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?

La Spezia: Gateway to Cinque Terre and So Much More

I’m sitting outside, in glorious sunshine, on a 50 metre long iron bench at the La Spezia Centrale station on the Ligurian coast. La Spezia is known as the Gulf of Poets, because back in the gloomy 18th century English poets like Byron, Shelley and Dickenson traveled south to get away from rainy England and swim a bit. I can see why they came. It wasn’t raining much in Paris, and it’s not like I’ll ever feel the need to “get away” from Paris, but still. It sure wasn’t warm and sunny and blue like this.

We didn’t come straight here. Instead, from Paris we went south to Nice on the French Riviera. Beautiful city and you really should go if you have the chance. But since Nice is the big city near Cannes, St. Tropez, Cap Ferrat and Monaco, it’s a little glitzy and glamourous. Which is all good, but a little awkward when you’ve been wearing the same clothes for six weeks in a row.

What Nice has going for it is fabulous architecture, a narrow and twisty old town, a cool tram system that cuts silently through town, two amazing outdoor markets and outstanding gelato (go to Fennochio’s in the old town.)

We spent a few days chilling out in Nice, walking to a market to get strawberries, oranges, fresh peas, a baguette and some cheese for lunch before wandering around the city for the day.

Before long we’d be down at the beach, wandering along the miles long promenade, checking out the people roasting themselves on the beach and trying to stay calm among men in tiny speedos and women sunbathing topless. Sure, the tiniest speedos were worn by old hairy grandpas, and the topless sunbathers were grannies for the most part, but we were in France, on the Riviera! Just go with it, man. Time to get over the years of body image conditioning we grow up with in North America and live like a local! Well I would’ve stripped right down to my gitch for the cultural exchange, you know, if it weren’t that I sunburn easily. So I took off my socks and rolled up my pant legs to just below the knee, and strolled along the water for a bit, averting my eyes all the while.

Now here’s a marketing lesson for you all. For all the glamour you’ve seen, read, or heard about the marvellous French Riviera, has it ever come up that the long, glorious beaches are all rocks? Well they are. Miles and miles of what we’d call river rock back at home. I couldn’t believe what I was uncomfortably sitting on.

The lesson here, of course, is to Accentuate The Positive. Decades of starlets and royalty sunning themselves along the Promenade des Anglais has glossed over the complete lack of sand. And hey, even now, a few days later, I’ve forgotten it too.

On our last evening in Nice we decided to hike up one of the hills surrounding the bay for a better view of things. But I misread the map and instead of a 2km loop I went to a further hill, 3.5km away and much taller. We walked forever, up and up. At one point we counted a run of 285 steps when the road got too steep for cars. But the views from the top, both of the teenagers making out and the surrounding hills, coast, villas and yachts, were worth it. And we already had a wood fired pizza restaurant at the bottom of the hill picked out for dinner. Pizza, salad and a half litre of the local grape and we’d forgotten all about the climb up. All that was left was the amazing view.

And so, on to Italy. Our train to La Spezia required two changes, and we were late for both of them. But Italian trains are more relaxed on Sunday, it seems, so the trains were both waiting for us. One of my minor stresses with AirBnb apartments is keeping our host waiting for the check-in, so I was glad to get there close to our planned time.

(And a big highlight was sitting amongst some very, very posh folks on the train between Nice and Monte Carlo. The fellow across from me was either a Swiss banker or Benedict Cumberbatch.)

Our first impression of Italy is one of relaxed joy. First off, it’s beautiful here. La Spezia is nestled in the centre of a U shaped bay, with small mountains all around. The dark green of the trees behind, the bright, azure blue of the water in front, with colourful pink, yellow and cream buildings in the middle. Wow.

And the food is everything we’d imagined. Simple, fresh and cheap. In France, the food is excellent, but you pay a big premium for those perfect French peas or local strawberries that are placed oh so perfectly in the baskets. Here, the markets are still full to overflowing with tomatoes, peas, strawberries and the cutest baby zucchini, but you just grab a bag and dig in. And the price is at least 30% cheaper than just around the bay in France.

We stayed in a modern apartment on the other side of the train station from downtown. It was lovely, because we got a tiny chance to live like a local. The block around our apartment had everything we needed, really. A two person, hole in the wall, wood fired pizza place that sold so much of the local specialty, farinata (a thin omelette made of chickpea flour,) that they could hardly fit pizzas in the oven. A gelato shop that sold trays of ice cream to take home. A butcher/deli, a bakery/coffee shop, a specialty food shop, a fruit stand, a florist, a pharmacy and a Coop. We could pull together a picnic lunch, go adventuring, and come back for pizza for supper. It took us two days before we thought to look for a central market; they have one, and it’s glorious too.

La Spezia is the gateway to the five villages of the Cinque Terre, made famous in North America by Rick Steves and his travel shows. There’s stress on these former fishing villages due the crush of tourism, but that’s how we heard of the Cinque Terre so I’m not going to over think this. It’s beautiful, we’re in the area, and we’ll try to tread lightly. So we hopped a train to the third village of Corniglia.

