, wandering through the old town, strolling along the lake, eating gelato and comparing Italy to Canada. Alessandra’s English was better than our Italian and we had Google Translate to bridge any gaps. Angelo didn’t speak any English at all, but he spoke sports, so he and I talked football and cycling. We even watched the end of the day’s Giro d’Italia stage on TV together and cheered whenever anyone named Giacomo was mentioned. And I learned that I must cheer for Juventus and never Milan.

We could only spend one day together, sadly, because Alessandra had to work and we had to get back to Verona for my special splurge of the trip. I saw a poster that the Hellas Verona football club was playing their final home game of the season on Sunday night, against Serie A champions Juventus no less! Since Juventus had already clinched the title, and Verona was guaranteed to be relegated at season’s end, there were still tickets available, and we got two very nice seats in the neutral side of the stadium.

The game was awesome. I’ve never heard so much noise and singing at a sporting event before. The away fans from Torino were extremely loud, singing praise on their Juventus or abuse at the Verona fans. And then the Verona Ultras would reply and the stadium would shake with their booming songs. Thankfully I don’t know enough Italian to understand the words. I assume it was mild, like “Our Team Is A-OK” or “Bad Luck, Visitors” and stuff like that.

Things started off rocky for us until we realized that, even though Verona was the home team, there were many, many people in our section who were there to see the champions Juventus. Lots of families with young boys wearing the black and white stripes of their heroes on the visiting team. So we made sure to cheer everyone and not look too happy when the home team spanked the champs 2-1 to end their season on a high. Verona striker Luca Toni, playing his last game as a pro, took a lap of honour after the game and I cheered along; his was the only name I recognized from the home team, after all.

Leaving Verona for the second, and final, time on Monday morning, we headed east to Padua. We’d been in the Veneto for a long time now but we still wanted to see some of Giacomo and Martina’s home town. Plus, Padua is just outside Venice, so was a nice stepping stone to the famous lagoon.


Padua!

Padua is a beautiful city and well worth a visit on its own. It’s got some amazing architecture, not least is the huge market building that is surrounded by three distinct squares. The building itself is full of market stalls; butchers, bakers, fishmongers, cheesemongers and wine shops and the surrounding squares are full of fruit, vegetables and flowers.

One of the coolest things about these market squares is the variety of what’s on offer. It goes well beyond food. So many of the market stalls, up to half in some cases, are for non-food items. Soap, dishes, small appliances. Clothes too. Racks of shirts. Stacks of denim, or socks, or underwear. Mannequins displaying lingerie even. I’m sorry, but I can’t do it. I’d try horse meat before I’d buy underwear from a market stall. Or even a new outfit. I’m not ready for that yet. But lots of people are, that’s for sure.

We were also blessed with one of the very best gelaterias in Italy (better than Bologna? OK, a tie) right beside our Padua apartment. We couldn’t go there for breakfast, because “La Romana” didn’t open till noon. But we went for several nightcaps, along with 50 or 60 other Padovans, just before the midnight closing time. Even after we met Francesco and Nicolo for a late goodbye beer, we still had time for one last gelato at La Romana.


Our favourite gelateria in the world!

The Tour d’Giacomo included a bus ride out to the suburbs to visit Pasticceria Paride, the bakery Giacomo worked at before he left Italy. It’s a lovely little place, right in among the residential neighbourhood, with coffee and gelato and croissants and delicious little sweets. After a few attempts with our bad Italian, they figured out why we were so interested in the place, and Paride invited us into the back to watch them work for twenty minutes or so. One of the bakers spoke English so we had a great time comparing equipment, techniques and bakers hours. Paride wanted to know what type of things we made at Orange Boot. He doesn’t make bread, and I think he likes the fancy pastries better, but we got along. Especially after I grinned and complemented him on his chocolate tempering machines. I can’t see how Orange Boot version 3 can exist without them. And gelato.

We also connected up with Francesco and Nicolo, two friends of Giacomo’s who all lived together in London before Giacomo came to Canada and they returned to Padua. They took us all around the city, taught us the right way to order Spritz and tramezzini (tiny sandwiches) at the bar, and then took us out into the country for an amazing authentic Veneto meal. We talked for hours about life in Italy and they asked a ton of questions about life in Canada. They want to come visit soon. I sure hope they do, so we can show them around Regina like they treated us in Padua.

