The Slow Road http://theslowroad.org/wp Two Women Wandering The World Thu, 28 Sep 2017 21:20:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.5 67967049 Photos of Austria http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/photos-of-austria/ Wed, 13 Sep 2017 20:11:46 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=24155 The Stubai Valley in the Tirol region of Austria, 27 kilometers from the city of Innsbruck, is a beautiful place. We spent a week there in August 2017, based in the village of Neustift, hiking and riding cable cars to view pine-covered mountains, glaciers, roiling streams, and dramatic waterfalls. The valley has hikes easy or […]]]>

The Stubai Valley in the Tirol region of Austria, 27 kilometers from the city of Innsbruck, is a beautiful place. We spent a week there in August 2017, based in the village of Neustift, hiking and riding cable cars to view pine-covered mountains, glaciers, roiling streams, and dramatic waterfalls. The valley has hikes easy or hard enough to suit every walker and a mountain farm restaurant at the end of every trail.

 

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Valley Discoveries http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/valley-discoveries/ http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/valley-discoveries/#comments Wed, 30 Aug 2017 17:01:50 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=24048 Hundreds of thousands of people visit Austria’s Stubai Valley each year (most in the winter), so it isn’t exactly undiscovered. But few of them are Americans, and the valley is new to us, so we feel like it’s a discovery. We’re in Tirol, one of Austria’s alpine regions. When our housesit in Switzerland ended, we […]]]>

Hundreds of thousands of people visit Austria’s Stubai Valley each year (most in the winter), so it isn’t exactly undiscovered. But few of them are Americans, and the valley is new to us, so we feel like it’s a discovery.

We’re in Tirol, one of Austria’s alpine regions. When our housesit in Switzerland ended, we had two weeks left before our flight back to the United States. We couldn’t afford to stay in Switzerland without free lodging (it’s a very expensive country). But we weren’t ready to leave the mountains yet. So we headed to Switerland’s eastern neighbor, Austria, which is in the less expensive euro zone.

The town where we’re staying is Neustift im Stubaital, whose name roughly translates as “new church in the valley of the Stubai glacier.” (The church in question was founded by Austrian Emperor Maximilian I in the early 1500s.) Eighty-four euros a night gets us a big, bright, one-bedroom apartment in a chalet-style house with wooden balconies facing the mountains. From our bedroom window, we can see the cable cars that whisk hikers, paragliders, and mountain bikers up the side of the valley. On every clear day, the sky above Neustift is filled with paragliders hanging like thistledown in the air. (We got a taste of what that feels like on an extraordinary day in Slovenia nine years ago.)

As usual when we travel, a rental car is out of our budget, so we rely on public transit. The Stubai Valley is perfect for that. Buses run every half hour up and down the long valley. They end at the train station in Innsbruck, from where you can connect almost anywhere. Our apartment came with a Stubai Super Card, which lets us ride for free on all of the buses and cable cars in the valley. It also gets us into the local mountain rollercoaster (rodelbahn) and all of the valley’s public swimming pools and waterparks. From Neustift’s heated indoor/outdoor pool, you can see a glacier and a waterfall while you swim!

On our first day here, we rode the cable car up the mountain closest to us and hiked 2,600 feet back down, along a beautiful 5.5-mile trail through a side valley. The trail passed a couple of farms with restaurants, where we stopped for lunch and later drinks and cake. We also passed a plaque explaining that during World War II, an American B-17 bomber had crashed near that spot after being hit by flak over Innsbruck. The explosion killed a farmer (who was named on the plaque) and his aunt (who didn’t get a name), but the bomber crew survived to be put in a prisoner of war camp. A piece of wreckage from the plane is on display in the local museum.

Not long after the war, a photographer and ethnographer from Innsbruck named Erika Hubatschek started coming to the Stubai Valley to document the life and work of the mountain farmers. It’s the centennial of her birth (she died at the age of 93), and the wonderful black-and-white photos from her long career are on display around the region. In some cases, they’re paired with current photos of the same places or of the same people grown older, so you can see what’s changed over time.

In a film made a few years before her death, Erika was still climbing (slowly) up the steep green slopes, her face brightening with delight when she described farms and villages she had visited and photographed years ago. We watched the film at Neustift’s folkways museum with the 80-something docent, a former woodworker who added wonderful local color. As Erika’s photographs passed by on the screen, he’d say things like “that’s my uncle,” “that’s a friend of mine,” “that farm is right next to my family’s,” “I hiked up that mountain three times when I was younger.” His comments helped bring the exhibition to life for us.