Back before modern tourism hit the Cinque Terre, the villages were quite isolated. They were only accessible from the sea or via a narrow and winding trail that connected all five villages. And the villages are close enough to each other that a hiker can walk to all five villages in one day.

That’s what we wanted to do, but the first two trails between Riamaggiore — Manarola and Manarola — Corniglia were closed due to mudslides. But that still left us half the trails to walk. Once we got up to Corniglia, that is. From the train station at sea level there was a huge set of steps up to the village. Forgoing the shuttle bus, we walked the 310 steps to the village. It’s getting easier and easier to climb like this, I must say.

When we reached the cliff top and strolled into Corniglia I didn’t want to leave. Ever. In a trip where we’ve seen over a dozen of picturesque little towns, this was the new #1. The village square was full of little shops selling fruit, general store type supplies and postal services. Across the square were bars, coffee shops and restaurants tempting me inside. Narrow side streets house artisans selling wine, leather goods and paintings. There was even a gelato shop with a framed picture of Rick Steves himself.

After an hour of wandering around the village, Cindy reminded me we were there to hike, so we set off northeast toward Vernazza. It wasn’t long before we started to climb, and boy did we ever climb! The path turned into steps, then the steps turned into bare rocks. I really had to focus on each step while we scrambled up and up.

That’s another thing the guidebooks don’t really mention. This is a proper hike, not a gentle stroll through the countryside. While the trail is well marked with red and white blazes, it’s not a groomed trail as such. The path is strewn with rocks and loose gravel and can get really narrow at points, so hikers travelling in opposite directions need to take turns on the trail. But every time I’d feel like the hike was getting too hard, we’d come up to a viewpoint that took my breath away. We were perched on the ridge like eagles, high above the villages, so we could see Corniglia and Manarola behind us, and Monterosso far off in the distance ahead. And if we looked down, we’d see fishing boats and ferries out on the water. It was magnificent and completely worth the hard work of hiking up to these viewpoints.

After an hour of hard hiking, we came across a cluster of buildings, including a small bar. Heaven! I thought we had made it to Vernazza early but a sign tempered my spirits. This was the half way point! Ah well. We savoured two amply priced glasses of cold, fresh fruit juice at a tiny black bistro table at the edge of a cliff, enjoyed the huge views and warm sunshine, then continued on our way.

Vernazza is right down on the water, so we descended down, down, down to the village. While we were still well above the castle at the end of town, we encountered more and more hikers, but they seemed to go just high enough to get a selfie above the castle, before joining us on the trail into town.

We didn’t linger too long in Vernazza. It was now 1:00, and the village square was filling up with tourists who came on the train or via bus tours. I can’t imagine what it’s like here in July and August; it was crowded enough for me in mid-April. Quite the change from morning in Corniglia. We ate our picnic lunch beside the marina, climbed to the top of the castle overlooking the harbour, and found the trail to Monterosso.

Now, Vernazza is on the water. Monterosso is also on the water. So you’d think a trail between the two villages would also be along the water, right? But oh no. The trail is high, high, up on a ridgeline along the mountain that sits between the two villages. So up we climbed. Up, up, up until my heart was pounding and the afternoon sun was baking my eyebrows. It was a real lung buster, but worth it. The views were amazing once again.

This leg of the trail is much narrower than Cornigla — Vernazza leg, and the trail was more crowded too, so it was a stop/start hike as we paused to let southbound traffic pass. It took us two full hours to get to Monterosso, but we were lucky in a way. The descent into Monterosso is via the longest staircase I’ve ever seen. It was like the steps in the Mines of Moria in the Lord of the Rings. They just went on and on. But at least they were steps! The southbound hikers had to deal with the rock ledges we climbed to get out of Vernazza. I don’t think I could descend on them with the rubber legs I had now.

We congratulated ourselves on our hiking prowess by soaking our feet at the beach (what a treat!) and some extra fine gelato. Then we toodled through the village for a while before catching the train back to La Spezia, tired, sore and very, very happy.

The next day we decided to check out La Spezia a little closer. We found a nice little coffee shop where I could get a real Italian cappuccino and, further up the block, a real Italian macchiato. We found a phone store to get an Italian SIM card for the phone, then headed to the central market.

The La Spezia market is a big one. Two blocks square, with a large undulating roof over the entire complex. Everything you need is inside. Fruit stands, vegetable stands, cheese and dairy carts, butchers, florists, bakers and fishmongers. And as we’ve seen everywhere else, shops and bars and restaurants surrounding the market on all four sides. It was beautiful and once we found the market we went every day, even though it was a 30 minute walk from our apartment.

I love our Farmer’s Market at home (heck, I took bread to the market for two years at the same time I was trying to build Orange Boot), but compared to what we see in Europe, from the largest city to the smallest town, our market in Regina sucks. I already know I’m going to cry when I get home and try to shop again.

