The Slow Road http://theslowroad.org/wp Two Women Wandering The World Mon, 10 Sep 2018 18:32:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 67967049 Riga Scenes http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/riga-scenes/ Wed, 05 Sep 2018 22:42:19 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=25403 There’s more to Latvia’s capital than Art Nouveau. This gallery of scenes from Riga includes the giant Central Market (housed in former Zeppelin hangars), some of the city’s grand monuments, a few of the rare medieval buildings that survived bombing in World War II, displays of traditional Latvian clothing and knitting, and some unusual exhibitions […]]]>

There’s more to Latvia’s capital than Art Nouveau. This gallery of scenes from Riga includes the giant Central Market (housed in former Zeppelin hangars), some of the city’s grand monuments, a few of the rare medieval buildings that survived bombing in World War II, displays of traditional Latvian clothing and knitting, and some unusual exhibitions and street food we found while exploring the city.

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Riga Art Nouveau http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/riga-art-nouveau/ http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/riga-art-nouveau/#comments Sat, 01 Sep 2018 20:44:39 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=25399 If you ever come to the capital of Latvia, don’t forget to look up! Riga has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. That style was popular from around 1900 to 1914, a period when the city’s population almost doubled and hundreds of apartment buildings were built—each vying to look modern and […]]]>

If you ever come to the capital of Latvia, don’t forget to look up! Riga has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. That style was popular from around 1900 to 1914, a period when the city’s population almost doubled and hundreds of apartment buildings were built—each vying to look modern and unique. We rented a little apartment in one of those buildings. Although our room didn’t have any period touches, the nearby Art Nouveau Museum showed us a beautifully restored example of a bourgeois family’s apartment from the early 1900s.

Art Nouveau architecture took various forms in Riga: Eclectic (masses of ornate decoration, like an over-the-top wedding cake), Perpendicular (strong vertical lines), and National Romantic (muted earth tones, asymmetry, and decoration based on folk art). Wandering the streets with her camera, Melissa took almost 300 photos of the fabulous buildings. We’ve whittled that down to 71 to give you a taste of the rich variety of Art Nouveau design in Riga.

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Riga, Latvia: The Good, the Bad, and the Pickled http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/riga-latvia-the-good-the-bad-and-the-pickled/ Sat, 25 Aug 2018 14:18:25 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=25380 After visiting Estonia, we took the bus south to Riga, the capital of Latvia, where we rented an apartment for a week. Riga is a great city for walking around. It has broad avenues, a network of downtown parks that provide shade on hot summer days, and lots of interesting things to look at. Our […]]]>

After visiting Estonia, we took the bus south to Riga, the capital of Latvia, where we rented an apartment for a week. Riga is a great city for walking around. It has broad avenues, a network of downtown parks that provide shade on hot summer days, and lots of interesting things to look at.

Our favorite part of Riga was the architecture. The city has hundreds of Art Nouveau apartment buildings built between 1900 and 1914—some streamlined and spare, some incredibly ornate, each one individual. Riga is the opposite of cities like Paris that have a uniform look architecturally. Here, each building is distinct. As we strolled through the city, we spent a lot of time looking up, trying to pick out all of the interesting little details on the facades.

An apartment in one of those buildings has been painstakingly restored and turned into the Art Nouveau Museum. It’s filled with the sorts of furniture and decorative objects that a wealthy family who wanted the latest styles would have had in the early 1900s. Many of those objects were made in Riga, which was a major industrial center at the time, and one of the largest cities in the Tsarist Russian Empire.

At the museum, scrolling through pictures of Riga’s major Art Nouveau buildings, we discovered that the place we were staying was one of them! The exterior of our building is still pretty, but the inside has been modified over the years, not least by a rickety Soviet-era metal elevator plunked into the middle of the curving staircase. There are a few fading Art Nouveau touches in the entryway. Every time we went in or out, I couldn’t help thinking about our building in its heyday, when it and its neighbors were on the cutting edge of style in a growing city.

Besides its architecture, Riga has other pluses, as well as some minuses: There’s a vast daily fresh-food market housed in five former Zeppelin hangars. But other than that and a couple of good restaurants we found (Fazenda and Stock Pot), the food wasn’t as tasty and interesting in Riga as in Tallinn. Too many heavy fried foods, pickled vegetables, and beets.

Public transit is abundant and easy to use, though, and internet access is super cheap. (We got one-week SIM cards with unlimited high-speed data for only a few euros.) The shopping is good—lots of linen clothes and colorful knitted mittens—and there’s a great little costume museum that was having a exhibition about fashions of the 1920s. (It was a bit surreal to visit it and hear old American songs like “Putting on the Ritz” somewhere so far from home.)

