Catch-up: Fall 2017

Alright, whoever guessed that I wouldn’t keep up with the European vacation posts gets their money back and more.  Forward this post to seven friends and in 30 days, a check from a very legitimate source will appear.

I kid, I kid.  Although I will finish the posts, I’m afraid I’m going to have to do a linkback similar to the Switzerland trip from last year.  A lot has gone on this Fall and I’ve done myself a disservice in not keeping up with my blog in real time since the main purpose of this thing is to serve as an e-diary for the places I go.

So.  After an amazing September vacation, it was a bit of an adjustment to realize that the vacation we had been planning for almost a year had come and gone.  It was so awesome and we had the best time.  SMS and I had a wonderful time with his family in Italy, which was sandwiched between a road trip encompassing Germany, Lichtenstein and Switzerland before and Slovenia & Germany after.  Things that happened in October and November include…

Continue reading “Catch-up: Fall 2017”

Day 15: Road Trip to Stuttgart

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Austrian Mountains

The next morning, we started our 6 hour road trip to Stuttgart, Germany.  We started by driving through the mountains of Slovenia.  The roads were fantastic for a zippy sports car and it was a lot of fun.  Then we hit the highway through Austria for the middle half of the trip.  We drove through a miles long tunnel that, when we looked back at it from the amazing rest stop on the other side, it was incredibly impressive to us that a tunnel had been created through such a huge mountain!

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Looking back at the mountain we drove under

Yes, I said incredible rest stop.  It almost approached Japanese rest stop levels of awesomeness!  SMS got a large plate of goulash while I picked up a few things from a multi-table buffet layout.  The food was very good.  The rest stop was really clean and had nice seating with good lighting.  There was a small shop where I bought a few Mozartkugal, which are delicious candies I remember from my brief Salzburg trip in 2006 (pre-blog!).   Alas, apart from the highway and rest stop, this was not a road trip for Austria stops.  Another time!

Our drive slowed as we approached a border checkpoint.  We didn’t realize that we were listening to “Welcome to the Jungle” a little on the loud side so, combined with our nearly expired new car plates, we were waved over to the extra-scrutiny area.  Fortunately, this only involved a thorough look through our papers and some limited English/German exchanges.  Basically, once they figured out we were Americans, we were deemed not to be a threat.

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Secret wrapping on a test car.  SMS told me this is placed to thwart early release photos of future model years.

From the border to Stuttgart, we had an uneventful ride except for one light traffic straightaway where SMS broke the 150 mph record.  Sagoy!  It was amazing and also, a little scary.  Although SMS is a great driver and the car is built for speed, I could almost tangibly feel the potential for catastrophe.  I can’t believe that race car drivers go over 200 mph.  That’s crazy!

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Go SMS!

We pulled into Stuttgart and stopped in a bar near our AirBnB rental.  It was speatchle time, yay!  We both had a beer and a plated special.  It hit the spot!

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I love spaetzle!

After dinner, we met up with our AirBnB host.  It was definitely a shady setup where she wasn’t supposed to be subletting her apartment.  She had tape over her stuff because people had gone through it before and I just had the feeling that there was a hidden camera somewhere.  Which, I understand wanting to keep your place secure but maybe don’t rent out your primary residence as an entire apartment rental?

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Cannstatter Volkfest

After we checked in, we walked over to the fairgrounds for the second night of Cannstater Volkfest, the second largest Octoberfest in Germany after Munich.  We were a little tired so we just walked around for a bit and then headed home.  We decided we’d eat and go on a ride the next night.

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Cannstatter Volkfest

Day 14: Vintgar Gorge, Lake Bled, Hisa Franco

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Vintgar Gorge

SMS and I headed for the Slovenian countryside for our second full day in the country.  We had heard so much about how beautiful it was and we were really excited to check it out.  The weather was overcast and misty, which was quite beautiful, although I’m sure a sunny, blue-sky day would be stunning.

We got to Vintgar Gorge around 9 a.m.  There is plenty of parking near the entrance and a ticket booth to buy a trail pass (5€).  The 1.6 km trail is rather level and mainly on wooden platforms attached to the rocky hillside or crossing the Radovna River. It is beautiful.  The water is a jewel-like green-blue that changes in intensity and depth along its course.  Due to the contrast of bright sky and darker gorge, my pictures are a bit blown out and don’t do it justice.