I know, I know, we live in the middle of nowhere, 1000km from BC fruit or 2000km from California veggies. But surely to God we can put a roof over our market so the food doesn’t get soaked in the rain. And put up a wind screen while we’re at it. And if I’m going to dream, run enough power that the butchers can bring raw meat and keep it cool, and the cheesemongers can do the same with their dairy products. I’ll set up my oven in the market too, I promise.

The La Spezia market is busy. Really busy. Busier than the number of people who live and work around it. I saw bus after bus drop off people with empty shopping bags and pick them up again, loaded up with produce for the next day (or maybe two, tops.) Nobody here asks “will it freeze”. They shop every day and eat fresh food and I love that.

Anyway, once we had our packs full of picnic fare, we got on the bus too and headed to the town of Lereci. If the Gulf of Poets is a U, and La Spezia is at the base of the U, then Lereci is at the end of the left arm. Our host Alice recommended the beach there, and after our massive hike yesterday I was in the mood for a mellow afternoon.

The bus ride out was a blast. We got the last two seats at the back of the bus, just before the bus was jam packed with university students. And I mean packed. They just kept getting on, handing their packs to four young ladies in the seat in front of us, then started hugging each other to save space. I’ve never seen such a crush. For the longest time, nobody got off the bus, but four more people got on at each stop. More students. An old lady with bags of shopping. Some construction workers. I have no idea how they fit or where they went. But one by one, over the next 20 minutes, the bus would stop, someone would hand over a backpack from the pile, and the bus slowly thinned out. Then it was our turn.

Lereci is beautiful. A lovely horseshoe cove with a castle at one end, a marina, and a long, curving, sandy beach that went all the way to San Terenzo, the next village on the way back to La Spezia.

We walked to the top of the castle (gotta climb a little!) and gazed out across the Gulf to La Spezia in the distance, and Porto Venere at the other end of the U. It was beautiful but also very windy. I wanted to sketch and paint up there but I couldn’t control my sketchbook in the wind, so we retreated down to the marina and checked out the shops lining the quay. Then we went for a sit at the beach and I tried not to compare the bronze sunbathers to the rotisserie chicken I saw at the market in La Spezia.

Oh, and Lereci has the best gelato I’ve had so far. The local flavour, called Lereci, of course, ticks all the boxes. Coffee, nuts, caramel, chocolate all swirled around in some basic crema gelato. Amazing. Until this point my favourite was pistachio (made with real pistachios of course) but now I’m ruined. Hopefully some other local flavour will win my heart down the road, but I’m not holding out much hope.

On our last day in La Spezia, we took the bus to the other end of the U, to Porto Venere. Another spectacular fishing village with a lovely marina, two churches and even a castle on the hill. Porto Venere is really tucked in there tight between the water and the cliffs, so that getting past the first row of houses required some serious climbing. But there were spectacular views around every corner, so we kept on climbing and being wowed.

It was getting on in the afternoon, but we weren’t ready to leave the Cinque Terre yet. Cindy had read about a big hike from Porto Venere to the first Cinque Terre village, Riamaggiore. 12km, 4 hours and listed as “moderate” difficulty. The same book said the hikes we did two days ago were “easy-moderate.” Hmmm. Well it was a nice day, we felt good and it was at least 5 hours till sunset, so we decided to go for it. We’d abandon our return bus tickets, do the hike and catch the train back to town from Riomaggiore.

Well it was the best hike I’ve ever done. Way harder than I imagined; we climbed 500m pretty much straight up, then followed the ridge line around two separate mountains, before descending through vineyards and farms to the village at Riomaggiore. As we twisted up the mountains, through forests, then out on bare rock ledges, then back into forests, we had these wild views of Porto Venere, then La Spezia and Lereci across the Gulf to our right, then the wider Mediterranean off our left shoulder, then finally Riamaggiore below us.

By the time we entered Riamaggiore we were sore, tired and grimy. But the tour buses were long gone, the village was beautiful and we saw the most amazing sunset from a brick lane above Riamaggiore’s tiny harbour. It was perfect.

I can’t imagine ever finding a place more beautiful than this. But I’ve said that every day so far on this trip and I’ve been wrong each time. I can’t wait to see what we find next.

Quick Update: I’m Having Too Much Fun To Write!

Hi. I’m writing this from the smallest studio apartment I’ve ever stayed in. We figure it’s 200 square feet, including the bathroom. Smaller than most people’s bedrooms, I bet. But it’s in the Montparnasse neighbourhood in Paris and we’ve never been happier. The power was out for 14 hours last night (just in our apartment). Didn’t care. We just went out and when we got back, lit some candles.

The last long story I wrote was about our week in Madrid. I’ll get back to those longer stories, but here’s a quick update.

We took the train to Barcelona, which is the coolest city every. My favourite on the trip so far. We went out for tapas with our new friends Gillian and Brian (Gillian is the daughter of our friend Laverne) and had a great time. Then Cindy and I walked all over the place, from the Park Gaudi, through the Gracia neighbourhood and to the beach. Then we did it all over again.