Compared with Tallinn’s historic old town, Riga’s is less charming and authentic. Although both cities have been trading centers since the early Middle Ages, Riga has far fewer medieval buildings left. The city was heavily shelled during World War II, and some of its most iconic “old” buildings are recent reconstructions that feel a bit Disneyland-ish. The Old Town is less choked with tourists than in Tallinn, but it’s stuffed full of bars and cafes (cheap booze makes Riga a popular destination for partiers). The city does have some pretty church spires, though, and its monuments feel impressively monumental.

Riga offered us some unexpected pleasures. In front of the Lutheran cathedral (not to be confused with the Russian Orthodox cathedral), we stumbled on a display of bear statues from Berlin. Each one was painted by artists from a different country, and together they formed a sort of bear United Nations.

Another day we found a little street-food festival in the up-and-coming Kalnicema district, a neighborhood of restored 19th-century wooden houses. Our dinner there—a cross between fusion tacos and deconstructed Chinese rice-flour buns—was one of the best meals we had in Riga. The people watching was fun too. It felt like the sort of event we’d go to at home.

Although we didn’t know it beforehand, we picked a good year to visit Latvia and Estonia. Both are celebrating the 100-year anniversary of when they first became independent countries. Riga’s National History Museum of Latvia had a good exhibition showcasing the past century of political and social history. We especially like the “period rooms” decorated with Latvian furniture from different decades (the 60s and 70s rooms took me back to my childhood) and the displays of traditional folk costumes from different parts of the country. Recreating traditional clothing for folk and choral festivals has been a way for people to rediscover a sense of “Latvianness” in a country that for centuries was absorbed by its larger neighbors but is now a proud, independent European nation.

Display at a shop in Riga selling traditional Latvian clothing for folk festivals and singing competitions

 

 

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Images of Estonia http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/images-of-estonia/ Sun, 19 Aug 2018 17:23:32 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=25061 Estonia’s capital city was an important trading post on the Baltic Sea for more than 800 years. Its walled medieval quarter is full of stone towers, cobbled streets, old houses and guild halls where German-speaking merchants and craftsmen did business, and churches with ornate spires. It’s fun to wander around when the cruise ship tourists […]]]>

Estonia’s capital city was an important trading post on the Baltic Sea for more than 800 years. Its walled medieval quarter is full of stone towers, cobbled streets, old houses and guild halls where German-speaking merchants and craftsmen did business, and churches with ornate spires. It’s fun to wander around when the cruise ship tourists aren’t too plentiful. Elsewhere in Tallinn, old industrial zones are being renovated into hip urban hangouts, giving the city a modern feel.

Tallinn Scenes

 

During our week in Tallinn, we saw lots of interesting art, both old and new. The Kumu Museum, part of the Estonian Museum of Art, mounted a beautiful exhibition of portraits by Renaissance painter Michael Sittow, who was born in Tallinn, trained in Belgium, and worked at royal courts around Europe. Other parts of the Kumu Museum focus on work by Estonian artists during the half-century of Soviet rule (1940-1991), some of whom followed the approved style of socialist realism and others of whom took a more nonconformist approach. Today, artists are still making an impact in Tallinn, turning the Telliskivi neighborhood into a haven for interesting street art.

Estonian Art

 

Just outside Tallinn, the Estonian Open Air Museum brings together 18th- and 19th-century rural buildings from around the country. The day we visited, a troupe of folk dancers was performing, dressed in the traditional styles of various parts of Estonia. We loved their energy and the twirling striped wool skirts in patterns unique to individual towns. We were struck by how dark and plain the wooden farm buildings were—long and low, with thatched roofs, no chimneys, and very little decoration. There was much less material comfort than in farms from the same period we’ve seen elsewhere in Europe.

Estonia Open Air Museum

 

While in Tallinn, we took a great day trip with Travelers Tours to Lahemaa National Park on Estonia’s northern coast. It’s an area of small bays strewn with boulders, peaceful pine forests and bogs, quiet seaside villages, and old manor houses built during Tsarist days. Along the way, we visited one of flat Estonia’s mighty waterfalls (25 feet high), tried out a traditional village swing, and saw storks nesting on rooftops (they flew too high for us to get a picture).

Lahemaa National Park

 

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Impressions of Tallinn http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/impressions-of-tallinn/ Sun, 12 Aug 2018 18:36:01 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=24692 We really enjoyed visiting the capitol of Estonia. Here are some reasons why, along with other impressions. Tallinn is compact and crowded. It has a medieval core of cobbled streets lined with painted stone houses and churches from the 1300s to 1500s, when the city was a major German trading post in the Hanseatic League […]]]>

We really enjoyed visiting the capitol of Estonia. Here are some reasons why, along with other impressions.

