Sunday, January 4, 2015
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
As my brief tenure in Belgium wounds it's way toward a close, my mother flew in to meet me in Brussels for one last jaunt. She would be there for 10 days, then we'd fly home together. Mom had never been to Europe; the closest she'd been was our trip years back to England and Ireland. So I had planned some excursions for us: to Paris for a weekend, and two places I'd not yet been, London and Venice. I had been traveling according to my financial status in Europe: that of graduate student on a volunteer stipend. By then I was staying at a historic townhouse in the city center as a house sitter for an American family posted to Brussels living off base. In my charge were their two very different pet cats, Dickens and Hamilton. Dickens was skinny and shy, almost elusive, while Hamilton was outright obese and extremely social, even gregarious. Hamilton would climb up the stairs to the bedroom on the weekend mornings to wake me up if I'd slept in too long. He would meow the entire way, expressing his dissatisfaction at not having been fed breakfast as early as deemed appropriate by his ample stomach.
So I met mom at the airport and we travelled by bus to the city center. The bus stopped very near to the townhouse, and so we walked the rest of the way, mom very much enchanted by the lovely architecture of the well preserved residential neighborhood. I left her to rest in the good care of an attentive Hamilton and the relatively absent Dickens before heading in to the office for several hours. I'd left instructions for Mom to help herself when she got hungry and to try to sleep off some of the jet lag. I didn't dare leave food out on the off chance that dear Hamilton might miraculously heft his girth onto the counter if the incentive were great enough. After I finished at work for the day, the plan was to pick mom up at the townhouse and head for the train station, where we'd catch the high speed for our weekend in Paris. I had per booked everything, from our separate seats on the Thalys (I got a student discount but subsequently had to ride in a different car) to what Expedia described as a four star hotel not far from the hill of Montmartre.
All went according to plan for the most part, except of course for the exceedingly tall, Japanese Belgian man in his very early thirties mom met in her train car. As it happened, so she later explained, he was sitting next to her and spoke English, so naturally after he mentioned wanting to settle down, mom thought of me. God knows how long they spent discussing me, but mom must have painted me in a good light overall, for as the train slowed for imminent arrival he gave her his business card, in case I wanted to keep in touch. As you might imagine, once I found mom on the train prior to disembarking, I vehemently wished I had just waited for her on the platform. And after awkward introductions between myself and the aforementioned businessman, I rolled my eyes so many times at my mother that if one could injure oneself so, I would have suffered permanent damage. But by then we were in Paris, out of the Gare Saint Lazare dragging our luggage behind us. If I may say, we had planned the baggage badly for a weekend away, and would not be making that mistake again.
By then my French was acceptably travel worthy, though not at all proficient beyond that capacity, but I still managed to get us lost, if only for 10 or 20 minutes. Relief flooded us both when we found our reserved hotel and, au Francais, I checked in with the front desk.
However it was fleeting, when the clerk said, "Ah, oui, Mademoiselle Rosser. You have a very nice room reserved, acclimatise, everything, but...not in this hotel."
"Pardon?!" Came my incredulous reply, a moment of panic coming over me.
"Oui," he continued, "your chambre is at our sister hotel, very nice, around the corner." He proceeded to give me directions to the very nice sister hotel in half French, half English, which turned out to be a little further than just around the corner.
We made it to hotel number two quite easily though, and repeated my now practiced check in procedure, this time in English due largely in part to my nerves by this stage. Somewhat surprisingly, it went off without a hitch and we headed to the elevator, as our room was on the fifth floor and we had our small roller suitcases. As the door to the elevator slid open, though, we looked at each other with raised eyebrows when we saw what was the smallest elevator either of us had ever beheld. We could barely stuff ourselves in it, tandem, with our bags, but we made it and rode giggling up to our room. The lift might have tipped us off, but we were far too naive for that, and I was oblivious, partly out of necessity, to the drawbacks of my travel budget.
Upon entering the room, we noticed a very old, very low queen bed but otherwise a pretty standard room. Until, that is, I wandered into the bathroom and discovered a bona fide hole in the tile and through the entire wall of our shower. At least I had the where with all not to stoop down and look through it; there was no light I could appreciate from my end so I actively chose to believe the other end must of opened to a neighboring closet or something of that ilk.