Another day we visited a former silver and copper mine in the town of Schwaz near Innsbruck. The mine, which started in 1420, at one time produced 85 percent of the silver used for coinage in Europe. We rode the old miners’ train through small, dark, damp tunnels 800 meters into the mountain and saw mine shafts, huge water wheels to provide drainage, and miners’ tools from different eras. In its heyday, now-modest Schwaz was the second-biggest town in Austria. And the rich Fugger family that owned the mine—the most famous people, in their time, that you’ve never heard of—bankrolled the political and military campaigns of popes and emperors.

Later we took the bus as far up the Stubai Valley as possible to see the remnants of the once-mighty glacier that carved our valley. Glaciers look beautiful from far away, like white frosting on rocky peaks. Up close, they look more like old snow piles left in a parking lot after a long winter: dark and pitted and full of dirt and rocks. Still, it’s amazing to realize the power that ice had to shape the landscape around us. And as the glacier melts, it feeds countless streams and waterfalls that flow into a river that sustains the plants, animals, residents, and tourists of the gorgeous Stubai Valley.

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Around Lake Lucerne http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/around-lake-lucerne/ Wed, 23 Aug 2017 21:41:59 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=24027 Although we’ve taken lots of great excursions, most of our time in Switzerland has been spent around Lake Lucerne, the beautiful body of water that we see out our windows every day. Our little village of Merlischachen, with its handful of old chalet-style houses, is always a good place for a stroll. The benches down […]]]>

Although we’ve taken lots of great excursions, most of our time in Switzerland has been spent around Lake Lucerne, the beautiful body of water that we see out our windows every day.

Our little village of Merlischachen, with its handful of old chalet-style houses, is always a good place for a stroll. The benches down by the water are a favorite place to stop when we’re craving a quiet, contemplative moment outdoors.

Twenty minutes away by train, the city of Lucerne has a pretty setting where a river runs out of one end of the lake. Several medieval wooden bridges span the river, the most famous of which is decked with flowers and has a pointed stone tower in the middle (which served at various times as a treasury and a prison). In the old part of the city, buildings sport elaborately painted facades, many renovated in medieval style in the late 19th century.

Lucerne sits at the base of a particularly craggy mountain, 7,000-foot Mount Pilatus. Funicular trains and cable cars carry visitors up to the top. Besides the amazing views we’ve come to expect from Swiss mountains, we had an added treat the day we went up Pilatus. Looking down from a trail at the summit, we saw a group of wild ibex, including two young ones, sunning themselves on a rock outcropping far below us. On our previous trip to Switzerland, 12 years ago, we never managed to spot ibex in the wild. (We ended up going to the Bern zoo to see what they looked like.) So getting to watch these beautiful animals in their mountain home was an extra-special experience.

 


 
 

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Adventures in the Bernese Oberland and Unterwalden http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/adventures-bernese-oberland-unterwalden/ http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/adventures-bernese-oberland-unterwalden/#comments Sat, 19 Aug 2017 17:16:15 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=23874 In most U.S. guides to Switzerland, Interlaken and the central two valleys of the Bernese Oberland region (the villages of Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, and Murren) get all the love. So Americans and countless other tourists flock to Interlaken and Grindelwald to gape at mountains like the Eiger and the Jungfrau. That area is beautiful, but it’s […]]]>

In most U.S. guides to Switzerland, Interlaken and the central two valleys of the Bernese Oberland region (the villages of Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, and Murren) get all the love. So Americans and countless other tourists flock to Interlaken and Grindelwald to gape at mountains like the Eiger and the Jungfrau. That area is beautiful, but it’s overrun in summer. And there’s so much more to the Bernese Oberland region! Nearby, less well-known (to Americans, at least) valley towns like Meiringen and Engelberg are surrounded by beautiful mountains, with all of the things that tourists come to Switzerland for. Either one would make a great base for exploring central Switzerland’s high peaks and green valleys.

From our housesit on Lake Lucerne, we made four visits to the high-mountain area where the Bernese Oberland (in the Bern canton) meets the mountainous canton of Unterwalden. The region is only an hour by train from Lucerne, and the scenery along the way is so stunning that we were always glued to the train windows.

In Engelberg, we twice rode cable cars up the sides of the valley to hike past little mountain lakes. In Ballenberg, we strolled through a big open-air museum of historical houses and trade buildings brought from all over Switzerland. And in Meiringen, we experienced the awesome power of water. We visited torrential Reichenbach Falls, a place of pilgrimage for Sherlock Holmes fans because it was there that Holmes wrestled with his archenemy, Professor Moriarty, and supposedly plunged to his death. In the valley below the falls, the Aare river cuts through a deep, narrow gorge, in some places only a few yards wide. A walkway built into the cliffside let us marvel at the racing river below and twisting rock faces above from the safety of a broad, flat path.