  • Tallinn is compact and crowded. It has a medieval core of cobbled streets lined with painted stone houses and churches from the 1300s to 1500s, when the city was a major German trading post in the Hanseatic League (a federation of trading towns on the Baltic and North Seas). Its spires are especially beautiful—particularly the tall, narrow one atop the 1404 Town Hall, which was reputedly based on a minaret that the designer had seen somewhere.

  • Tallinn is full of tourists in August, many from the multiple cruise ships that dock nearby every day. Before 10 a.m. and after 7 p.m., the old town is quieter and fun to stroll.
  • Tallinn’s old town is actually a city within a city. The high walled citadel, called Toompea, was home to a castle, a cathedral, and the German-descended nobility. The lower walled city, called Reval, was full of merchants and craftsmen and dock workers, Estonian and international. Despite being crowded together, the two parts of Tallinn’s old town remained separate administrative entities until the 1880s.
  • Many restaurants and shops in the old town dress their staff in quasi-medieval costumes, which makes for some amusing scenes when workers are heading home on the bus, hunched (like all the other commuters) over their phones.

  • Many people in Tallinn seem like they’re in a hurry. They walk fast and drive very fast, even downtown when they’re only going from one stoplight to the next.
  • The food standard in Tallinn is very high. We ate out once or twice a day for a week and never had a bad meal. There are lots of wonderful cafes all around the city with tables outside for people to enjoy the summer weather. Staples on menus this time of year include salmon, perch, duck, dark brown rye bread, sour-cream-based sauces, potatoes, rhubarb, strawberries and other local berries, beets, and salad greens. Dill is the number one herb. There’s very good cake, especially cheesecake (heaven!).

  • The inner suburbs of Tallinn are full of three-story boxy rectangular wooden buildings subdivided into apartments, with yards and fences. They were mostly built from the 1910s to the 1930s using several different designs—one created by Tallinn’s mayor—to house the growing population. Those characteristic “Tallinn houses” are usually clad in horizontal wooden siding and brightly painted, though some are covered in popcorn plaster. Soviet filmmakers used to come to the Tallinn suburbs to shoot scenes set in Western Europe because they thought it looked more European than anywhere else in the USSR. Today, some of the wooden Tallinn houses are slowly being lovingly restored as residences or businesses.

  • Tallinn’s outer suburbs have large developments of dull concrete high-rise apartment buildings left from Soviet days. Those are usually the cheapest places to live, and when residents get a little more money, they generally move to more interesting neighborhoods or buy a little house in the country and commute into town.
  • Other than McDonalds and Subway, we didn’t see any U.S. shops or restaurants in the city. That sets Tallinn apart from other capitals we’ve visited around the world. Western culture flowed here from Finland, Sweden, and other near neighbors more than from the United States.
  • There are lots of strip clubs, bars, and betting parlors in Tallinn, which makes for a strange mix when they’re in medieval buildings.
  • Not long ago, Tallinn had a reputation as a cheap drinking destination, favored by backpackers and Britons out for boozy bachelor/bachelorette weekends (“stag” and “hen” parties). Recently, Tallinn has been trying to shed its reputation by raising alcohol taxes and marketing itself to other types of tourists, including cruise ship passengers. To Melissa’s delight, there are usually lots of interesting nonalcoholic drinks on menus. These days, travelers and Estonians in search of cheap alcohol head south to Latvia.

  • Among Tallinn museums, we especially enjoyed the city history museum, which had a special exhibition exploring Tallinn’s social history decade by decade over the century since Estonia first became independent. The Estonian National Gallery of Art, in a large park on the edge of Tallinn, is also wonderful. Besides a special show of paintings by Michael Sittow, a Renaissance court painter who was born in Tallinn, the museum highlights the contrasts between Soviet-approved and -unapproved works by Estonian artists in the 20th century. A history lesson told through art is something we’re bound to love.
  • And speaking of art, Tallinn has a few newish, urban, hip neighborhoods (Telliskivi and Rotermann) reclaimed from old industrial buildings. They’re full of interesting cafes and shops and feel as modern as anything in a U.S. city center. Telliskivi also has lot of great street art. And, for some reason, a lot of ping pong tables. It’s a fun place to hang out on a summer evening.

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Impressions of Estonia http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/impressions-of-estonia/ Sat, 11 Aug 2018 17:37:52 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=24670 With two weeks free between stints at our Swiss house sit, we headed north to the Baltic Sea to visit Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and Riga, the capital of Latvia. Tallinn is the farthest north (almost 60 degrees latitude) and the farthest east in Europe we’ve ever been. It’s also the first place we’ve […]]]>

With two weeks free between stints at our Swiss house sit, we headed north to the Baltic Sea to visit Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and Riga, the capital of Latvia. Tallinn is the farthest north (almost 60 degrees latitude) and the farthest east in Europe we’ve ever been. It’s also the first place we’ve visited that used to be part of the Soviet Union. (Estonia became independent in 1991.)