In any case, we were in Paris, the city of lights, and planned on spending next to no time in the room anyway. We dropped off our suitcases and set out in search of one of the famous sidewalk cafés.
Now have I mentioned it was August, in Europe? Which is tantamount to saying that the vast majority of the Continent shuts down. Who would have thought that the sidewalk cafés of Paris would be a empty and silent as a ghost town? I half expected a tumbleweed to blow by. We finally found an open brasserie and sat down, shortly to be attended to by an over zealous but understaffed Armenian waiter who introduced himself as Yousef. Mom ordered some awful, limp frankfurters, and my meal was so underwhelming I can't remember to this day what it was I had ordered. What we do remember though, is Yousef, who kept asking me my name in French, and, emboldened by my answer, then began petting my hair whenever he walked by. Escaping the clutches of disturbing Yousef, we quickly paid and headed back to our hotel lobby, where we perused tourist brochures and asked the concierge for recommendations.
We settled on a cruise of the Seine the following day, and I compromised on a private tour of the city at night by car. Mom loved guided city tours and I loathed them, too touristy. So, the next morning we breakfasted at the hotel before catching the bus to Notre Dame. The cathedral was intimidating, commandeering all of its tiny island in the Seine, with gargoyles leering above us. Inside, the Gothic influence was still palpable in the dark, but you could practically smell the history, thick in the air.
We lunched at a much nicer, much more occupied sidewalk cafe on the Left Bank, where mom was sure that our French waiter scoffed at us continually, especially when she requested a second spoon for our shared, and amazing, creme brûlée. I tried repeatedly to explain to mom that just because no one was speaking English directly to us absolutely did not mean they did not understand what we were saying, and therefore, courtesy dictated that mom should not talk about the people around us in a normal conversational voice unless she had very nice things to say. We revisited this topic more than once during our brief visit to the French capital.
After lunch we cruised the Seine under the unchanging watch of the Eiffel Tower, enjoying a sunny day and the beautiful architecture surrounding us. Before our evening tour, we hit the Louvre, marveling at the Classical Antiquities, the Egyptian Artifacts, and of course, da Vinci 's now ever crowded Mona Lisa.
The Eiffel Tower glittered before us toward the end of our admittedly enchanted evening tour, and we fell into the uncomfortably low hotel bed two very content frugal travelers.
Our departure the next day was early evening, so we left our bags at the front desk at check out, and hiked up the hill of Montmartre. We stumbled across a cute little market shop and went inside for croissants. No one ever told me just how steep that particular hill is, but once we reached the Sacre Coeur, it was well worth it. Street artists sold watercolors just before the steps to the city vista, and mom bought one of the Champs Élysées for me which we had framed Stateside. Walking around the basilica and down the steps to the terrace, the view of Paris laid out along the river Seine before us was indeed breathtaking, something for a postcard.
Much to my relief, mom didn't find anyone on the train ride back to Brussels to set me up with, and we headed back to the company of the two townhouse cats for a night's rest before more gallivanting around Western Europe another day.
Monday, August 25, 2014
Friday, August 15, 2014
Lounging in a luxurious, small boutique hotel room with the amber light of the bedside lamp, the panoramic window cracked to let in the fresh cool air. Outside several wisps of cloud cling to the mountainside, just after the rain. Dusk settles in, only a faint yellow fading on the horizon. The bell tower of St. Nikolai rises dramatically against the mountain backdrop, lighted subtly from below. Lights twinkle in the distant foothills.
Thus begins our first, and long overdue, weekend summer getaway. We have come to Villach, near the Austrian Italian border; home of mountains, lakes, and the river Drau, on whose banks our modern retreat comfortably resides. Beneath me the lights of the town begin to glimmer, as more low clouds sweep across the mountain view. The night air smells fresh, with hints of pine and clean glacial lakes. The day's moody rain clouds solemnly roll eastward, and the bell chimes from its tower.
It is an early evening in for me, while Jon is downstairs enjoying the sauna. We strolled through the rain in late afternoon, crossing a nearby bridge to the city center. Our investigations paid off, as one of the historic buildings off the main square boasts a sidewalk cafe with a very affordable traditional breakfast - we plan on trying it in the morning. Afterwards we will make our way to Tarvisio, Italy, just 30 minutes away. It will be Jon's first trip to Italy, and we hope to buy some authentic parmigiana for an afternoon picnic while hiking in the Carinthian mountains.
