Day 4: Bellinzona, Cinque Terre and Driving Misadventures

Square at the Farmer’s Market

Day 4 was another big driving day.  A few weeks earlier, we figured out there was an “extra” day before we were expected at the villa.  I thought the check-in was Saturday but it was Sunday.  I thought that it would be cool to check out Cinque Terre so I booked an Airbnb without doing the level of research I had done for the other places.  All I knew is that the total drive time to Umbria would be about the same and, in fact, a stop in Cinque Terre would be a nice way to break up the trip.

Castelgrande

On the way down, we decided to stop in Bellinzona.  I love Bellinzona or rather, I love the Amerena gelato at Gelateria Venata in Bellinzona!  SMS drove over a mountain pass from Trun- there was even a brief snow flurry!  We arrived a little early so we walked around Bellinzona.  We thought we would be gone before the gelateria opened but we came across a farmer’s market (with a delicious risotto and polenta “samosa”).  We also walked around the Castelgrande.  It was a great morning and finished with ice cream!

Looking down from the Castelgrande wall

So, look at the following map.  Doesn’t it look easy?

Such cute, squiggly Microsoft Paint lines.  What could be more simple, more cute?  OMG.  It was a pretty nightmare drive on backroads that ranged from 1.5-1 lanes but with two-way traffic the entire way.  What I thought would be a quick drive off the road was a 45 minute slog in the best conditions, about 75 minutes due to poor directions.  I realized later that the map was made by a guy who lived and drove there all the time and was not very helpful to someone unfamiliar to the area.  There were a LOT more turns than indicated on the map and it was a really stressful drive.  SMS was a living saint and didn’t snap at any point, which is really admirable.  I am almost certain that I would not have been as understanding.

Looking North…

Once we got to Cinque Terre, the place was beautiful but very basic.  There was nowhere to eat or drink nearby and I hadn’t thought to stock up or bring a picnic-style dinner.  Ugh, this was such a bomb of a side trip.

Looking towards Corniglia

Other than the fact that we were in a beautiful place.  That made me feel a little better.  We drove down to Corniglia and ate at a restaurant overlooking the little cove and larger Ligurian Sea.  The food was fine but the view was spectacular.

We went back to the AirBnb and went to bed.  Would I recommend it?  Sort of.  As SMS said, it was more of a stay-a-few-nights type of place rather than a one night.  Plus, compared to some other places we went on the trip, I preferred those to the super-touristy Cinque Terre.  The towns were pretty much only tourist-driven (it seemed).  Although we went to some other places that attracted tourists, it always seemed that tourism was part of the city’s lifeblood, not the entire existence.  I’m sure there would be plenty of people who disagree and don’t get me wrong, it is a beautiful place- I just have other places higher on my favorites list.  In fairness, I think the drive really took a lot out of my enjoyment and if we had taken the train in and actually been in a town rather than between two, it may have been a lot better experience.

 

Day 3: Vanduz, LI and Vrin & Trun, CH

Our first clue…

SMS had wanted to visit Lichtenstein so I booked an overnight there on our drive from Germany to Italy.  We had a delicious breakfast buffet, which we added to our bill.  I am sort of in love with a breakfast of muesli, cheese and whole-grain bread.

I wanted to do more than just pass through Lichtenstein so we decided to do the Prince’s Way Hike.  We drove through Vanduz, with its pretty terraced streets.  We drove up to Gaflei where there was a small paved parking lot and little (clean!) bathroom hut at the start of the trail.

A little chossy…

The views were very beautiful but there was a lot of loose rock.  The trail was well-formed, but there was evidence of prior rock slides.  Some of the trail hugged the cliff with some pretty steep drops.  We were doing pretty well until we came to an area where the path had slid away.  People braver (more fool-hardy) than ourselves picked their way across but we decided to turn back.  SMS and I have done some stupid outdoor adventures in our time but neither one of us felt good about continuing the hike.  SMS didn’t want to die and I didn’t want to have a panic attack halfway across the gravel-strewn “path.”  I guess I didn’t want to die either.

SMS on the trail

So, that was that!  Next up was heading into the Romansch-area of Switzerland.  SMS had wanted to visit last Summer but we were unable to make it, mostly due to an episode called SMS and the Whole Wheel of Raw Cheese, where our valiant hero ate a lot of unpasteurized cheese at a grotto with unexpected (expected?) consequences.