First, some geography. Estonia is the northernmost of the three small nations that were known as the Baltic Republics in the USSR (the other two are Latvia and Lithuania). Estonia is bordered on the north and west by the Baltic Sea, on the east by Russia, and on the south by Latvia. Just across the sea to the north is Finland.

We spent a week in Tallinn, wandering all over the city and visiting lots of museums. We also took a day-long excursion to Lahemaa National Park on Estonia’s northern coast (with the very good Travelers Tours) and then a four-hour bus ride through the countryside to Latvia. So our impressions of Estonia are based on what we learned from those experiences, which inevitably skipped large parts of the country.

  • Estonia is very flat. Its highest point is just over 1,000 feet, and that’s far inland, a long way from where we were. The flatness was especially noticeable since we were coming from central Switzerland, where we look out our windows at a mountain almost 6,000 feet high, with much taller peaks in the distance.
  • Estonia feels sparsely populated. The nation has 1.3 million people in an area the size of the Netherlands (which has a population of 17 million). One-third of Estonians live in Tallinn, so the rest of the country is even more thinly settled. You can drive a long way and see only fields or pine forests, with houses few and far between.
  • I was surprised by how blond and pale Estonians tend to be. To my eye, they resemble Scandinavians more than Eastern Europeans.

 

  • Estonians have a reputation—well deserved, in our experience—for being shy and reserved. (But then, so do the Swiss, so it wasn’t much change for us.) No one smiles or even looks at you when you pass on the sidewalk. Service in restaurants and shops is usually competent but not particularly friendly. The guide on our national park tour said that, like many Estonians, he’s uncomfortable with small talk but is happy to converse when he has information to impart. The reputation for being standoffish applies to all three Baltic nations, but apparently even the Latvians think their Estonian neighbors are especially quiet and buttoned up. A Latvian joke: “How do you know an Estonian is an extrovert? Because he looks at your shoes when talking to you instead of his own!” 
  • The area that is now Estonia has been kicked around like a football for at least 800 years. At various times it was controlled by Denmark, Germany’s Teutonic Knights, Sweden, Poland, or Russia. It managed to become an independent nation, for the first time in its history, in 1918. After just two decades, it was occupied by the Soviets early in World War II, “liberated” by Nazi Germany, and then coerced back into the Soviet Union after the war. The period from 1940 to 1991 (when the country regained its independence) isn’t remembered fondly by most Estonians who lived through it.

 

  • Today, Estonia is looking west with all its might. It’s a member of the European Union and NATO and hopes beyond hope that those alliances will protect it against Russian expansion of the sort seen in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean region of Ukraine. One Estonian we talked to described bordering Russia as like living next to a volcano: You can’t worry about it 24 hours a day, but you never forget it’s there.
  • The southern border with Latvia is a crazy zigzag. For most of history, Estonia and Latvia were under the same rulers, with no geographical distinction between them. The one thing that did distinguish them was their very different languages. When both countries became independent after World War I, surveyors drew up a border by going house to house trying to determine who spoke which language. As a result, the border goes right through the middle of some towns.
  • Language is still an important cultural force in Estonia. Ethnic Russians or Russian speakers, many of whom moved to Estonia in Soviet days, live in very separate social, political, and religious spheres from ethnic Estonians and Estonian speakers. (The situation seems similar to that of Hispanic communities in some parts of the United States.) Estonians no longer automatically learn Russian at school; it’s an elective course, and many students opt to learn English, German, or even Chinese instead. As a result, it’s fairly easy to travel in urban Estonia as an English speaker.
  • Estonians say they feel a lot of cultural connection to Finland, their northern neighbor across the sea (a two-hour ferry ride away). The Estonian and Finnish languages are similar—and are unlike all other European languages except Hungarian. Finns and Estonians are said to share a common temperament, and they have fought in each other’s wars against Russia over the years. Estonians see Finland as a role model for their country’s political, social, and technological development.
  • Agriculture in Estonia tends to be large-scale and intensive. Family farming was destroyed in favor of collective farming during the Soviet period, which afterward made it easy for agrobusinesses to buy up land. That’s a big change from Switzerland, where small family farms are everywhere, carefully nourished by the state.

 

  • An open-air museum outside Tallinn preserves traditional 19th-century farm buildings from around the country. Most are long, low, unpainted wooden structures with peaked, thatched roofs and no chimneys, just holes in the eaves to let out smoke from cooking fires. By the standards of other parts of Europe, the farm buildings were remarkably dark and unadorned inside. They were arranged in compounds of multiple buildings that included a house, barns, a sauna, fenced “clean yards” and “dirty yards” (for livestock), and storage buildings where clothing and household goods was kept in large wooden dome-toped chests and where unmarried girls slept in the summer (the better to flirt with unmarried boys during the long summer evenings).