On our last day in Padua, we went to the Scrovegni Chapel to view the famous frescos by the master Giotti. The entire chapel is covered in a cycle of paintings telling the same bible stories about Jesus and Mary that I learned in Sunday School. Except in this case, the paintings were done in 1305! It was stunning. The paintings were in remarkably good condition; I was surprised to learn that any deteriorating has happened in just the last 100 years, as structures surrounding the chapel were torn down. Now water can damage the paintings from the outside in. But I think some of the exorbitant viewing fee is used to pay for restoration work. I hope so; it’s an amazing space of art and history, and well worth preserving.

And then we went to Venice. One of three tear-inducing, I-can’t-believe we’re-actually-here places on our trip, along with Paris and Odeceixe, Portugal. After all the beautiful places we’ve seen in Italy, I really wasn’t expecting much of a thrill from Venice, but oh boy was I thrilled.


Our first view of Venice

I think it starts before you even get there. The city really is an island, just like they tell you. OK, a series of islands, but they are way out there. The train line crosses more water than you expect before you get to the station. And you can’t really see the city from the train. You cross along the causeway, leave the train, wade through the station along with a thousand other people, then pop out onto the plaza with the Grand Canal, water taxis, those lovely stacked buildings and a Cathedral just right there, staring at you. It’s breathtaking.

Venice is so tight, so narrow and twisty, and full of canals and bridges and interesting little shops, that it’s almost a requirement to get lost. We spent four hours wandering around the city, based loosely on the route in Robyn’s book. We tried to follow the map but got lost repeatedly, weaving off and on the route the entire way. It was a cool and rainy day, but we went with the flow and always seemed to duck into a bar or restaurant just as the sky opened up. Let it rain – we have Spritz and pizza!


Unique Venetian fashion

Oh, and here’s a tip. Even if you’re travelling light, like us, consider checking your bags at the train station, rather than lugging them through town. We only stayed one night in the city, so we put a change of clothes in our backpacks and left the rest at the station overnight. It was much easier finding our hotel without lugging bags up and down the bridge steps and dodging fellow tourists. Watch even one newlywed couple try to get back to the trains, with a chivalrous husband lugging two huge suitcases through the alleys of Venice and you’ll forego luggage all together.

Even though Venice is packed with tourists (and it is packed, let me tell you) the vast, vast majority of people head straight to Plaza San Marco and stay there. We went, we walked, and we admired it, but then we left the square and wandered to the edges. It was pretty much empty out there but no less interesting. There are just as many shops, and amazing contemporary art, and excellent coffee, and food too. And you can walk a bit in peace.


Dead end!

Then in the evening, after the busses have gone back to Mestre for the night, we went back to the square and really took it all in. It’s wild. Really, the best formal square of the trip, and we’ve seen a few. It’s just really weighty, heavy and perfectly proportioned, from the clock tower that is huge and solid, to the St. Mark’s Basilica, that is big and gorgeous and shiny and gold in the evening light, to the three rows of buildings and continuous porticos that make up the square, but run at odd angles, so the square really isn’t. It’s awesome. It’s heavy enough to be very, very impressive. It’s so heavy, in fact, and so close to the Grand Canal, that you really do get the impression that Venice is sinking. I mean, you pile that much stone on a spot and it’s bound to sink a little, right?

For our last night in Venice, our last night in Italy in fact, we took it slow. A nice meal of chicken and vegetables and pasta, sharing a table with two delightful Dutch ladies. A gondola ride that went right past our hotel. A stroll along the Grand Canal and past the opera house. Then off to sleep in our romantic old 6 room hotel deep in the Venetian maze. Tomorrow will be a new country and a new adventure.

Our trip is nearly over and the thought of coming home, of no longer travelling, of not having markets and terraces and good coffee and gelato and local fruit has me in a melancholy funk. My mood is the same grey-blue that is all over Venice at dusk. Dusk is the time that you feel the age of the place.

Venice feels old. Really old, and tired. More tired than anywhere we’ve been. It’s carried the weight of its citizens for hundreds of years, and now carries the weight of the hoards of tourists. One news agent had a sign saying “Venice Is Not A Theme Park” but honestly, with so many tourists coming through every day, even in this ‘shoulder season’, it kind of is. There isn’t a single business on street level that isn’t focused on the tourist trade, and I was looking.