The valley looking up towards Vrin
A Romansch Donkey
Vrin
A Romansch Chicken

Romansch is a language with several dialects across the region that largely developed due to the isolation of these valley towns.  We drove to Vrin, a town where over 85% of people speak Romansch according to SMS’ research.  We went to a coffee shop and had a delicious pastry roll with nut filling (yum!) along with our coffee.  We heard a little bit of Romansch and SMS was a happy man.  We walked around the village and then headed over to Trun, where we would spend the night and have an epic meal at Restaurant Todi.

Trun
The Romansch Museum in Trun- limited hours!
Trun
Trun
Casa Tödi, SMS and car

We checked into the Casa Todi, took a nap and then walked around town. Our dinner reservation was at 7:30.  We were one of two couples in the restaurant.  We had an excellent waiter who spoke English with us and German with the other couple.  Amazing.  We ordered wine pairings with our meal based on his recommendations.  It wasn’t a formal pairing but what he suggested by the glass based on what we ordered.

Flowers at the Restaurant
Beef tartare
Our side dish- Potatoes cooked in a salted sourdough bread bowl (the bowl is not meant to be eaten)

Before dinner, we each had a glass of local Riesling and a tiny chick pea chip for amuse bouche.  For an appetizer, SMS had a tradition tattas dish, which were chard wrapped sausage and potato meatballs, for lack of better descriptor.  The chef Manuel Reichenbach, who came out later in the dinner, explained that it was a traditional dish that was developed during wartime to stretch the food supply by adding the cheaper potato to create more of the filling. He said that you could tell a family’s wealth by the sausage to potato ratio. I had the steak tartare, which was absolutely amazing and intriguingly presented on a rectangle serving dish that resembled a shadow box so underneath the food, there were pine needles and small flowers.  Wine for that course was a local Pinot Noir.

Dessert

For dinner, we both got the trout paired with a white wine with a local grape and chardonnay. For dessert, we ordered a dish with a small creme brule, cake and scoop of sorbet.  I ordered some grappa, which was an excellent nightcap.

Grappa

Day 2: Porsche Factory Tour

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Rainbow after dinner in Nuremberg

Today was the day!  We were going to have the Porsche Pick-up Experience!  We started our day with a delicious breakfast buffet at our hotel.  I went for a fair bit of cheese, bread and fruit.  SMS liked the mocha/coffee shots that started our meal.  We aren’t exactly sure what it was, other than delicious.

We didn’t give ourselves a ton of time for breakfast so we ate fairly quickly and then headed to the lobby to meet our shuttle.  There were three other American pairs, all from the West Coast.  Two guys were from the Marin-area, one couple was from Oregon and another from Northern California.  The woman from Northern California was very jet-lagged and didn’t say a whole lot, but everyone else was very nice and we talked a bit throughout the day.

The factory was about 20 minutes from center Leipzig.   We arrived and met Derrick, an American who had come to Germany 12 years earlier to play American-style football and, almost from day 1, decided to stay.  After a coffee break, we were introduced to Julia, our factory tour guide.

The factory tour was amazing.  While the Porsche cars are incredible machines, I was even more impressed by the incredibly intricate coordination and precision of the assembly line.  The factory produces 650 cars a day, all of which are tested on a dedicated race track for quality assurance.  There are over 100 stations for assembly, most of which are done by human workers.  There are four robots for windshield and sunroof application.  The “marriage” step of uniting the body with the engine chassis is partially automated, with the machine securing the underside screws and humans securing the topside screws.

Although there were so many amazing things about the assembly line and factory, a few things stood out.  The logistics supply line is so finely tuned that, on site, there is only a 0.6 day inventory.  There is an on-site DHL center along with a train station and airport next door.  In order to allow workers to move within the vehicle efficiently, the vehicle doors are removed after preassembly/paint and then put back on near the end.  Each car is customized so all parts are collected and delivered specifically for each car.  Items are tracked by a pick-light supply system, QR codes and a lot of computer coordination.

The consideration for the worker is pretty amazing.  For ergonomically-challenging stations, the team works for 20 minutes and then has a break.  All other stations have a break every hour to help maintain concentration.  The assembly line also can turn the cars in order to make areas more accessible; eg, the body is turned 90 degrees to allow for undercarriage work rather than have workers strain their necks and arms upward.  Another amazing thing about the factory is how quiet it is.  Despite all the machinery, the ambient noise is so low that hearing protection isn’t required!  I would guess the noise level was about 75-80 dB.  Very impressive.

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The track Cayman

After the factory tour, which was definitely the highlight for me, it was time for the track.  David was the Porsche instructor and took SMS out to drive a factory-owned Cayman.  After 1/2 hour, the three of us hopped into a Macan and went on the off-road course.  I drove part of the time and got stuck in a big divot.  I was trying to challenge the car but David merely shook his head and said it wasn’t possible to drive on three wheels because, “Physics.”