 
Next: Impressions of Tallinn

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A Preschooler’s View of Switzerland http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/preschoolers-view-switzerland/ http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/preschoolers-view-switzerland/#comments Sat, 28 Jul 2018 19:33:11 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=24646 Four-year-old Francesca Ferraro, our unofficial goddaughter, is a well-traveled kid. She’s taken trips with her parents to Istanbul, Venice, and southern France. And she and her mom, AJ, have traveled with us in Vietnam, Sicily, and Oaxaca, Mexico. When we did our house sit on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland last summer, we were struck by […]]]>

Four-year-old Francesca Ferraro, our unofficial goddaughter, is a well-traveled kid. She’s taken trips with her parents to Istanbul, Venice, and southern France. And she and her mom, AJ, have traveled with us in Vietnam, Sicily, and Oaxaca, Mexico.

When we did our house sit on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland last summer, we were struck by what a perfect place it would be for Francesca. The family whose house we looked after includes a girl just her age, so there are lots of toys we knew she’d love and a bedroom decked out in stuffed animals and Hello Kitty decor. When we were invited to do the same house sit this summer, we asked whether AJ and Francesca could join us for a couple of weeks. The wonderfully laid-back owner said yes, so this summer we got to see central Switzerland through a 4-year-old’s eyes.

Francesca’s favorites included swimming in the lake at our village’s tiny beach, bouncing on the trampoline in the yard, feeding the four cats we’re taking care of, and visiting the Lucerne Transport Museum and the Ballenburg Open-Air Museum (at least the parts with dress-up clothes and games for kids). 

Other highlights for her included riding chairlifts over fields full of cows (less intimidating than cows up close),enjoying the playgrounds located next to seemingly every alpine restaurant, and watching World Cup matches with me.

She was also delighted the time we found a special train car full of kids’ books about the mascot of the Swiss rail system, Globi the pants-wearing parrot.

She wasn’t as keen as the adults were on train rides or boat rides to see the beautiful scenery (“boring”). And she found the walk through the Aare River gorge “scary”—though nothing that inventing silly songs with us couldn’t fix.

At age 4, Francesca may not retain many memories of her travels so far when she gets older. But seeing a place with her always provides lots of lasting memories for us.

 

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Renaissance Mantua http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/renaissance-mantua/ Sun, 22 Jul 2018 21:34:04 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=24492 Our second stop in Italy on the way to Switzerland was the town of Mantua—or, as the Italians call it, Mantova—about 2 hours east of Milan. We chose Mantua as our northern stop because we wanted somewhere quiet after Rome, so we stayed away from bigger cities in the area, such as Bologna and Verona […]]]>

Our second stop in Italy on the way to Switzerland was the town of Mantua—or, as the Italians call it, Mantova—about 2 hours east of Milan. We chose Mantua as our northern stop because we wanted somewhere quiet after Rome, so we stayed away from bigger cities in the area, such as Bologna and Verona (which was being inundated with visitors for the start of its famous opera season).

Just about the only thing I knew about Mantua is that it’s where Romeo was exiled to in Romeo and Juliet. The town turned out to be an interesting counterpoint to Orvieto. Whereas Orvieto is perched on a hill in rolling countryside, Mantua is flat and almost at sea level. And whereas Orvieto’s heyday was in the 1200s and 1300s, Mantua reached the height of its power in the 1400s and 1500s, when it was ruled by the Gonzaga family of dukes, counts, and cardinals. The town’s major churches, palaces, and municipal buildings date from that period.

Mantua piazza

Mantua ranks high in Italian surveys of towns with the best quality of life, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a very pleasant, livable sort of place: compact and walkable, full of piazzas lined with cafes and shops under wide arcades. The town is bounded on three sides by artificial lakes (created in the 12th century as a defense for the city), with green park land along the shores for strolling and cycling. When we walked there, we passed people fishing with the longest poles we’ve ever seen (easily 15 feet long and held up on stands).

On a summer weekend there were plenty of tourists, but very few foreigners. Mantua mostly attracts other Italians coming for weekend getaways to enjoy its local foods. Specialties include pasta filled with pumpkin and a hint of mustard, sausage risotto, and a shortbread-like cake made with equal parts white flour and corn meal. We tried them all and liked them, though we skipped another Mantuan specialty, donkey stew.

During our day in Mantua, we visited the main fortress and palace of the Gonzaga dukes. The jewel of the rambling complex is a bedroom painted floor to ceiling in the late 1460s with scenes of the ruling family. The restored paintings were so detailed and vibrant that I felt like I was looking at characters from my favorite novels about Renaissance Italy. The ceiling was notable as one of the first examples of a trompe l’oeil effect that became popular across Europe in later centuries.