And that’s the thing about Italy. The place really pulls at you. We came here as tourists and we’re leaving as tourists too, I guess. But it’s just so damn comfortable. Sure there’ street history and architecture, I wasn’t here long before I started acting like I lived here. Where’s the hardware store? Where can I buy a toaster? Where’s the bike repair shop?

I’d live and work here in a minute, if I could. Give me a coffee bar, a fruit stand, a gelateria and an Internet connection and I wouldn’t leave my block. “Buongiorno. Il mio nome è Marco. Sì, l’Italia è bella . Vieni a sederti. Hanno po ‘di vino!”

Tramping Through Tuscany

After the hot cliffs and beaches and clear blue skies of the Cinque Terre, we headed inland toward Tuscany. Our first stop was Lucca, a hot tip from our bakery friend Elanna. It’s well worth checking out.

The train ride to Lucca was short but full of interest. We passed through Cararra, home of the marble made famous (to us) by Sarah Richardson and all her decorating shows. An episode isn’t complete until Sarah picks out a slab of Cararra for a countertop or backsplash. Well, it all comes from a single mountain outside this town. We passed the white marble mountain, then through the town with work yards full of marble. Huge blocks that could be used on the Pyramids and row after row of thin slabs, ready for a kitchen or bathroom in Harbour Landing.

Then we turned inland, through tall green hills with villages wedged in between the slopes and gardens and fields in the valleys. The land was green, fertile and full of life.

Lucca itself is unique in that it has an intact city wall, surrounded by a green space and even a moat (ok, a canal) in places. The wall was designed by Leonardo da Vinci, no less, and has never been breached. From the train station outside the walls you need to find a gate through the walls to get into the old town. But the best part is the top of the walls is a long, wide, wonderful walking / running path and park. You can walk around the entire town on top of the wall, and many, many people do.

Inside the wall is an old medieval village with black slate, twisting cobblestone streets. The only change seems to be the replacement of blacksmiths with gelaterias. A stone lined canal runs through one corner of the town and feeds several public fountains. Locals line up to fill collections of glass water bottles directly from the fountains, even though the tap water is great.

There are lots and lots of bikes in Lucca. In fact, I bet the number of cyclists outnumber the cars. Our first afternoon in town we had lunch at a tiny cafeteria and watched bike after bike pull up and park at a church next door. After the 30th young woman or man rode up and parked we figured there was something going on. Something stylish because all the cyclists were very well dressed; more for a concert than a workout. Finally we realized that they were all picking up kids from the school beside the church. One by one the parents or grandparents came out of the school with a child in tow. Some kids walked beside mom’s bike, some rode on a rack in the front or the back (or both!). Some came over to the cafeteria for coffee and a cookie. It was the closest thing to when the daycare let out beside our bakery, but with bikes and it was awesome.

But there are still cars, and with all the cars, all the bikes and the complete lack of sidewalks, walking around could get treacherous. Especially near the squares with fountains and odd traffic circles. These spaces gave the best views but also had the biggest risks.

There was a cool old bakery in the middle of town that was pretty jammed full of people, but I wedged my way in and bought some bread and focaccia. The baker spoke English so we talked a bit about how it was nice to try ‘real’ focaccia, especially as I made a version at the bakery at home.

The coolest thing was that his focaccia was quite a bit different than the ‘real’ focaccia I had in La Spezia, only 30km up the road! The La Spezia version is a little thicker and quite a bit more oily. My new friend in Lucca said his was the Real focaccia, and I preferred it. But I made a note not to beat myself up so much when people tell me I don’t make a ‘real’ German Rye or a ‘real’ Sourdough loaf. There’s as many versions as there are bakers.

We wandered all around Lucca, through the town and up on the walls. Cindy’s book of walking tours gave us some nice routes so we didn’t miss a square or a church. We even paid to walk up a tower in the middle of town to see the whole town and surrounding countryside. It was beautiful. Brown-red buildings surrounded by green trees and rolling hills.

We had so much fun in Lucca that we decided to stay an extra day, in order to see their Saturday market, even though our apartment was spoken for. So we booked a room in a pension for one night and moved 300 metres to new digs.

Big mistake. That particular Saturday was a washout. As in, massive Noah style rains. The walk to our room was only three blocks but we were completely drenched. Rather than go to the market (which was cancelled anyway) we hung all our clothes to dry and, after a delicious pizza lunch, stuffed newspapers in our shoes and hoped they’d dry in our cold, damp room. Cindy’s shoes were dry enough to head out for a much needed haircut, and learned that her new favourite stylist has a cousin in Regina. No kidding! We have someone new to call when we get home now.