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Do Porsche cows say “Moo?”

After driving, we had a really nice lunch in the Porsche dining room.  We felt very posh. I ordered the beef because Julia said the beef was from cows that roamed on the grounds of the off-road course.  Specifically, she said, “You might meet the cows you see out there later in the dining room.”  So, I don’t know if I actually ate Porsche beef but I am going to tell myself yes!

After lunch, it was time for the car pick-up!  So yes, we bought a 718 Cayman.  SMS owned a Porsche several years ago and has been thinking about it for awhile.  I have wanted to do an European car delivery trip ever since I read about it in high school (random!), so we decided to make this vacation an epic one and go all out.  SMS picked out the specs, told me about them and then purchased the car about 4 months prior.  It was a really fun experience and definitely built up more anticipation about getting the car.   I’ll write more about European Delivery in a later post.

Our first drive was not very exciting because we were caught in traffic.  Maybe it was a shift change at the factory?  We drove for a couple of hours and SMS said he was hungry.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted to eat so I suggested Greek food (hey, it sounded light).  SMS responded, “Greek food?!?!” and even though he had said he didn’t care, I figured out, when in Germany, eat German food.

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No outdoor dining today, but a great restaurant!

We stopped at Gutmann am Dutzendteich, a cute restaurant on the outskirts of Nuremberg.  It was on a little lake and the outside area would have been amazing on a nice day.  Since it was cloudy and cool, we went inside.  The waitress spoke a little bit of English.  The menu was in German but we partially interpreted it.  I picked a dish with “kraut” which I thought would be something with sauerkraut.  It was actually meat-stuff cabbage rolls and absolutely delicious.  Win! I took a picture of the menu and the actual name of the dish is Krautwickel mit Bier-Specksoße und Kartoffelpuree.  Say that four times fast!

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The lake next to the restaurant

We finished our evening with the drive to Lichtenstein.  We arrived at our hotel at 10 and went straight to bed.  It was a little ambitious for our first full day with a huge time change but we made it!

Day 1: Arrival

Our European Delivery experience started early on the 14th, so we had to arrive by the afternoon of the 13th.  SMS and I traveled separately, which led to a pretty long travel day since his flight was rebooked with an arrival 3 hours after mine in Berlin.  Yuck! Since I had gotten a Business Class points upgrade, I hung out in the First Class Lounge. This was great for the showers (@ Frankfurt- huge perk), free food/drink, and the comfortable chairs.

SMS and I reunited and headed towards the main Berlin train station on the TXL JetExpress bus.  We bought our tickets but didn’t validate, which would have been a problem if we were caught.  There was only one validation box on the bus and we couldn’t reach it through the crush of people.  Later, I realized there was probably curbside one that we could have used.

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Sculpture Outside the Train Station

We got to the train station and realized the train was leaving right.then.  So we bought tickets for the next train and took a walk outside the train station.  Outside, we walked towards the Spree River and admired the Reichstag building in the twilight.  There was also a small Octoberfest going on outside the station but we gave it a pass.

After waiting on the platform for our delayed train, we got on the train to Leipzig where we walked through beautiful cobblestone streets to our hotel.  Other than that brief walk, we didn’t get to see the city but it was quite pretty.  We stayed at the  Steigenberger Grandhotel Handelshof, which was quite beautiful.  Most importantly, it had a really comfortable bed although I still had a little jet lag issue in the middle of the night.

Ok, speaking of sleep, this wasn’t the most exciting entry as it was pretty much a listing of our long travel day.  But we saw a few things and most importantly, we had arrived and were ready for the start of our amazing vacation!

 

September Vacation: Prelude

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After a two week temporary assignment on a tropical island, I went back to work for two weeks prior to leaving for a long vacation.  Life is rough.  There was a little bit of concern with delayed official approval of my vacation and potential for hurricane disruption but in the end, I was set to go.

Parts of this vacation has been planned for the past year.  My parents-in-law decided to rent a villa on the Umbria-Tuscany border in Italy for a week.  SMS and I decided to plan a large vacation around it.   Ours plans ultimately coalesced around a European road trip in a Porsche Cayman 718.  I know, this is the year of ultimate road trips!  We decided to start in Germany, travel to Lichtenstein, explored the Romansch area of Switzerland, enjoy a week in Italy, head East towards Slovenia and, finally, end up in Germany for the last few days.  Although there are many aspects of this vacation that feel completely luxurious, one of the nicest is having such an extended vacation.