A few blocks from the palace, we were charmed by a small theater that opened in 1769. The space was designed so that the audience members had as good a view of each other as of the stage. It was easy to imagine the tiers of tiny boxes filled with people in their finest 18th-century suits and dresses, fluttering their fans as they listened to a piano recital by one of the theater’s first performers, 14-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I don’t think I’ve ever before stood next to a stage where Mozart played!

Mantua theater

In the late afternoon, we took a boat ride around the lakes and saw city from the water. As the boat motored slowly along, the guide pointed out large groups of swans and cormorants and played arias from Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, which is set in Mantua. Then it was time for another good dinner and finally a stroll with a cup of very good gelato, as we said goodbye to the pleasures of Italy.

 

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Medieval Orvieto http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/medieval-orvieto/ Thu, 19 Jul 2018 20:28:10 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=24380 A reader recently asked us to say more about why we go to the places we visit and what we like about them. So here goes: After our housesit in Rome, we had four days until the beginning of our housesit in Switzerland. We decided to spend that time in Italy rather than Switzerland because […]]]>

A reader recently asked us to say more about why we go to the places we visit and what we like about them. So here goes:

After our housesit in Rome, we had four days until the beginning of our housesit in Switzerland. We decided to spend that time in Italy rather than Switzerland because it’s a much cheaper country. Since we usually have more time than money, we generally travel by train or bus instead of by plane or rental car. So we looked for two interesting-sounding towns on the train routes between Rome and central Switzerland.

When we choose a place to visit, we usually consider a bunch of factors: Have we heard good things about it (from travel articles, guidebooks, podcasts, other travelers)? Can we afford to stay there? Can we get there fairly easily by public transit? Is the scenery pretty? Is the food good and not too expensive? Does the place feature interesting architecture, museums, or historical sites? Is there good hiking or swimming near by? Is the weather likely to be decent? Is the place different from where we’ve been lately? How crowded is it likely it be? (As you can imagine, we spend a fair bit of time doing online research of possible destinations.)

Based on those sorts of criteria, we decided to stay in two Italian towns on our way to Switzerland: Orvieto and Mantua. They were very different and we liked them both, but Orvieto was our favorite.

Orvieto is a small, very picturesque, medieval hill town midway between Rome and Florence in the region of Umbria. It sits on a mesa of beige volcanic rock, and many of its old houses, churches, and bell towers are built from the same beige stone, which gives Orvieto are very unified appearance. The town is full of narrow pedestrian-only streets, so it’s fairly quiet, which was a welcome change after crowded, bustling Rome.

One of my favorite things to do in Europe is just walk around absorbing the look and feel of a place. I absolutely adore wandering through narrow cobbled streets—especially ones that have a mountain or valley view at the end—looking at old buildings, catching glimpses of residents’ everyday life, finding little restaurants to eat in, and walking home afterward. Bonus points if it’s somewhere, like Orvieto, that many people visit on day trips from nearby cities. When the tourists leave at the end of the day, you feel like the place is yours.

Winding cobbled street in Orvieto

Extra bonus points if, like Orvieto, the town is full of cats, prowling the alleys or sunning themselves on walls. Both mornings there, when I looked out the curtains of our ground-floor hotel window, the first thing I saw was a cat looking back at me (a different cat each time).

Orvieto’s heyday was in the 1200s and 1300s, when it frequently hosted the Pope and his court. As a result, it has an amazing cathedral from that period.

The people who designed the front of the cathedral apparently believed that if some decoration was good, then more was better.

The main facade sports bas-relief carvings, gold mosaics, bronze statues, stone statues, curving arched doorways, triangular pediments, rectangular spires, Gothic decorative trim, and giant carved doors. There’s so much to look at that your eye doesn’t know where to rest, and you get a crick in your neck from craning upward to see every detail. I carry a pair of small binoculars when I travel; they’re useful not only for bird watching but also for making out details high on the walls of churches and old-fashioned art museums (the kind that hang their paintings in rows three or four high). Boy, was I glad to have them at the Orvieto cathedral.

Duomo facade details

The inside of the cathedral is large and very tall, but much plainer: mainly columns in stripes of alternating dark and light stone. The plainness ends at the front of the cathedral, where the area around the main altar and two side chapels are richly painted with frescos from the 14th and 15th centuries. More neck cricks as we studied the painted walls and ceilings and the high stained-glass windows. After we left, I had to stare at my feet for five minutes to get my neck back in alignment.

Duomo frescos

We only had one full day in Orvieto, but there’s enough there to keep visitors busy for two days: hikes around the base of the cliffs on which the town sits, tours of underground Orvieto (a network of crypts and tunnels dug into the rock, beginning in the 6th century BC), museums of Etruscan and Roman artifacts and of local religious art from the Middle Ages and Renaissance (some of it quite good), and 200-foot wells that were engineering marvels of their day.