Damp but undefeated, we left Lucca on Sunday morning on the train for Pisa. Even without the Leaning Tower, Pisa is an interesting city. It was an ancient maritime powerhouse that collected many riches via trading and menaced the surrounding towns. Many of the castles we visited in the area were fortified to protect the citizenry from attacks from Pisa.

We checked our bags at the train station and strolled around Pisa, once again following a route from Robyn’s excellent “Walks in Italy” book. We walked up to the main square the Campo de Miracoli, and saw the famous Leaning Tower and the Cathedral beside it. All the white marble buildings in the square shone against the bright green grass of the square. It was cloudy outside, but I could imagine how the buildings would stand out against a bright blue sky too.

I soon got freaked out by the crowds of people in the square, though. It was jammed with people all doing the same thing – posing for pictures. Either selfies with those infernal sticks or three thousand people doing the exact same “hold up the tower” pose. This often required the camera person to sit on the ground, across the sidewalk from the poser, to get the angle just right. And boy did they get mad when you walked in front of them! At least the first 500 people did. Then I walked behind the posers to photobomb as many selfie shooters as I could before Cindy got mad at me and we left the square. Well, really.

The rest of Pisa outside of Campo dei Miracoli was pretty much deserted, so we had a delightful afternoon following the route in Robyn’s book. We walked up the Arno River, then crossed the bridge and walked down it. We went through Girabali square for gelato. And we found a delightful little park surrounded by restaurants for lunch. We actually went in one block to a tiny pizza restaurant where we were the only English speakers in the place. Only long tables of locals out for Sunday lunch, chowing down on pizza or these immense focaccia sandwiches, that were as big around as a pizza but three times as thick.

Full and footsore, we walked back to Pisa Centrale station, collected our bags, and hopped on our train to Florence. We had booked an AirBnb apartment just outside of the city centre, right near the tram station. We met our host Frederica, got the keys and settled in for the next four nights.

When we arrived in Florence, I realized I didn’t really know what I wanted to see there. I had always wanted to see the Duomo, that large red dome that towers over the rest of the city, but beside that, I didn’t have a lot of ideas. Thankfully, Robyn’s book came to the rescue. We spent two delightful days trekking through the streets, alleys and parks of central Florence, walking along and across the Arno River (upstream from Pisa), sitting in the delightful little squares, having gelato at Vivoli (as seen on “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having”) and walking through the large central market.

In the end, Florence provided many “bests” of the trip so far. Best espresso macchiato, from the Grand Cafe beside the Plaza San Marco. Best leather jacket hard sell, from the vendor in ‘leather alley’ (I looked fabulous, but 300 euros was way outside my budget.) Best hard sell leather bag (150 euros, still too much) from the same block of stalls. And the best loaf of bread on the trip, bar none, from Pank, upstairs at the central market.

The upstairs of the market is very interesting. It’s been turned into an upstairs food court, but from what I could tell, they are all connected. Sort of a big food family. I know I poo-pooed a similar setup in my Lisbon post, but at least this was a complement to a real market, not a replacement. And it had a real, proper bakery.

We bought a ciabatta loaf which looked nothing like any ciabatta I’d ever seen. It was baked really dark and looked more like a flat loaf of bread rather than a flatbread, if you follow me. The bakery was open for viewing so Cindy and I sat for an hour on high stools in front of the oven and watched the baker do his thing, baking off deck after deck of long pizza breads that were baked with tomato sauce, then topped by the sandwich prep baker and baked again before serving. Everything from the bread, to the baker, to the counter staff was awesome. They were all pros, 100%. We ate an excellent apricot tart and watched everyone work like a well oiled machine, like Orange Boot on our best days, then told them how great they were and headed out. Later on, when we ate the ciabatta on a church bench, we wished we’d bought more.

On our last day in Florence we caught a bus to Fiesole, a hill town just outside of the city. It had amazing views of the entire city as well as the valley around Florence, but the highlight of the day was the extensive Estruscan and Roman ruins. We walked for an hour around the excavated baths and temples before having lunch sitting in the Roman theatre, which is in good enough shape that they still hold concerts there in the summer. Then we walked through a really excellent museum where they displayed Estruscan, Roman and Longobard (ie, Lombards, the Germanic folks who came after the Romans) artifacts that have been found at the site and around Fiesole. This included several Longobard tombs which were exhumed and moved to the museum intact. A little creepy but extremely interesting.