 

 

 

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In the Heartland of Switzerland: Schwyz and Uri http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/heartland-switzerland-schwyz-uri/ Tue, 08 Aug 2017 16:57:35 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=23727 Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons, roughly equivalent to U.S. states but much smaller. (The biggest is only slightly larger than Delaware.) The village on Lake Lucerne where we’re housesitting this summer is located just barely (by about a mile) in the canton of Schwyz. It’s also within an hour by train from at least […]]]>

Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons, roughly equivalent to U.S. states but much smaller. (The biggest is only slightly larger than Delaware.) The village on Lake Lucerne where we’re housesitting this summer is located just barely (by about a mile) in the canton of Schwyz. It’s also within an hour by train from at least six other cantons, and we’ve been visiting many of them on our outings. To help anyone who might be planning a trip to Switzerland, we’re presenting photos and descriptions of our outings by canton.

Lake Lucerne, which has almost as many arms as an octopus, is bordered by four cantons. This part of central Switzerland is known as the historic birthplace of the country (a bit like Boston or Philadelphia in the United States). Around 1300, three of the lakeside cantons, Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden, formed a confederation—an alliance for mutual defense and free trade. Over the next 50 years, Lucerne and other cities joined them, forming the nucleus for the eventual nation of Switzerland. The nation takes its name and flag (a white cross on a red field) from the canton of Schwyz. So you could argue that we’re living in the most quintessentially Swiss part of Switzerland.

Our most memorable outings here have taken place around the southernmost arm of Lake Lucerne, called Lake Uri. On a warm sunny day we hiked the ridge top between two chairlift stations (Klingenstock and Fronalpstock). The trail was only 3 miles long but with much more up and down than we’d anticipated (almost 2,600 feet). That and the lack of shade made it our hardest hike in Switzerland. But even when we doubted whether we would make it up the final rise, the views of the surrounding mountains and the stunning blue waters of Lake Uri were worth the climb. At the base of the chairlift, the town of Stoos was celebrating the upcoming Swiss National Day (August 1) with accordion bands playing in all of the restaurants and hotels, so we got a serenade with our lunch. On another warm day we rode a 100-year-old passenger boat around Lake Uri, marveling at the little lakeside villages and the steep mountains we’d been on top of the week before.

 

 

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Our Best House Sit Yet http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/best-house-sit-yet/ Wed, 02 Aug 2017 19:35:56 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=23620 We’ve looked after people’s homes and pets in some wonderful places over the years. Rome, Italy; Penang, Malaysia; Burlington, Vermont; and Charleston, South Carolina come to mind. But this summer’s five-week house sit in central Switzerland may be the best one we’ve ever had. We’re in the village of Merlischachen on the shore of Lake […]]]>

We’ve looked after people’s homes and pets in some wonderful places over the years. Rome, Italy; Penang, Malaysia; Burlington, Vermont; and Charleston, South Carolina come to mind. But this summer’s five-week house sit in central Switzerland may be the best one we’ve ever had.

We’re in the village of Merlischachen on the shore of Lake Lucerne. Across the water sits the great bulk of Mount Rigi (5,900 feet high), its sides alternating patches of bright green meadow and dark pine forest. Next to Rigi, where the ground slopes away, a succession of high mountain ranges fades into the horizon. On the clearest days, we can glimpse the tops of distant snow-covered peaks.

The house we’re looking after is lovely and comfortable and clean. It feels light and airy, with balconies on every floor facing the lake. There’s also a small yard with tons of spiders, which Melissa bravely vanquishes so we can take care of the lawn and the outdoor plants. The four resident cats are friendly, though not particularly cuddly (one is semiferal). They have a small door to come and go, and they spend much of their time outside, in the yard or in a small park and meadow nearby.

The view from our windows is extraordinary. It’s fascinating to see how the play of light and clouds across the scenery changes throughout the day, highlighting or obscuring different peaks and turning the lake from blue to green to gray. I could watch it for hours. Melissa and I have both had big editing projects lately, and we couldn’t ask for a prettier “office” view.

The weather changes all the time here: We’ve gone from sunny to raging thunderstorm and back to sunny in an hour. It rains a lot, which is why everything is so green, but we’ve had clear days too. Thankfully, the mountains have mostly shielded us from the heat wave that has been gripping western Switzerland and other parts of Europe. Our highs have mainly been in the 70s to mid-80s, which is heaven, especially since the house has no air conditioning. On the rare days that it gets hotter than that, we can take a cable car up to somewhere higher and cooler. There’s also the lake, which people do swim in, but I’m waiting for even hotter weather before I brave the cold water.

The village of Merlischachen is small and quiet. There’s a little grocery store, an ATM, a hotel spread across three or four old buildings by the lake, a good but expensive hotel restaurant, a tiny beach, and a lakeside bar with snacks. The rest of the village consists of a mix of traditional and modern houses, a school, and a church. Sheep and cows graze the hillside farms above the village, but despite the country feel, we’re close to bigger places: the city of Lucerne is a quick train ride away.