Tonight I had what I presume to be rather classic Southern Austrian fare, pasta dumplings stuffed with herbed tropfen in butter sauce with a side of green salad. Tomorrow promises Italian food, naturally, and if I'm very lucky, perhaps an Italian leather handbag from the open air market?
The lurking clouds have left the cover of the mountainside, and are quickly overtaking my windowscape, now blotting out everything but the uplit belltower. A cup of Darjeeling tea and a soak in the marble bathtub might be just the thing before Jon returns with chocolate mousse room service...
Sunday, June 15, 2014
Sunday, May 11, 2014
Sunday, May 4, 2014
First there are all the recent travels:
We have been to Jaidhof to commemorate the opening of a beautiful equine physiotherapy center on a gorgeous Austrian Spring day, when we also strolled through Krems, and courtesy of a colleague of Jon's, took a short but scenic drive along the Danube with glimpses of the renowned Wachau Valley.
Next we flew to seaside Portugal, by way of Frankfurt, where we were caught unawares by an extended layover. What better to do,then, than to hop the train into town and take a walk by the river before settling down at Roemerplatz for some cliche but delicious Frankfurters mit Sauerkraut and Hefeweizen. (My advice here: skip the Handkase mit Musik). We saw the Roemer Dom, a beautiful church of St. Francis, and many fantastically quaint historic buildings, all in all making up a layover far exceeding even the best of airport accomodations.
Next up we connected into Porto, where our hotel was less than impressive but entirely adequate. After sleeping in a bit we headed for the marina to meet the bride and groom and fellow wedding goers for a cruise of the Douro River on a perfect sunny day. We were naive, at this point, not to realize what all was in store for us. As we boarded the ship white port was waiting on ice as an aperitif, along with local delicacy appetizers of ham on specialty bread and a gorgeous spread of tropical fruit. After cruising for about an hour the sit down lunch commenced, with a wine tasting of three additional Portuguese wines, including the esteemed vinho verdi, and herbed pork with the best warm cabbage salad I have ever eaten. Dessert was champagne to toast the happy couple and scrumptious chocolate cake. Several of us then elected to walk back to the center of town, and cross the bridge to the Port Caves, where we experienced a delightful tour of Sandemann from Luis, in Portuguese no less, but with the added luxury of our personal translator and colleague friend, Paulo Steagall. After sangria in the shade, we went in search of dinner, which for the seafood lovers was a baked salted codfish, called bacuahlao. After another flight of wine tasting we were all done for, and we wandered back to the hotel for some very necessary beauty sleep. The wedding was the following day, and after some sunshine at the pool midday, we readied ourselves for the marathon that was to come. The wedding was lovely and the company was excellent - we all danced until 4am when bed began to call... Sunday was a chance for us to see the countryside at a barbeque courtesy of the groom's family. Naturally there was homemade wine and smoked sausage to try, as well as classic baked beans and a multitude of other dishes. Our last day in Porto was relaxed; Jon took on the duty of tourguide and did a great job by the lot of us. We ate Francesihna at the Majestic Cafe, walked to the Lello Bookstore to see Harry Potter's staircase, saw the sea, and rode the streetcar. We wandered the gardens of the Cristal Palais, strolled and photgraphed our way through downtown, and sampled the local shrimp and bread stew.
The next day we headed back to Vienna with yet another stopover, this time in my old haunting ground of Brussels, Belgium. Jon of course had never been, so we hopped the bus and found our way to the city center, where we got Jon a Belgian waffle with caramel sauce from a street vendor to tide him over until our imminent arrival in Le Grand Place. As always when walking to the Grand Place, he was taken aback by the narrow winding streets that prevent any glimpse of the majestic square until suddenly you are smack dab in the middle of a postcard scene. We found a sidewalk eatery and ordered the must have, carbonade flamande with pomme frittes (they are Belgian, after all, not French!) and a round of Leffe beers (my alltime favorite). Back at the airport after lunching, strolling, and photographing, we still had time to buy the best chocolate in the world, a box of Neuhaus truffles.
We made it back to our cozy flat in Vienna that night and slept like logs, because we knew the adventure was still in full swing!
In the interest of length and mystery, I think I will leave this as a bit of a cliffhanger and postpone the rest of the recent travel stories and exciting news for another day...