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Vintgar Gorge- see the hiker near the platform bend?

We walked to the Sum waterfall.  It looks as if the trail connects to other hiking trails but we turned around to head back.  While it was equally pretty on the way back, the trail had gotten much more crowded since some tour buses had arrived.  It was much more pleasant when the trail was near-empty so I recommend arriving early!

Next stop: Lake Bled.  This was where the weather affected us the most since the classic island-chapel-on-the-lake view was nearly obscured by the mist.  We decided not to pay the castle entrance fee since it was 20€ and we were really only going for the view.  We walked around the castle to the right and found an open gate that led up to a side entrance of the castle.  We couldn’t get into the castle but the view was quite good.  I suspect that the gate isn’t always open but we lucked out that day to get a cheap-y view!

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Foggy view of Lake Bled and the island chapel. This was the view from the side of the castle.

We ate lunch at Pizza Rustic.  It was an early lunch and it hit the spot.  Afterwards, we drove to Lake Bohinj.  This is the lake that in-the-know travelers recommend, sometimes over Lake Bled.  I’m going to be diplomatic and say that I like both!  I would like to return more to Bohinj than Bled in the future because it seemed that there were more outdoors-y things to do.  It was a bit quiet since it was a cloudy mid-weekday during the shoulder season.

 

We grabbed a coffee at the Lakeside hotel and then headed over to Staro Selo to check into our AirBnB before our dinner at Hiša Franko.  The apartment was a fantastic. It was walking distance to the restaurant and would be a good base for the regional outdoors-y activities.  It is also the only lodging in Staro Selo apart from the few rooms at Hisa, which were already booked when I wrote.

I had discovered the restaurant during my internet research for Slovenia.  When I say discovered, I mean for myself since the foodie world has known about Hiša Franko for the last several years.  They got a particularly big boost when Ana Roš was featured on season two of Netflix’s Mind of a Chef.

We headed out almost straight away for our 5:30 reservations.  I know, so early but it was that or nothing!  I had made the reservations by email, which was very easy.  The hostess wrote back at the time of reservation (about three months early but then a switch on our part at the two month mark).  She asked for any dietary restrictions/preferences.  She also wrote back the day prior to confirm our arrival.

We had been given some tips from our food tour companions the day before: go hungry, but not starving since the food is plentiful but not overly so and ask for the multi-herb digestif at the end of the meal made by the old man in the mountain.  Got it!

The restaurant was quite nice.  The tables were far apart enough that we had our own experience but not so far that we couldn’t exchange pleasantries with people nearby.  Our waiter was funny and spoke excellent English.  Our sommelier was a super cute Slovenian woman who had studied Slovenian wines extensively but now lived in Asheville, NC but was working at Hisa for two months.

The food was delicious.  We enjoyed the aged local cheese in the cheese lollipop and grated in another dish.  Many of the courses were quite savory.  Unfortunately, writing this several months after the fact leaves a little shaky on the details (or was it the wine flight?) but I’ll try to find my menu.  Regardless of the level of detail I remember, it was an exquisite experience.

We ended a meal with the recommended digestif and little cookies.  I had two glasses of the digestif because it was delicious and only available there- no bottles are sold and it really is made in a local man’s mountain hut.  It was bracing and deliciously herbaceous/aromatic.  I highly recommend!

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Day 11: Arezzo with friends!

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Best friends outside the Cathedral!

This was one of my favorite days in Italy!  I woke up, ran the 5K loop, ate breakfast, and then it was off to Arezzo!  SMS and I had plans to meet our friends John and Grace.  John was the best man in our wedding and Grace is his super-cool wife.  If you ever need Instagram-magic advice, she’s your woman!

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Power up!

We drove into town and met them on their train platform. It worked out perfectly, timing-wise.  We stopped for an espresso and caught up.  Then we went to La Bottega Del Cuoio, a cool leather shop, where I bought a handbag which was influenced by (unwanted but apparently needed) crowd-sourcing of the others’ opinion that my first bag selection was “too old lady.”  Pony rude (the origin of this phrase comes later in the trip)!

We walked up to Duomo and went inside to check out a few of the frescos.   Afterwards, we walked in the park behind the cathedral and took in the views over the old wall.