We typically go into Lucerne on Tuesdays or Saturdays for the riverside farmer’s market to pick up local berries, cherries, greens, and wonderfully fresh dairy products straight from the nearby mountain pastures. Food is hideously expensive in Switzerland, so we only eat out a couple times a week and cook the rest of the time.

In between house chores and work projects, we try to go on two or three outings a week. So far, we’ve visited old lakeside cities with medieval buildings, ridden funiculars and cable cars up the sides of several mountains, hiked in meadows and on ridges with stunning views, and strolled through an open-air museum of traditional farm houses and trade buildings from around Swizterland. (We’ll post photos from some of those outings over the coming weeks.) But every time we return from an excursion, I’m struck by what a treat it is to live in a beautiful, quiet place like this for a while.

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Layers of History in Antequera http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/layers-history-antequera/ Tue, 25 Apr 2017 21:24:27 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=23493 You know a place is old when the Romans named it Antikaria (ancient city). The current town of Antequera in southern Spain, home to about 40,000 people, is known as “the heart of Andalucia” for its position midway between the cities of Seville, Malaga, Grenada, and Cordoba. We spent the week before Easter there looking […]]]>

You know a place is old when the Romans named it Antikaria (ancient city). The current town of Antequera in southern Spain, home to about 40,000 people, is known as “the heart of Andalucia” for its position midway between the cities of Seville, Malaga, Grenada, and Cordoba. We spent the week before Easter there looking after an apartment and two cats. And though it wasn’t our most comfortable housesit, it gave us the chance to immerse ourselves in Antequera’s traditional Easter Week festivities (more about those in our next post) and to explore the area’s rich history.

Viewed from high on the hill above town, Antequera is another Andalusian “pueblo blanco,” like Grazalema, all white walls and terracotta roof tiles. You don’t notice the whiteness at street level, though, because of all of the shop fronts, cafes, and brick or stone churches. There are many, many churches in Antequera, as well as a lot of old convent and monastery buildings. (In the 1830s, the Spanish government abolished convents and monasteries so it could sell off their land holdings to pay down the national debt.)

Not far from Antequerra, archaeologists have found evidence of a Bronze Age village, which may be what gave the Romans the idea that this place was old. Closer to town, there are small circular hills containing stone burial chambers (called dolmens) that date from between 2,000 and 3,000 BC, roughly the same era as Stonehenge. They were built from huge stones, the largest ones seven times heavier than those at Stonehenge. Through immense effort, the builders dragged the stones from the local mountains; stood them upright in a deep trench to form a long, narrow, U-shaped chamber; laid even bigger slabs on top for a roof, and covered the whole thing (except for the opening) with dirt to form a circular mound 50 meters (160 feet) wide.

The dolmens aren’t much to look at from the outside, and inside they’re too dark for photos, so we didn’t take any pictures of them. (If you want some, consult Google.) But just seeing the size of the stones and being inside such an ancient space was impressive. The dolmens have just been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, so town officials hope that will spur tourism to Antequera.

If so, visitors will find lots of other evidence of Antequera’s history. On the highest point in town, there’s the inevitable (for southern Spain) medieval Moorish fortress, taken over by conquering Christian kings who filled it with, you guessed it, churches. Just inside the walls of the fortress are the ruins of a Roman bathhouse. The surprisingly good town museum is filled with artifacts from Roman Antequera, ranging from the wonderfully mundane (bone dice that look almost exactly like modern dice) to the artistic (a large bronze sculpture of a boy).

And if that’s not enough history, you can see the changes that have occurred over a geologic time scale in a nearby limestone landscape called El Torcal. There, eons of erosion from rain, ice, and wind have turned karst hills into fantastic shapes full of lines and channels and circles. Some of my favorite formations resemble stacks of plates or giant piles of cookies. We hiked for a couple of hours through El Torcal, being careful to stay on the marked trails, because otherwise one could get seriously lost in that barren, rocky landscape. With all of the wonderful limestone cave formations we’ve seen in places such as Appalachia, the Yucatan, Slovenia, Thailand, and Vietnam, we sometimes say we’re doing a karst tour of the world. Now, when we get our tour t-shirts printed, we can add Spain to that list.

 

 

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Seville in Photos http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/seville-in-photos/ Tue, 18 Apr 2017 16:36:30 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=23464 For more than 500 years, Seville was ruled by Muslim caliphs and emirs. Since 1248, it has been ruled by Catholic kings. The intersection of those two eras and cultures can be seen most clearly in the center of Seville. The city’s massive cathedral, the third-largest Catholic church in the world, is built on the […]]]>

For more than 500 years, Seville was ruled by Muslim caliphs and emirs. Since 1248, it has been ruled by Catholic kings. The intersection of those two eras and cultures can be seen most clearly in the center of Seville. The city’s massive cathedral, the third-largest Catholic church in the world, is built on the site of a former mosque. The minaret of the mosque is now the cathedral’s belltower, the famous Giralda, symbol of Seville. Next to the cathedral sits a beautiful Moorish-style palace, the Alcazar, built by Muslim rulers in the 1100s. Catholic rulers expanded the Alcazar, and it remains a residence of Spain’s royal family to this day, making it the oldest palace in Europe still in use.