From Florence we moved on to San Gimignano, a small medieval hill town in the heart of Tuscany, where I am writing this now. It took a little doing to get here – a train to Poggibonsi, 11km away, then a somewhat harrowing bus ride up the hill to the gates of the old town. But from the moment we got off the bus we’ve been in love. It’s simply stunning here.

I never really got those Scotiabank RRSP ads where 50-somethings exclaim “we can afford that villa in Tuscany!” but now I do. This is serious upper-middle class adult Disneyland here, except it’s real. High, rolling hills all around you that are impossibly green. Vineyards off in every direction, growing Chianti grapes or the lovely Vernaccia white wine grapes. Rows of tall, thin cyprus trees lining the country lanes. Olive orchards where there aren’t grapes. Red brick villas dotting the countryside. An beautiful wild poppies in the every ditch and around every fence post. Holy cow it’s beautiful.

We spent two sunny days exploring the hills around San Gimignano. We’d leave after breakfast and descend down from the town, through vineyards and past impressive villas, stopping only to admire the views, take a few more pictures, and wonder if some of the old stone shacks were for sale.

The first day was a winding 14km hike to the neighbouring town of Certaldo. We followed a meandering route along a ridge line through the hamlet of Pasole before finally descending down to Certaldo. It was a gorgeous walk till we hit the town; the final kilometre or so was along a busy highway. Then we rode a very cool funicular up to the old townsite for gelato and more exquisite views. Then we hopped the train to Poggibonsi and the bus back to San Gimignano, before heading off for our best meal of the trip. We had a lovely traditional Tuscan meal of charcuterie, pasta, Vernaccia wine and dessert on a patio overlooking the valley we walked through earlier in the day. It was a big splurge for us, but oh so worth it.

Our second walk, on May Day, was intended to take on a loop past the hill town of Ulignano. It started off brilliantly, descending down through a forest of poplars and pine trees, past acres of vineyards and the winery itself. But then the route branched off to a dirt trail that was described as ‘treacherous when wet.’ And it sure was. The road was all mud from a big overnight rain, and the soil was heavy clay like back home, the kind that would suck off your rubber boot on the school playground. We tried our best but abandoned the trail before we hit the bottom of the valley; better that than to lose our shoes.

Bees! This pic’s for you, Ed!

So we tried to follow the highway to Ulignano and retake our trail on high ground, but it was too much. Too much traffic on the narrow highway was No Fun, so we retraced our steps through the forest and climbed back up to San Gimignano. I think we walked twice through the best part of the hike anyway, so it was all good. We even saw two tours of horseback riders and two crazy mountain bikers, who were descending the hill we were climbing as fast as they could. It must’ve been fun, because one biker rode back up the long, steep, gravel road and screamed past us a second time.

On Saturday, in between our two hikes, we hopped on the bus and took a day trip to Siena. Yet another gorgeous Roman town with high walls, a huge cathedrals and narrow, winding streets. We don’t seem to be getting tired of that yet!

Siena was a really big deal in the 12th and 13th century, and the architecture shows that. They were competing with Florence to see who could have the best art and the most ornate cathedrals. (San Gimignano, by comparison, took the more literal approach and tried to build the most and tallest towers.) Siena did a pretty good job, I must say.

But the best structure for me was the soccer stadium just outside the old town and right beside the bus station. It was lovingly nestled in a bowl in a little valley, surrounded by trees and a few bleachers. Siena plays in the lower leagues in Italy but they have a top tier stadium in my books.

We were planning on eating in for our last night in San Gimignano but at the last minute I made a reservation at another traditional Tuscan restaurant on a quiet side street, away from the tour groups. We had a final amazing meal in Tuscany, more meats, more pasta, and a roast rabbit with a sauce containing chocolate and wine. Delicious! A perfect end to a perfect stay in Tuscany.

A while back, Cindy’s mom said she was worried that we’d find a place that was so beautiful that we would just pull up stakes and move there. Well you could do worse than Tuscany, that’s for sure. I’d need to make new money to get there, but it sure is a worthy goal. The views, the climate, the food and the wine are simply wonderful.

And the crazy thing? Today we’re taking a train to Bologna. Not in Tuscany, but by all reports it’s the ‘food capital’ of Italy. How can it be better than this?