We started to get hungry so we walked to the Grand Piazza.  We chose Ristorante Logge Vasari after scouting around and being won over by the fact that there was a woman making the “fat spaghetti” right there outside of the restaurant.

It was delightful.  We ordered three Aperol sprtiz and one white wine to start.   Next, we were given amazing bread and bread dough sticks, followed by an appetizer of veery cheesy zucchini blossoms.  Then, we shared four main orders: two spaghetti with tomato sauce, one boar with amazing crispy puffy polenta and one gnocchi.  The boar was exceptional but really, all of the food was incredible.  It was a perfect meal: delicious food, great friends, perfect weather, and outdoor seating in a gorgeous setting.

After lunch, we walked towards the Basilica of San Francesco to see the famous Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross frescoes.  We had to buy timed entrance tickets into the Bacci chapel.  While we waited, we walked through the museum next door.  The exhibit featured stereoscopic photos and viewers from the late 1800s-early 1900s of the main stops of the European Grand Tour.  There were old pictures of Paris, Florence, Venice, Rome,  Athens and even a few of Cairo and the Great Pyramids and Sphinx.  I learned that even in the late 1800s, a young man would pose in the triumphant, arms-over-head posture that I thought was more modern.  Wrong!

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Left side, Bacci chapel

After 45 minutes, it was our turn to enter the Bacci chapel.  Only 30 people are allowed in and although there is an incredible amount to take in, I lasted about 15 minutes of the allotted 30.  The artistry was amazing and each panel had rich detail.  Of course, my immature mind noted the unfortunate example of “One Nut Chuck” whose wardrobe mishap of shorty shorts and a not-long-enough tunic is immortalized in one of the scenes.  Don’t worry, I pointed it out to the other three.

After the Bacci chapel, we headed over to Casa Vaseri, owned by the artist and decorated with his frescos.  We stopped for an espresso and the shop had a cute charging station for phones.  The house museum had beautifully preserved frescos.  The rooms were mostly empty of furniture but the artwork was pretty awesome.

Afterwards, Grace social-media’d us to the best gelato place in town- Gelateria Cremi.  SMS wasn’t hungry but the rest of us ordered delicious cones that we ate as we walked down the street.

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John’s face sort of says it all…

SMS and John took the car for a spin in the parking lot (and fortunately, not into the parking lot’s brick wall).  We parted ways.  Back at the villa, we had a chill family dinner- thin fillets of chicken with pasta at the house.  It was a delicious meal.  Afterwards, we packed up since it was our last full day at the villa (boo hoo!).

 

Day 10: Assisi

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy. 

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive, 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

 

The prayer of St Francis was a special one to me as a child.  Since we were close to Assisi, I really wanted to go during this trip.  SMS and I drove and parked at Parcheggio Poste, the highest parking lot near the old city.  This turned out to be a good idea because it meant through the day, we meandered downhill through the sights then power walked uphill for the return.  Since I find it hard to “meander” when walking uphill, I thought this was the way to go.

First, though, we walked a little more uphill to the Rocca Maggiore, built in the 1100s.  From the top, there are beautiful views of Assisi and the surrounding valley.

Next, walked to Piazza San Rufino and went inside the cathedral.  Afterwards, we went to Osteria Pozzo Della Mensa for an early lunch.  We had gotten the rec from the rest of the family and we were eager to try the boar ragu.  It did not disappoint!

We had bought a combo ticket to explore the archeology/buried ruins of the temple of Minerva, which is the best preserved Roman temple front in Italy although it has been repurposed as a church.  We went to the archeology museum, walked through the buried ruins and went into the church.  It was very interesting.  We bought a gelato afterwards to keep up our strength.

Next, we went to St Francis basilica, which we ended up approaching from below.  There was fairly tight security at perimeter.  We  started in lower chapel where we saw pilgrims in fervent prayer at the tomb/crypt of St. Francis.  It is definitely a moving spiritual journey/destination for many visitors.  Next, we went to the upper chapel which was far less crowded.  We read the pamphlets to get a better idea about the art and architecture but it is such a vast, rich place that a tour would be the best way to see it, I think.

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We walked back towards the car, stopping at a cafe along the way for some postcard writing.  I’m not totally sure my cards ever made it- the stamps were for some alternative postal service, which seems sketchy.