 

Seville Gallery
Misc. Seville Gallery

 

Seville Cathedral Gallery

 

Seville Alcazar Gallery

 

 

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Beautiful Orange-Scented Seville http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/beautiful-orange-scented-seville/ Sat, 15 Apr 2017 22:19:23 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=23159 OK, I know I said last month that Rome is one of the best cities in the world for strolling. But I think Seville may be even better. There’s plenty of history and good food and wine. Many streets in the center of the city are pedestrian-only, so you don’t have to dodge cars as […]]]>

OK, I know I said last month that Rome is one of the best cities in the world for strolling. But I think Seville may be even better. There’s plenty of history and good food and wine. Many streets in the center of the city are pedestrian-only, so you don’t have to dodge cars as you wander around. There are lots of parks and gardens, and in spring, the blissful scent of orange-tree blossoms fills the warm (but not yet hot) air. 

Almost everywhere you turn, there is beautiful or fanciful architecture: brightly colored tiles, intricate iron gates, huge windows that project out like balconies, cool interior patios filled with flowers. There’s a Moorish palace of incredible detail, one of the most beautiful bell towers in the world, Renaissance buildings decorated in a riot of carving, a cathedral designed specifically to impress the world with its size, scores of dramatic churches, and grand buildings from the 1910s and 1920s that are pure fantasies of architecture.

You can see all those things during the day, but evening is when Seville is at its best. Everything in this city encourages that Spanish family tradition, the evening stroll, or paseo. This time of year, it doesn’t get dark until almost 9 p.m., stores (which line the pedestrian streets rather than being clumped in some faraway mall) stay open until 8 or 9. The bars and restaurants that dot every corner have tables or counters outside, where you can stop for a drink and small plates of food (tapas) before you wander on. Paseo is an evening institution, meeting up with friends or family before the late dinner hour (typically about 10 p.m.).

Much more than we do elsewhere, Melissa and I wandered all over central Seville until midnight and never felt unsafe. There’s too much life in the streets and plazas, even on an ordinary weeknight, to feel like you’re on your own. Of course, hordes of other tourists love Seville too.

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Battle of the Bands http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/battle-of-the-bands/ Sun, 09 Apr 2017 20:46:47 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=23144 Our last day in Grazalema was a big day for the village—not because of our impending departure but because it was the 12th annual “Encuentro de Bandas de Musica” or, as we call it, Battle of the Bands. Town bands from Grazalema and two other local villages took over the main plaza in Grazalema to […]]]>

Our last day in Grazalema was a big day for the village—not because of our impending departure but because it was the 12th annual “Encuentro de Bandas de Musica” or, as we call it, Battle of the Bands. Town bands from Grazalema and two other local villages took over the main plaza in Grazalema to perform processional marches. The reason these villages have bands—and the reason they’re feverishly practicing this time of year—is that solemn march music is an important part of the religious processions that mark Easter Week (Semana Santa) in Spain. Music lovers, relatives of band members, and anyone glad to have something different to do in the village on a sunny Sunday afternoon flocked to the plaza to listen to the music.

We didn’t stick around after the concert to see whether a winner was declared. Grazalema was at a disadvantage because it’s the smallest of the three villages and because one of the other bands has spiffy red and black military-style uniforms rather than the usual polyester blazers. Still, to our ears, the Grazalema band acquitted itself well, and it definitely led the category of handsomest and most earnest band director.

 

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Photos of Grazalema http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/photos-of-grazalema/ Thu, 06 Apr 2017 17:07:00 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=23054 Pictures from our two-week stay in our favorite village in southern Spain—mountain views, white houses, scampering sheep, fountains with faces, and Chris and Melissa looking goofy in various ways.      ]]>

Pictures from our two-week stay in our favorite village in southern Spain—mountain views, white houses, scampering sheep, fountains with faces, and Chris and Melissa looking goofy in various ways.

 

 

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Returning to One of Our Favorite Places in the World http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/returning-one-favorite-places-world/ Wed, 05 Apr 2017 21:06:20 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22934 Nine years ago, with Melissa on crutches because of a badly sprained ankle, we came to the southern Spanish village of Grazalema in search of pretty scenery for her to recuperate in. We were charmed by this compact white village of 2,000 people, perched high on a shelf above a rolling green valley and ringed […]]]>

Nine years ago, with Melissa on crutches because of a badly sprained ankle, we came to the southern Spanish village of Grazalema in search of pretty scenery for her to recuperate in. We were charmed by this compact white village of 2,000 people, perched high on a shelf above a rolling green valley and ringed by gray, pine-covered peaks. We dreamed of returning someday when Melissa could do more than hobble around.