As a cool, quiet escape from the summer bustle of Florence or Rome, Orvieto has a lot to recommend it. Those medieval popes knew a good thing when they saw it.

Next: Mantua

 

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Images of Rome http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/images-of-rome/ Sat, 14 Jul 2018 20:44:30 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=24376 Pictures taken during our 2018 housesit in Rome.]]>

Pictures taken during our 2018 housesit in Rome.

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Answer Me These Questions Three http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/answer-questions-three/ Sun, 24 Jun 2018 21:01:56 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=24276 (Sorry, I can’t resist a Monty Python reference. That title comes from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”) There’s a travel podcast that Melissa and I often listen to called “The Amateur Traveler.” At the end of each episode, the host asks his guest expert three questions about the place they’ve been discussing. Here are […]]]>

(Sorry, I can’t resist a Monty Python reference. That title comes from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”)

There’s a travel podcast that Melissa and I often listen to called “The Amateur Traveler.” At the end of each episode, the host asks his guest expert three questions about the place they’ve been discussing. Here are our answers to those questions for Rome.

“You know you’re in [Rome] when . . .”

Chris: You put on jewelry and lip gloss to walk to the grocery store, because you’re going to be out on the street being seen. (Romans tend to dress well and put care into their personal appearance when they go out in public.)

Melissa: Everywhere you look you see buildings from throughout history stacked on top of each other higgledy piggeldy (like a medieval brick building using ancient Roman columns as supports in a renovated Baroque facade).

“What makes you laugh and say ‘only in [Rome]’?”

Chris: Watching a gay pride parade march past the Colosseum

Melissa: Not accomplishing anything I want to do because the things I go to see aren’t open when they’re supposed to be and the public transit is frustratingly unscheduled, yet somehow I still feel like I managed to have a good day

“What three words would you use to describe [Rome]?”

Chris: Chaotic, historic, beguiling

Melissa: Ancient, art-filled, sacred

And an extra-credit question of our own: What was your favorite moment in Rome?

Chris: Every cone of pistachio gelato, or else walking into the old papal basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano and marveling at the scale of the space

Melissa: Either sitting by the Tiber and sketching the Castel Sant’Angelo or walking around near the Forum at night

 

 

 

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Personal Pilgrimages http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/personal-pilgrimages/ http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/personal-pilgrimages/#comments Fri, 22 Jun 2018 20:32:04 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=24270 When you think of pilgrims in Rome, you think of devout Catholics in awe as they approach the seat of the Church, St. Peter’s Basilica. But the city is full of people on personal pilgrimages of all kinds. Whenever I’m in Rome, I try to visit as many churches and museums as possible that contain […]]]>

When you think of pilgrims in Rome, you think of devout Catholics in awe as they approach the seat of the Church, St. Peter’s Basilica. But the city is full of people on personal pilgrimages of all kinds. Whenever I’m in Rome, I try to visit as many churches and museums as possible that contain paintings by my favorite 15th-century artist Pinturicchio. Other visitors are on quests to see as much art as they can by Michelangelo or Caravaggio or Bernini—or by some painter or sculptor or architect I’ve never heard of that they’ve studied for years.

Holy Stairs

Rome is more than just art, of course. There are thousands of years of history here. Some visitors make a beeline for sites associated with a favorite historical figure (Julius Caesar or the Borgias or Garibaldi) or for places portrayed in beloved novels or films (such as the Trevi Fountain). Poetry lovers pay homage at the house where Keats died or seek out markers showing where Goethe wrote his Roman poems. Today, I went to a museum (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme) to gaze at wall paintings that adorned a villa belonging to Empress Livia—a key figure in Robert Graves’s historical novel “I, Claudius” and the BBC TV adaptation that captivated me when I was in high school.

Porphyry floorMany pilgrimages in Rome are the spiritual kind. You see priests and nuns and monks from all over the world in this city. Besides visiting the Vatican, some of them ascend on their knees the steps that Christ supposedly climbed on his way to be tried by Pontius Pilate (which were brought to Rome in the 4th century). They can also seek out the churches founded by their order or dedicated to their patron saint. Think what it must mean to a Jesuit to pray at the tomb of Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of that order. (I visited his tomb in pursuit of another of my Roman passions: rich inlays of polished stone, particularly imperial purple porphyry, a precious and rare substance.)

When I’m surrounded by throngs of tourists in Rome, I like to think about how many of the people rushing past me are on a personal quest to visit something that has special meaning for them. In this amazingly rich and multilayered city, every nook and cranny is important to someone.