I really enjoy pre-trip planning and this trip was no exception.  Packing-wise, I was limited to a carry-on so I was really careful to pack items in a capsule-wardrobe style.  I think I’ve done a pretty good job at covering most situations, including two dressier items that I haven’t worn yet but I think will be good for Slovenia and Berlin.

Our lodging is a mix of Italian villa, AirBnB and a few hotels.  Transport is taken care of although I had to learn about vignettes, pre-pay toll stickers that are required for our itinerary in Switzerland, Slovenia and Austria.   Italy has toll booths along the autostrada.  Germany and Lichtenstein did not have tolls.

I did a fair bit of research with some last minute curveballs thrown in.  The biggest was SMS’ return ticket is cancelled due to the airline’s insolvency.  What?!?  Another smaller issue was that I mixed up the villa check-in date so I quickly booked an AirBnB for Cinque Terre.  As you will read, that was more of a driving adventure than I realized (or wanted, really).

I also thought I’d try to keep up with the blog since I didn’t for the Switzerland trip and that took a year to transcribe from my notes and post.  So far, failing grade but let’s see what I can do over the next few days.  I’ll also go back and edit these posts since SMS brought his big camera and I should have some nice pictures when we return.

Five Trip Planning Tips

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Trabi Safari (image source)

So…I didn’t really have anything planned for this weekend so I decided to plan our September European Trip.  I am so excited!!!  SMS and I will vacation with his family for a week in Italy.  A few days before and a week after, we’re going to travel around Slovenia and Germany.   I am so excited!!  Wait, I just typed that but really, it is true!

I thought I’d write out a few tips for the planning process as well as list some resources (read: blogs) that I’m digging right now.  You can find the blogs on the updated Trip Planning tab.

  1. Create a system.  My current M.O. is to make a spreadsheet with various headers and tabs to keep me organized.  I’m not sure if I ever would have thought of this pre-SMS but he has converted me into (somewhat) loving Excel/Numbers (Apple equivalent).  Since I failed a genetics lab report in college due to my inability to comprehend Excel, it took a lot for me to give it a second chance.  I’ve also made an email folder in my Gmail account for all trip related emails.
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    Here are my current columns: Date, Time Activity, Location, Travel Time, Lodging, Notes.  The notes column can get a little hodge-podge but it works for me.

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    Here are my current tabs.  The itinerary is my main go-to for now.  As the time approaches, I’ll probably copy my reservation info from various programs (email, AirBnB, etc) into the spreadsheet.  My to-do list is in use.  The packing list I’ll make really close to departure and use it the night before (when I’m packing, haha) to try and help me not forget anything.
  2. Travel blogs are great.  This time around, I’ve mainly looked at the ones I’ve used in the past but then looked at the comments section.  I’ve found a lot of treasures and amazing tips from expats/locals who comment on posts featuring places we’d like to go.  My favorite so far is the Trabi Tour we’re going to take in (former East) Berlin!  Trabis are the old taxicabs and we’ll ride caravan-style with our guide leading the way, directing us via instructions transmitted through the radio.  Yeah!  I never would have found this without getting lost in the travel blogger interwebs!
  3. If you have a credit card with an associated travel service, give it a try!  I have an AmEx and I’ve been really impressed with the website.  I booked my flight through it in order to get more points.  I also booked a hotel where we’ll get a $75 credit for services/food during our stay.  [And heck, even though I only have two readers on a good day, if you want me to email you a referral link, let me know!  We will both win with extra points!  AmEx will also waive their fee for active duty.  If you’re interested in more info, my friend Andy has a great blog The Military Frequent Flier]
  4. I think this means I’m getting older, but I like using some of the more established Travel sites to get an overview of the area.  Fodor’s has really solid itineraries.  I found a great one in Toyko a few years ago and, currently, it’s been really helpful to make sense out of the different Italian regions.  The Italian provinces are somewhat large and cities can be a little farther apart than I would expect given their location in the same province.  Also, I’m really worried about ruining any cool kid cred I may have, but Rick Steves has excellent area overviews.  I’d be hesitant to follow one of his tours exactly because you’re likely to have a lot of company but it’s a good reference.
  5. Two words: Google. Flights.  This will search all airlines (except Southwest) and find the best fares.  You can also track prices for your itinerary which can help you take advantage of any significant drops in price.  It will also look for multi-airline flights which can occasionally help me save big (e.g. our Austin trip, I took one airline there and another back which saved me about $200).

Ok, that’s all I’ve got.  Don’t worry, I’m looking forward to Summer and all the fun events between now and the September trip but I have so much fun planning that it’s really been a treat!