We’re done going to cathedrals because we’ve been to the best. The Sagrada Familia is still under construction (started in 1882, should be done in 10 years or so) but is so amazing, so spectacular that I’m still overwhelmed by the beauty of the place.

Bummer: on our last night in Barcelona, I walked into a coffee bar to watch the last 10 minutes of El Clasico on TV. Put my pack down to pay for coffee, took a sip, and my pack was gone. My passport was in the pack. That made things more interesting.

After going to the police department and filing a report, we continued as normal, taking the train into France. First destination was Arles, in Provence.

Arles was cold and rainy, but we had a large, warm, rustic apartment that was incredibly romantic. We hung out for a few days and took a vacation from our vacation.

Arles is a neat city because they have a Roman Arena that is still being used for bullfights, and a Roman Theatre that is being restored too. (They backed Julius Caesar.)

In Arles, we realized this passport problem was going to throw a wrench into things. I thought we could get a new one at the consulate in Nice, but I had to go to the embassy in Paris instead. Ugh. So we pulled out the map and started tweaking our plans.

After spending the morning at the huge weekly market in Arles, we took the train to Avignon, 35km up the road. And the sun came out!

We had another great AirBnb apartment in Avignon. It was a great home base to get some laundry done and eat several roast chicken meals from the deli across the street.

Both Avignon and Arles are on the banks of the Rhone River. One day in Avignon we walked across the bridge to an island in the middle of the Rhone, then rented bikes and rode the 16km around the island. We went through villages, farms, and acres and acres of orchards. The peach trees were blooming too!

We wandered around the town for a couple of days then took a bus ride out to Pont du Gard, an amazing triple decker Roman Aqueduct. The best aqueduct so far, and we’ve seen a few.

Then we took the TGV train to Paris. Aw shucks. There’s worse places to be stuck without a passport.

We’re in love with Paris! Cindy is getting weepy she’s smiling so much. The architecture. The parks. The amazing shops and bakeries and cafes.

It’s without a doubt the most expensive city we’ve ever seen, a real budget bomber, but we’re eating well and zipping about on the metro. I think we’ll splurge at one of the cafes tomorrow.

Quick note. Before we left we watched this great show “I’ll have what Phil’s having” on PBS. Awesome show. Romantic, interesting and compelling travel show. But it should be called “I can’t afford what Phil’s having”! We went to all his haunts in Paris but one (still need to find the falafel stand) and it’s crazy what things cost. His favourite roast chicken will set you back $150. Vegetables, drinks, and likely plates and forks are extra. Jeez. But we’re finding great food our own way.

The passport issue is fixed (if you pay enough fees and penalties, things get done fast, and my friends Curt and Bob helped from back home) so we’re heading back south on Thursday. Spring has sprung here, but it’s still pretty chilly at night. Time for some Riviera sun.

So you’re all caught up. We’re having so much fun and seeing so many amazing things that when we get back to the apartment we just fall into a heap. And it turns out I get motion sick on trains when I try to read or type (I thought I’d write on the train.)

But I got a few emails where people were worried, so I had to get a quick dispatch out. We’re good. Really, really good.

Madrid: The Trains In Spain Go Hurtling ‘Cross The Plain

After one more trip around our favourite street in Córdoba, which was deserted after all the Holy Wednesday festivities, we hiked back to the station for our train to Madrid. We had booked on the bullet-nosed high speed train and I was a little excited for the trip. After all the bus rides we were finally travelling the ‘European Way’. And a fast train, no less.

It was a fun ride. We were quickly up to a top speed of 270 km/h for our two hour ride to Madrid. It didn’t feel much faster than normal highway driving, except when I tried to see something outside or, heaven forbid, snap a picture. Then you realized we were passing things at a very great speed.

These plains in Spain are quite beautiful. I remember hearing somewhere they get lots of precipitation and it shows. Lots of trees dotting green pastures, with sheep and goats and later, cows. Quite honestly, it was a lot like the plains at home, except for the rocky outcroppings that dotted the landscape. And then the train slowed, we rolled past industrial areas, then apartment blocks, then we were in Madrid. We went from the train to the metro, got off at the Bilbao station and found our hotel.

[A Brief Aside]

You know, all these cities are old and romantic and beautiful. But like all cities it seems, they continue to grow, and there isn’t the investment in aesthetics anymore. We passed mile after mile of the same ugly, tiny windowed, balcony-less brick apartment blocks on the way into Madrid and they looked like a sad and dreary place to live. Compared to the centre of Madrid, it was shockingly horrible.

As late as the 1920’s, Madrid was still doing strong city planning, as witnessed in the glorious Grand Via. But that seems to have stopped in current times, outside of the centre of the city. Which is a shame. And totally consistent with home, although it doesn’t feel like we do much planning in the centre at home either. But the centre of Madrid is glorious, so let’s go back there now.