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The Joys of Coming Back http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/joys-coming-back/ Tue, 19 Jun 2018 15:24:27 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=24246 A first visit to Rome is amazing. A second or third visit is great in a different way. The first time, you race to see all of the most important sights of Ancient Rome (the Coliseum, the Forum, the Pantheon, imperial palaces) and Renaissance Rome (St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Museums, and […]]]>

A first visit to Rome is amazing. A second or third visit is great in a different way. The first time, you race to see all of the most important sights of Ancient Rome (the Coliseum, the Forum, the Pantheon, imperial palaces) and Roman cafeRome Pride march at the ColosseumRenaissance Rome (St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Museums, and other galleries). The next time you come to Rome, you have the gift of free time. You can set your own agenda: revisit places you loved before, or explore second-tier sights, or just enjoy Rome the way Romans do—by strolling the streets on a balmy evening, lingering in cafes, or treating yourself to incomparable gelato.

This summer, we’ve been asked back to do two housesits that we did last year: in Rome and then on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. With no lodging to pay for (we get that free in exchange for taking care of the cats, watering the plants, and keeping the apartment clean), we don’t feel a tourist’s pressure to get our money’s worth out of each day. That’s a luxury.

So we’ve been having a leisurely visit, this third time in Rome. I’ve gotten reacquainted with some beloved paintings that I discovered on my first trip. Melissa has sat in various spots around the city and sketched. We’ve watched the LBGT Pride Parade, walked or ridden buses all over the city, explored the old Jewish Quarter, visited some churches we hadn’t seen before, and taken an outing an hour from Rome to the Villa D’Este in Tivoli. The hilltop gardens there, which are famous for their elaborate 17th-century fountains, were a disappointment because the fountains weren’t working—a fact that wasn’t mentioned until we got to the entrance! I’ve also been savoring the chance to watch World Cup matches on live TV. (Go, Mexico and Iceland!)

Looking up at marble church exterior

One of the benefits of house sitting is getting to live like a local resident for a while. That means simple pleasures like being recognized as a repeat customer at the meat and produce stalls in the local market, saying hi to Massimo the doorman in our building, seeing what new restaurants have opened in our neighborhood since last year and which old favorites are still here.

Nun in Rome produce market

With our strong sense of wanderlust, Melissa and I usually seek out new places and new experiences. But, as millions of people with a favorite vacation spot know, there’s a special delight in coming back to a place you’ve loved before.

Sunset on the Tibur

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From 2017 to 2018: What We’re Up To http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/from-2017-to-2018-what-were-up-to/ Sat, 24 Mar 2018 22:39:26 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=24234 Early last year, Melissa and I decided that 2017 would be our personal Year of the Mountain. We’d spent a lot of 2016 in flattish places, so we were yearning to see high things on the horizon. We’re usually lousy at keeping New Year’s resolutions, but we did a good job with that one: In […]]]>

Early last year, Melissa and I decided that 2017 would be our personal Year of the Mountain. We’d spent a lot of 2016 in flattish places, so we were yearning to see high things on the horizon. We’re usually lousy at keeping New Year’s resolutions, but we did a good job with that one: In 2017, we lived among the mountains and hills of northern Mallorca; southern Spain; central Switzerland; the Austrian Tyrol; Asheville, North Carolina; and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Since late November, we’ve spent most of our time in Chattanooga, a pleasant mid-size city in the southern United States surrounded by high ridges (so we’re still among mountains). It’s beastly hot and buggy in the summer but nice this time of year. Chattanooga is the hometown of Melissa’s mother, whom we’ve been helping with various challenges. We got her packed and moved into the apartment she chose at a senior-living community on top of Signal Mountain. Then we moved into her little house at the base of the mountain.

For months, our life has revolved around clearing out her excess possessions, getting her house repaired and ready to sell, and helping her deal with numerous health problems. At last her house is almost ready to put on the market, so we’ve leased a small apartment in the city for a few months. It’s in a walkable part of downtown Chattanooga, close to restaurants, museums, a cinema, and a gym, so we feel a bit like urban vagabonds again. When we can get away, we pay short visits to Washington, DC, to catch up with our loved ones there.

Looking ahead, we’ve set three travel goals for 2018: spend time at a good swimming beach, go back to Europe for the summer, and travel somewhere new and exotic. We’re on track with the second goal, having arranged repeats of last year’s housesits in Rome and Lucerne, Switzerland. For the new and exotic, we’re eyeing a visit to Taiwan in the fall; it’s an island we’ve read and heard so many good things about. With luck, maybe we’ll find a good swimming beach in Southeast Asia to tack on to that trip.

In the meantime, though, the house chores beckon.

 

Majorca, Spain

 

Andalucia, Spain

 

Engelberg, Switzerland
Stubai glacier, Austria
Appalachian mountains, North Carolina
Chattanooga, Tennessee

 

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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.