2017 is our personal Year of the Mountain. So as soon as we landed in mainland Spain from Mallorca, we headed straight to Grazalema for a two-week stay. Would the village be as wonderful as we remembered? Happily, the answer is yes.

Grazalema is much the same as we described and photographed last time. The shops, restaurants, hotels, churches, and beautiful views are still there. So is the little leather workshop where Melissa bought a bag last time, with the same artisan, Fernando, making beautiful things by hand. Once again, he showed us all his wares and rubbed our palms with ambergris (a waxy substance derived from whales that he uses to make leather supple). Melissa bought a glasses case this time, made to measure.

Some things have changed in Grazalema in nine years. The funny cropped trees in the central plaza are a little taller. The clock above the town hall keeps the right time now. And there’s a new statue celebrating the village’s heritage as a place long associated with the festival of roping a bull and running it through the streets.

The biggest change, though, is in the food scene. Back in 2008, Grazalema had two kinds of restaurants: bars where you could have a convivial time but dull food and fine-dining establishments good for a large traditional meal (heavy on the pork, boar, venison, and fish). Now, though, the village also boasts two very popular “gastrobars” whose chefs turn out delicious modern takes on traditional tapas. There’s also a wifi cafe that specializes in cakes, cookies, coffee, and Spanish hot chocolate (a cross between cocoa and pudding). It’s the sort of place where we can happily pull out our laptops and work for a few hours when we want a change of scenery. And best of all, smoking inside restaurants is now illegal in Spain, so no longer do we have to huddle outside in all kinds of weather because the interiors are too smoky to breathe! (Now it’s the smokers who have to do that.)

It’s colder than it was this time nine years ago (or maybe the difference is that we’re staying in apartments now rather than a hotel). We’ve gotten a lot of practice building fires to keep warm inside, and we’ve discovered another man named Fernando who, for 7 euros, will deliver a giant bag of firewood up the stairs to your living room. Communicating with him by phone in Spanish is one of my proudest linguistic achievements of this trip.

We’ve developed a wonderful routine here: work for several hours a day, linger over a big midday meal (as the Spaniards do) for a couple of hours, and hike for a few hours in the beautiful hills and valleys around Grazalema. A network of trails starts near our apartment, and Melissa has been thrilled to boldly walk in places that she could only look longingly at last time.

In many ways, Grazalema seems to us like a perfect village. While many rural communities are dwindling, it appears to be thriving. There are residents of all ages (not just old folks) and lots of visitors, drawn by the hiking, the views, or just the great fresh honey and payoyo cheese (made from the milk of local goats and sheep). The village has some new businesses, as well as established old ones, and all of the necessities for daily life (grocery stores, bakeries, butcher shops, banks, a school, a library, a post office, a municipal pool and sports complex, a few local industries, and a health clinic). And it’s just 45 minutes by bus or car to two larger towns (Ronda and Ubrique) and only a couple of hours to the big cities of Malaga and Seville.

Grazalema is the sort of place we could imagine putting down roots, except that we’d miss our loved ones in the United States too much for that. Still, we hope to come back in future years for longer stays. So when we leave it won’t be adios (goodbye), Grazalema, it’ll be hasta luego (see you later)—or, as villagers tend to say, mumble-mumble-waygo.

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Last Photos from Mallorca http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/last-photos-mallorca/ Thu, 30 Mar 2017 16:20:33 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22918 Our last stops in Mallorca were the towns of Pollenca and Alcudia, which sit inland near the heads of twin bays in the northeast of the island. So strategic was the location that the Romans built a sizable city there, called Pollentia (whose ruins, confusingly, are next to modern-day Alcudia rather than Pollenca). The area […]]]>

Our last stops in Mallorca were the towns of Pollenca and Alcudia, which sit inland near the heads of twin bays in the northeast of the island. So strategic was the location that the Romans built a sizable city there, called Pollentia (whose ruins, confusingly, are next to modern-day Alcudia rather than Pollenca). The area is home to several protected wetlands that are great for birdwatching.

 

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“A Cold Country with a Hot Sun” http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/cold-country-hot-sun/ http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/cold-country-hot-sun/#comments Sun, 26 Mar 2017 15:26:29 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22863 It’s a spring morning in southern Spain. I’m wearing two shirts and a fleece and sitting under two blankets on the sofa as Chris tries to get a fire going in the fireplace. We slept on fleece-y sheets under two comforters last night. There is no central heat, only very feeble electric space heaters. This […]]]>

It’s a spring morning in southern Spain. I’m wearing two shirts and a fleece and sitting under two blankets on the sofa as Chris tries to get a fire going in the fireplace. We slept on fleece-y sheets under two comforters last night. There is no central heat, only very feeble electric space heaters. This is completely normal here.