Our pension for the next five nights was the Pension Antonio, on Calle de la Palma. It was tiny and spare but quiet and clean and centrally located, between the Royal Palace to the east and the Prado Museum to the west, with lots of bars and restaurants and stores in between. It was just fine and cheap enough to recommend to others, although be warned that the last two blocks to the apartment feel pretty sketchy to walk down. But that’s just the prairie boy in me reacting to the corrugated steel grates in front of the closed shops and the excessive, monotonous, ugly graffiti. I like Banksy and all, and some businesses pre-empted things by hiring an artist to spray paint their doors in advance, but holy crap it’s just endless here.


One of the good ones!

I think the biggest thing that hit me about Madrid is that we were in a really big city. Really big. I looked it up and Madrid’s population is 3.5 million people, which makes the largest city we’ve been to by far. You could tell the difference. No narrow, winding streets here. Instead we had long, grand boulevards, with six lanes of cars and huge fountains and statues in the roundabouts. And masses, and masses of people. Even when we were out looking for something to eat at 9PM, the sidewalks were packed with people doing the same thing.

We were in Madrid for Easter Weekend, which meant that some of the stores were open irregular hours, but most all of the bars and restaurants were open. And boy oh boy are there ever a lot of bars and restaurants! I’ve never seen so many places packed that tightly before. Every single street was packed with places big and small. We found a really good sandwich shop on Calle Pez and a gourmet pizza place nearer Bilbao station and lots of bakeries and fruit stands to keep our backpacks stocked up. But there were more than enough people to keep them all going.


Too fancy for us


Mmmm…that’s more like it!

The long weekend and fine weather meant everyone was out enjoying their time off, so we loaded up our backpacks and joined the fray. We walked west toward the Plaza d’Espana, with its huge foutain at one end and massive statue at the other. It’s a very impressive square, surrounded by regal offices and fancy hotels.

The normal circuit has one walking left to the Royal Palace, but we went right to walk through a fine little park. We were surprised to see a stone temple on a hill in the middle of the park so went up to take a closer look. I assumed it was a Roman temple, but when we walked inside there were Egyptian hieroglyphs on the wall. What? We went looking for a pamphlet to figure out what we were seeing.

The Temple of Debod is a real Egyptian temple, but in Madrid. When the Egyptians built the Aswan Dam in the 1960’s, many ancient temples and tombs were submerged. This temple was dismantled and moved to Madrid instead. Very interesting, but a little out of place.

Near the temple was a gondola that gave rides to a large nature reserve right near the heart of the city. The line wasn’t too long this holiday morning so we took a ride over. The views back to the city centre were amazing and the park itself was very nice. Lots of bikers and joggers running up the hill that we rode to.

And then we went to the Royal Palace, along with twenty thousand other people. The palace was quite nice but it was a real crush of people, so we hung back a bit and wandered through two statue filled parks that surrounded the palace.

We kept up the park theme the next day, Good Friday. We hiked east from our room, behind the Prado Museum and the National Library to Paque de El Retiro. This huge space is where thousands upon thousands of Madrilenos go on their days off and this war, sunny spring day was no exception. We started at the formal north end of the park, with formal gardens and a large man-made lake. There were dozens of rowboats on the lake and a very long line of people waiting to rent one. We walked around to the east side and watched the boats from a large plaza, complete with lion statues looking over the boaters.

From there we strolled past two smaller palacios and another formal garden which contained Madrid’s oldest tree (planted in the 1650’s.) But I was mesmerized by the “cabin for the association of retired men”, a rustic wooden lodge with a few dozen old fellows playing chess on the patio.

Madrid’s oldest tree

The south side of the park was more informal, with lots of benches and grassy slopes just begging to be lied down on. So we did, after eating our picnic lunch. We deserved a rest; we’d been walking a long, long time.

A long block of used book sellers, just outside the park

Even though we love toodling through parks, Madrid is home to some excellent museums and it didn’t seem right to ignore them. The Prado Museum has free entry from 6PM – 8PM so at around 5:30 we went looking for the entrance. There was already around 100 people in line, but it looked manageable, so we queued up. We were at the side door, and it wasn’t long before our line bumped into an even longer line for the main door. There must’ve been 2000 people in all, at least. It was huge!

But the thing is, the Prado is even huger, and we all fit in with no problem and, aside from the ‘big 3’ paintings, there wasn’t even a crowd. Sorry, no pictures were allowed, but it really was a fun time. We had a New York Times article outlining the preferred order to see the museum’s highlights, which we followed and really felt like experts. My favourite paintings were by the Dutch Masters – we went through that gallery twice.

The other big gallery, the Reina Sofia, is focused on Cubist and Surrealist paintings by the likes of Picasso, Dali and Joan Miro. But I was there for one painting: Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica”. It’s fair to say that “Guernica” is the reason I wanted to go to Madrid. It’s a massive painting, a protest painting for the bombing of women and children during the Spanish Civil War and I am so very happy I got to see it live and in person. It was even better than I thought it would be. (Although, I was very surprised that I didn’t enjoy the Dalis more.)

A picture of Guernica, via the Internet.  Photos aren't allowed in the gallery!
A picture of Guernica, via the Internet. Photos aren’t allowed in the gallery!