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The house gardens at sunset.

We went back to the house.  The family went to the nearby La Pieve Vecchia for dinner.  We shared good pizza and salad although the winning dish was delicious pasta with shaved truffles.  It never gets old!

Day 9: Lake Tragasmio, Perugia, Montone

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On Day 9, the group decided to split up to take separate day trips.  SMS and I headed down to Perugia area, roughly following several suggestions in the 36 Hours in Perugia articles (2011 and 2017).

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Snach shack by the Sailing School, Monte del Lago

First, we drove to Lake Tragasmio, which was pretty and quiet.  It was a little less happening than the guidebooks would indicate- maybe due to the shoulder season?  We parked and walked on a path along the lake near Monte del Lago.  Renting a bike would be pretty awesome since the paths were in great shape.  Alas, the town was pretty dead so we grabbed a snack, sat for a bit and then headed out.  The lakeside outdoor cafe was tranquil and an awesome spot.  I’m glad we went but, again, a littler quieter than I was expecting.

Next, we headed to Perugia, which I apparently am completely unable to pronounce correctly since everyone kept correcting me.  We parked down the hill from the old city and took the mini-tram up.

We used the two 36 Hours in… articles to guide our city walking.  The 2011 article is good for the tourist basics.  The 2017 articles is a little too cool for school but did help me find the gelato place Lick so all was forgiven.  We found out about the Rocco Paolina, the 14th century fort with intact foundation walls that underlay and support the city above.  There are even escalators inside as it serves as an underground passage from a parking garage up to one of the main streets.

Aboveground, we walked through some beautiful piazzas and visited the Etruscan well, which we saw from the outside and from within the well itself.  The arch and support beams within the well were an engineering marvel!  We also saw a fountain at one of the old Etruscan walls, which date from 6th-3rd century B.C.

After touring the old city, we went back to our car and drove to Montone to admire the cute city during daylight hours.  The recommended restaurant was still closed but we stopped in at Bar Aries.  We ordered two Aperol Spritz and sat in the square for a bit.  Guess how much for two spritzes?  SIX Euros!  Amazing!  It even included bar snacks (potato chips but still, what a deal!).

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We headed back to the villa for dinner.  The rest of the group had gone to Assisi after their initial destination was a bit of a bust.  Due to a leisurely morning of hot breakfasts, workouts and showers, they had arrived during the (very) extended lunchtime of (approximately) noon-4.  Since SMS and I still wanted to go to Assisi, we decided to go the next day.

Day 8: Anghiari & Montone

The morning started with an in-law run.  SMS stayed home while I ran with his sister and her husband.  The scenery was gorgeous and we did the 5K loop highlighted in the house guide.  It was quite hilly and makes me wish that my home runs were not quite so flat.  Hills mean built-in intervals which are useful when I’m feeling too lazy to intrinsically push myself.

After showers and breakfast, the whole group went to Anghiari.  It’s a small town on top of a hill with incredible views from the walls.  We had espresso, gelato, and food from the farmer’s market including a to-go order of pancetta.  The younger son (mid20s) was very interested in talking about American crime show directors, which is not something I know a lot (anything) about.  But he and his father were so nice and it was really fun to have an Italian mini-shopping experience.

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Just a woman with her owl…and owl impression!
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Lunch!

We stopped in Sansculprano for lunch.  A restaurant I was hoping to go to was closed so Rip found another alternative and we had a pasta/truffle heavy lunch.  Yum.  Afterwards, we went back home and relaxed by the pool.  SMS rested because he wasn’t feeling well.

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Excellent wine!

We went to Montone for dinner, as we got a stellar recommendation for L’Antica Osteria from the woman and cashier at the grocery store we went to a few days earlier.  Unfortunately, it was closed for the week but we were lucky in that we found an EXCELLENT second-choice, Restorante Bel Verziere.  I ordered a sweet sauce ravioli that was slightly weird but good to try, especially since I could sample others’ meals. SMS’ was the winner that night: a truffle ravioli that was exceptional- super rich but so good.  There were loads of shaved truffles and it was awesome.  Prior to this trip, I’ve only ever had a small amount of truffles or “truffle” oil so the generous thin slices were a new experience.