For all of Spain’s alleged “Mediterranean climate,” temperatures here can be quite cold, even in the south. Winter days often have highs in the 40s F and lows near freezing; it’s even colder in the mountains, where we are. Such weather can easily recur as late as April.

Temperatures are similar in places we’ve lived in the United States. So why are we so cold here? Electricity and gas are both pretty expensive in Spain, and installing heating ducts can be a bitch in houses built out of concrete and stone. Plus, given the hot summers, houses are built to stay cool and dissipate heat. In winter, that often means than it’s colder indoors that out: hence the traditional saying that it’s “so cold it’s even cold outside!” When the temperature reaches 50 F, people open doors and windows to let the warmth of the day in.

But seemingly the biggest reason for freezing Spanish interiors is that Spaniards (a traditional-minded people) think “it’s winter; it’s supposed to be this way!” Winter is cold. It’s the time to bundle up in layers, from long johns to sweaters to coats and hats – indoors and out. And don’t forget shoes, because the tiled floors are freezing. Doors to most rooms are kept closed, and people gather together in the one room that has a fire or heater. Beds have three duvets and maybe an electric blanket.

My new idea to get rich: heated toilet seats!

[On the other hand, it’s great hiking weather when the sun is out warming things up a bit.]

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Mallorca Mountains http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/mallorca-mountains/ Sat, 25 Mar 2017 13:49:24 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22856 In summer, tourists flock to Mallorca for its beaches and bays. This time of year, we came to Mallorca for its mountains. The Tramuntana range runs for 90 kilometers (56 miles) along Mallorca’s northern coast, reaching heights of 1,445 meters (3,757 feet) above the sea. After staying in the village of Valldemossa, in the middle […]]]>

In summer, tourists flock to Mallorca for its beaches and bays. This time of year, we came to Mallorca for its mountains. The Tramuntana range runs for 90 kilometers (56 miles) along Mallorca’s northern coast, reaching heights of 1,445 meters (3,757 feet) above the sea. After staying in the village of Valldemossa, in the middle of the Tramuntana, we moved northeast to the town of Pollenca near the far end of the range. There we had two wonderful mountain excursions: a hike through a rocky landscape of sheep and wild goats to the blue waters of a little cove called Cala Boquer and a drive along the breathtaking heights of Cape Formentor to the northern tip of Mallorca.

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Valldemossa: Saints, Sinners, and Sheep http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/valldemossa-saints-sinners-sheep/ Mon, 20 Mar 2017 19:45:31 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22777 Often when we plan to travel somewhere new, it’s hard to know where to go because the guide books make so many places sound good. That’s been the case with the Spanish island of Mallorca (pronounced mah-yorka) in the Mediterranean Sea. Do we focus on the mountain villages of the northwest or base ourselves near […]]]>

Often when we plan to travel somewhere new, it’s hard to know where to go because the guide books make so many places sound good. That’s been the case with the Spanish island of Mallorca (pronounced mah-yorka) in the Mediterranean Sea. Do we focus on the mountain villages of the northwest or base ourselves near the great sweeping bays in the northeast? In cases like that, the answer often depends on where we can get to by bus or train (rental cars usually being over our budget) and where we can find a decent rental apartment that’s not too expensive (for the joy of having our own kitchen, a couch to relax on, and a table to work at). When we’ve narrowed the options down to two places and we can’t decide between them, our favorite approach is to spend some time in each. So the first place we settled down in Mallorca was the mountain village of Valldemossa.

We knew Valldemossa would be pretty—it’s on the cover of the Lonely Planet guide to Mallorca. In fact, it’s ridiculously charming. Dating back at least to the 13th century, it’s full of narrow cobbled streets, lined with potted plants, that lead to tiny plazas (just big enough to park a few cars), old fountains, and boxy plain-fronted churches with steeples that tower over the village. Everything is built from the same honey-colored stone of the surrounding hills. We found an apartment in one of the old stone rowhouses on a quiet little street too small for cars. The rooms were little and cozy, but the patio in back had a gorgeous view over a valley of lemon, orange, and olive trees. When we sat out there in the almost daily sunshine, we could hear sheep bleating on the hillsides.