I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know much about the Spanish Civil War, other than Franco won, the Germans tested their arms in Spain prior to invading Poland, and Hemingway was there. The “Guernica” gallery helped me learn a bit more about it. The painting was commissioned by the Republican (in power, but lost the war) government for the 1939 World Expo, to help raise awareness of what was happening in Spain, and hopefully get some assistance. In the gallery, there was a replica of the pavilion where the painting was first shown, along with posters of the time and other reflections on the costs of war.

There was also a very interesting display showing Picasso’s progression as he worked on the painting. His partner at the time was a photographer and she took a series of shots of this massive mural during its development. There was also a room full of ‘post script’ paintings where Picasso continued to develop the themes within the painting. Fascinating stuff.

Atocha Train Station

Between parks, art galleries, the classic Atocha train station and strolling down wide boulevards admiring the architecture, we had a wonderful few days in Madrid. We found a tiny square near our room which we adopted as ‘our square’, since it had the perfect combination of restaurants, ice cream, coffee, newsstands and bookshops. It even had an art supply store! So it seemed like we ended up at our square at least once per day, at least to end our day with coffee and hot chocolate.

Easter Sunday was a big thrill for me. Before we left Cindy told me about the Sunday stamp market in Plaza Mayor so even though it was Easter we decided to see if it was on. And boy was it ever!

Plaza Mayor is the classic town square of Madrid. It’s completely enclosed by four connected banks of buildings but the open square inside is huge and holds thousands of people. Usually the square is full of tables from the surrounding restaurants, and they were still there. But on Sunday’s there are also 50 or so tables full of stamp, coin, postcard and bottle cap dealers out selling their wares. And since it was Easter Sunday, there were also a few thousand people in the middle of the square watching the final Easter procession of the season. All drummers putting on a show. So the square was loud and boisterous and I loved it.

I spent an hour wandering around the tables, regretting I didn’t collect Spanish stamps. And regretting my suitcase wasn’t big enough to start collecting Spanish stamps! But I bought a set as a souvenir that would fit inside my notebook for protection and left it at that. Big fun.

On our last day in Madrid we walked down to the train station for a day trip to Toledo. After four days in this massive, crowded city we needed some space. Toledo is a beautiful old walled city, perched high on top of a hill with great views of the surrounding valley, just 70km from Madrid. We were there in 30 minutes by train and had a wonderful afternoon climbing the hill and once again wandering through narrow, twisting streets.

But the thing I’ll remember most is the nature trail we found that went around the base of the city along the river that passes Toledo. We spent an hour or so walking along the river, watching the fishermen and the couples necking on benches, with sheer rock walls across the water to our right and the walled city above us to our left. And then, because we had time, we hiked back up to the city, up the incredibly steep stone staircase that passed through the walls, for some gelato before walking back down and across the river to the train station.

Córdoba: Processions, Patios and Pails of Snails

We had tickets on our traditional noon bus northwest to Córdoba, but first we had to get out of Granada. On our walk yesterday, we walked west, away from downtown, and away from the tourist area, into a regular neighbourhood. There we found a delightful neighbourhood pastelaria, with great coffee, a bin full of oranges for juice and pan integral (whole wheat bread) for toast. Now all we had to do is find it again.

Technology is a double edged sword. That little black box in my pocket, playfully named Big Black Olaf, is crucial for finding our way around the narrow, twisting streets of medieval European cities. Paper maps just don’t cut it; the streets are smaller than the names, making them impossible to label properly. But Big Black Olaf, along with the maps.me app, can get me anywhere, and can get me back there again. But only if I pin the destination.

And that’s where the trouble began. We had such a delightful time yesterday, but I forgot to pin the location on the map. So this morning, all we knew is that it was “west” and about a kilometre from our apartment. Past that big fountain with the plaza running “south”, but before the large park with the running track and old men playing bocce.

But was it before, or after, the university residences with raised gardens full of rosemary and walls full of political graffiti? What about the roundabout with tapas bars we were at last night? Surely it’s not that far away!

So we walked, and walked, and squabbled a little. When we tried to piece together our walk from the day before, we came up with two completely different orders. And I’ll admit to you, like I admitted to Cindy on the day, that I’m not at my best without my morning coffee. So I caused a scene and we had a spat and then we looked up and there it was, across the street. Argh. I got my coffee and Cindy got her juice and we bought make up toast and four make up sandwiches for the bus ride and then quietly walked back to the room to get our bags and get on the bus for the bus depot.

The ride to Córdoba was smooth and pleasant, helped along by the sandwiches and Spanish Gravol. Outside, the landscape was beautiful. As we came out of the mountains, the miles and miles and miles of olive orchards gave way to gently rolling hills and wheat fields. Wheat fields! It was a sunny day and the wheat was already well along, creating a bright green carpet that popped against the bright blue afternoon sky. Gorgeous.

Maps.me was in a good mood today, and picked a walking route to our guest room that passed through two parks. No major freeways for us! So we had a delightful walk to our room and for the first time, arrived feeling upbeat about our surroundings. (So far, our locations needed a day to grow on us.)