Little Valldemossa, with its 2,000 inhabitants, has its own saint: Santa Catalina Thomas. She was a poor village girl who was born in 1533 in a house right around the corner from our apartment. Strongly religious, she entered a convent in Mallorca’s capital, Palma, and was known for her prophetic visions and religious ecstasies. She has been venerated as a saint by local people since shortly after her death, but the Pope made it official by canonizing her in 1930. So proud is Valldemossa of its saint that almost every house has a painted ceramic plaque next to the front door with her image and the words “pray for us.” The house where she was born is now a small shrine, kept open and lit 24 hours a day. Our end of the village is quiet, with no restaurants and only a few small shops that close at dusk. It’s comforting to have that little haven of peace and light shining all night just around the corner.

Valldemossa’s other famous residents were Polish pianist and composer Frederic Chopin and his (female) lover, French writer George Sand. Seeking sun and warmth to help Chopin’s ailing health, in the winter of 1838-1839 they rented rooms in an old monastery in the center of the village that had recently been disbanded and converted into apartments. They scandalized the villagers by living in sin and not attending church, and George wrote an account of her time in Mallorca that was not too complimentary. But all seems to be forgiven now. There’s a museum dedicated to the pair in their former apartment, and every summer piano concerts of Chopin’s music are held daily. 

Our main travel goals for 2017 are to see mountains and practice our Spanish. (It was on hearing those goals that one of Chris’s former colleagues recommended Mallorca.) Our desire for Spanish immersion has been thwarted in Valldemossa, though, because the village is overrun with German tourists. Avid cyclists come to challenge themselves on the mountain roads (which, unlike the ones at home, aren’t covered in snow this time of year). At times, the main highways out of Valldemossa looks like a mini Tour de France. Other Germans come to hike the beautiful trails in the area, which we’ve enjoyed ourselves. Still others arrive by the carload and busload every day to admire the views, wander the old lanes, and drink beer in outdoor cafes in the sunshine.

As a result, we hear more conversations in German than in Spanish going on around us. And as our brains try to ignore the other languages they know to learn Spanish, Melissa keeps defaulting to her high school German. (I’d be doing the same with French if I were surrounded by Francophones.) Thank goodness for shopkeepers and waiters and bus drivers, or we’d get no Spanish practice at all.

Still, one thing we’ve noticed in our global wanderings is that Germans seem to gravitate to the places with the most natural beauty. So it’s no wonder that they love Valldemossa. Just look at Melissa’s pictures of the village and the breathtaking local scenery: forests and mountains and cliffs plunging down to the sea.

Valldemossa Photos
Valldemossa Photos

 

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Palma de Mallorca http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/palma-de-mallorca/ Wed, 15 Mar 2017 10:46:31 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22674 Much as we love Rome, we’re eager to work on our Spanish. So after our housesit in Rome ended, we headed for Spain. Thanks to a tip from one of Chris’s colleagues at CBO, we decided to explore the Spanish Mediterranean island of Mallorca. The island is a huge summer beach destination, but in March […]]]>

Much as we love Rome, we’re eager to work on our Spanish. So after our housesit in Rome ended, we headed for Spain. Thanks to a tip from one of Chris’s colleagues at CBO, we decided to explore the Spanish Mediterranean island of Mallorca. The island is a huge summer beach destination, but in March it’s much quieter. We spent our first day in Mallorca’s capital, Palma, soaking up the sun, strolling the streets, and relishing the Renaissance, Gothic, and Art Deco architecture.

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When in Rome … http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/when-in-rome/ Sun, 05 Mar 2017 19:04:01 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22598 We’ve had a wonderful week in Rome, looking after a pretty, light-filled apartment near the Vatican and two sweet, soft cats (Roodle and Kenji). The first time we visited Rome, in 2008, we crammed in all of the major tourist sites. (Take a look at Chris’s post and Melissa’s pictures of Ancient Rome, Later Rome, and the Vatican.) […]]]>

We’ve had a wonderful week in Rome, looking after a pretty, light-filled apartment near the Vatican and two sweet, soft cats (Roodle and Kenji). The first time we visited Rome, in 2008, we crammed in all of the major tourist sites. (Take a look at Chris’s post and Melissa’s pictures of Ancient RomeLater Rome, and the Vatican.) This time, we were content to revisit some of our favorite pieces of Renaissance art—works by Bernini, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and Pinturicchio in the Galleria Borghese, the Vatican Museums, and various churches. We also saw a special exhibition about Italy’s best female Renaissance painter (and one of the best of either sex), Artemesia Gentileschi, and explored the Vatican neighborhood near our apartment, which was new to us. (We didn’t spot the Pope, though.)

Mostly we did what you’re supposed to do in Rome: wander the city and eat fabulous pasta and gelato. Few cities that we’ve seen are better for strolling than Rome is. It’s at once monumental (tall buildings, grand architecture, monuments from every era) and compact (a wealth of things to see within a few-mile radius). You never know, when you turn a corner, what you’re going to encounter. Here are some scenes from our strolls.