Our guest room for the next three nights was in Manuela’s house and it was a real treat. We had a huge, elaborately decorated room and a very large tiled bathroom with double sinks even. There were so many statuettes and icons around the room, so many armoires and dressers and side tables, so many tablecloths and doilies and other fabrics that we put our towel underneath our suitcases lest we get anything dirty. Perhaps the decor was better suited to an older couple, but we had a ton of space and Manuela was very nice. I think our Spanish was improving because our charades went more easily as we learned about all the keys and locks and how the doors work. We could even share pictures of the snowstorm back home and agreed things were better in Córdoba.

Our room was about 1km outside of the main tourist area and that’s a very good thing. We kept discovering tiny fruit shops and cafes and gelaterias down side alleys that didn’t even have signs out front. You couldn’t tell they were there until you walked down the alley, so of course we walked down all the alleys and made sure we found them all. But wow was it tight. I measured our street, and wall to wall, including two ‘sidewalks’ and the road, was eleven feet wide. When a car came down the road we hugged the wall and hoped for the best.

When we felt claustrophobic, we’d walk two blocks to a small thoroughfare with wider sidewalks and more shops. This was our breakfast street every day. Friendly people, big glasses of orange juice, tiny glasses of strong coffee and tostadas. I discovered the local custom of spreading puréed tomatoes on my toast instead of jam and it was lovely.

Further down this street is the main square. Bars and restaurants ring the outside with City Hall in the middle. Then we turned the corner around City Hall and found Roman pillars! There were the remains of a Roman temple right beside City Hall! Amazing. While not as complete as the temple in Evora, it was still quite spectacular and a big surprise.

Most of the main square was blocked off for Easter processions, so we turned left and headed down to the Mesquita. It’s a Mosque/Cathedral that is the centrepiece of tourism in Córdoba, but for now we just walked around it, through the winding alleys of the Jewish quarter and headed to the river.

Córdoba is situated alongside the Guadalquivir River, which makes it a very strategic city, ever since Roman times. The Romans built a beautiful bridge across the river right near where the Mesquita now stands and as it was gorgeous evening, we strolled along the bridge for almost an hour, watching the ducks in the river, looking at the remains of windmills from Roman times, taking photos in the amazing evening light and watching the thousands of fellow tourists doing exactly the same thing. It was the start of Easter Break, so we saw our first busloads of high school and university students on a tour of Spain. It added to the overall energy level in the place, I guess.

While there is still city on the other side of the bridge, there isn’t a whole bunch, so I could still see the rolling hills and green wheat fields in the distance, which warmed my heart.

We continued our stroll along the river then headed back to our neighbourhood to find a place for supper. Just like in Granada, we stumbled across a crowd in front of one of the cathedrals, filling the whole plaza / intersection. Easter procession! So we hung out for a while, tried to chat with our neighbours, watched the children having fun and watched the police try to re-route traffic, including a massive tour bus that clearly made a wrong turn at some point. And then, just like Granada, the crowd dispersed before anything happened. Procession’s suspended, someone said. Ah well.


This tiny place makes one thing only. Potato Chips!

The next morning, we took care of business. It was laundry day, so I googled the nearest laundromat and we headed away from downtown, 1km across the train tracks. It’s another one of those big differences from Regina. At home, walking to a public laundromat, 1km across the tracks, is a scary bit of business. Sea Spray laundry at home isn’t a lot of fun and certainly not a place I’d want to hang out. But boy were we ever surprised in Córdoba!

First, we had to cross the tracks. But we couldn’t find the tracks! Rather than the ugliness that splits downtown Regina and the Warehouse District, here they built a hill over the tracks, so the trains ran underground from the station to the outskirts of town. And on top of the hill, they built parks! And planted trees, and installed sculptures and fountains! It was gorgeous and something we totally need to do at home. I’m forwarding pictures to my city councillor and I encourage everyone who reads this to do the same.


Promenade over the train tracks. Wonderful!

And I don’t want to insult Sea Spray Laundry, but this laundromat was gorgeous. Spotless. Self Service. With automatic soap and softener dispensing so we didn’t even need to buy soap. So we loaded up, set a timer on the phone and went for a walk around the neighbourhood. It was so pretty. Just your friendly neighbourhood shopping district, with butcher shops and fruit shops and fish shops and pharmacies and banks and anything else you’d need. Friends meeting on the corner to say hi. Children out for a walk with their grandparents. We wandered around with our mouths open, staring at how awesome it all was.

Our imagined need for private, detached houses with big yards at home means there just aren’t enough people to support this level of commerce in a neighbourhood. At least that’s what the real estate folks keep telling us. But these blocks of four story buildings with apartments and offices above stores on the ground floor sure look good to me. And everyone seemed happy enough. And Manuela’s apartment is huge too. Massive even. Bigger than I need, that’s for sure.

And oh yeah, I forgot to mention. Córdoba is full of courtyards and inner patios! One of the reasons the streets are so narrow is to maximize courtyard space. We walked by some beauties. They have an annual ‘patio walk’ in Córdoba, similar to our ‘Secret Garden Tour’ at home. I’d love to see that.

That evening, on our way to supper, we came across another procession right near our room. And there were purple hats too! This one actually happened and it was quite a bit of fun. The crowd was smaller than in Granada, but still big enough to make us find an alternate route to supper. We’d learn to call this a small crowd before the week was out. But as we drank wine and ate tapas, we watched the TV and got a hint of the fervour these processions cause all over Andalucia. The TV had pictures from Seville, Malaga, Cadiz, Huelva, Granada and Córdoba, showing crowds and processions getting underway all across the region. Then it cut to the sad news from Brussels, about which I’ve already written.

Finally it was time for our tour of the Mesquita. You can get in for free between 8:30AM and 10:30AM, so that’s exactly what we did. Along with 500 other people who got there earlier than we did. No matter though, the Mesquita is massive. 5000 people could be in there and it wouldn’t feel crowded.

The site has an interesting history. First there was a Romman temple on the site. After the Romans retreated, the Visigoths built a Christian temple on the site. When the Moors conquered Spain, the site was split and Christians and Muslims worshiped side by side. Then in the 8th century, the Sultan in power bought the Christian half and built the largest Mosque in Western Europe on the site. Then, with the Christian re-conquest in the 13th century, a huge cathedral was built inside the Mosque. That is to say, the entire building is a cathedral, but the Christian bits have been added to the Muslim bits. So the whole structure looks rather odd. Muslim architecture but Christian icons, with a Gothic cathedral in the middle.

It’s odd and overwhelmingly spectacular at the same time. We spent two hours looking up and taking pictures that in no way portray the grandeur of the place. Because it’s an active Cathedral and not a museum, there’s very little mention of the Muslim antecedents of the building. However there is a section at the back that has been left in it’s original Moorish state. Plus there is a display of some remains of the Visigoth temple in one corner too. It’s a shame, really, because there is so much layered history here that an interpretive pamphlet would really make the history come alive. There are private tour groups that do this; might be worth your while when you visit. Or read up ahead. Or just enjoy the majesty of the place.

We were getting tapas’d out. The effort to interpreting Spanish menus and coming to decisions on what was or was not octopus was tiring us out. And that time I went to what I thought was a coffee shop on the plaza but learned they sold pails of snails really freaked me out. So for supper on our last night in Córdoba we decided in advance to head to the Jewish Quarter beside the Mesquita and find an Arabian place with couscous and chicken tajin. It was Wednesday night and we thought we’d be relatively safe from Easter procession crowds. Boy were we wrong.

The easiest way to Mesquita from our place is to go down our little ‘main street’, through the town square, then turn left and head down to the river. But our main street was packed; we could see Mary heading off down the road towards a church. There was no way that would work.

So we took a left and tried to get ahead of the parade. If we could get ahead of the first purple hoods, it was polite to cross the road. So we leaped ahead of Mary’s procession and got to the town square, but that was even more jammed. Jesus had already made it to the town square. So we went further left, parallel to the parade route, until we reached the river, then backtracked and got to the Jewish Quarter.

We started looking for a restaurant with couscous and tajin (by that point I was actually craving couscous) but soon realized we were deep into the tourist zone. Too many English menus. Too many burgers. Too many cocktails. And the crowds kept growing and growing. Finally, after an hour of looking, we found a place with couscous on the menu and a table for two just inside the door. We ducked in and tried to ignore all the English being spoken around us.

Soon we couldn’t hear the English for all the drumming. Another procession was passing right beside the restaurant! Right by our table, in fact. I pushed outside and grabbed a few pictures between courses.

For a “TGI-Couscous” this place wasn’t too bad. We paid and plotted our course for home. There was still a huge crowd at the restaurant. Too big to cross. But the Mesquita was behind us. If we went the long way round the Mesquita maybe we could find open road.

So we headed out along the south side of the Mesquita and after a while turned right, into a huge crowd of spectators, hooded processioners and a full band. Another procession! They hadn’t really started, so we crossed the street and tried to pass along the crowd on the left. That didn’t really work, so after a block we ducked down a side street and tried walking parallel to the procession again. We got stuck 1/2 a block from the intersection. Just solid people, and too far away to see the procession anyway.

I muttered to Cindy, “the Christians are pushing us back to the river!”, which was happening, albeit unintentionally. But that gave us an idea. We headed to the river, away from our room, then walked along it until we were at least eight blocks past the Mesquita, the town square and even our little “main street.” Then north, then back and safely home.

In all, we saw four different Mary floats and at least three Jesus floats, eight bands and five different colours of hoods. It was quite a night. But my favourite thing of all was the little kids collecting wax balls, drip by drip, from the candles carried by the hooded folk. And the hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of people, from the very young, to the very old, eating sunflower seeds along the parade route. And by morning, how it was all swept up so there was no way of knowing the processions even happened. But they did. And it was amazing.