OUR TRAVELS

Austria, Benealux, England, Ireland, France, Germany, Greece

Austria

The new BMW compact SUV

February 2004 - We were taking a week off in the winter and we had really planned on doing some skiing. The skiing is great in Switzerland of course but we just wanted to take advantage of being close to some other options. We decided to go to Austria for a few days. Innsbruck has hosted the Olympics twice so it seemed that it would be a good choice for a destination. We did some searching and researching on the web and booked a package for 3 nights with two days of skiing.

Austria lies just East of Switzerland so it was not hard to get there. The drive was only about 4.5 hours. We checked into the hotel and started the holiday.

Aximer Litzum is the area that we decided to ski the first day. It is the Olympic slopes that make it famous. The runs are wide open and consistent in their grade. And plenty of great skiers around to watch. One mistake we made was catching a lift to one side and having to ski expert moguls down. After that everything seemed easy to ski. Europe was having a warm winter and we feared that the snow would not be good. The first run convinced us that we were wrong about that. Plenty of snow to go around.

The package included dinners and breakfasts. It is a great way to go if you just like to relax and have the food brought to you. We got off the slopes took a bus to the hotel, washed up and walked downstairs to get fed. It was great!

The next day we decided on going to another resort. Name Here was the other way out of town but we like to see other places. We decided that driving would save us some time on the way up and down so that is what we did. We arrived in the parking lot and there was not much snow. But it is common for skiers to take a tram to the slopes. We took a two seater to the bottom of some other slopes. The conditions we great again but we were disappointed when we found that this area was served by two T bar lifts. We took one of them up the mountain and found another slope served by a two person lift.

The snow was perfect and the incline was nice so we made a few runs before lunch. Lunch was great. I had tirolians which are big dumplings in chicken soup and Laura had goulash that was actually pretty spicy. After lunch we decided to leave and ski Litzum again. Coming down off the lift was funny. It did not slow down when you had to get off. So you have to hit the ground running as they say. This is hard when you are wearing ski boots.

Litzum was great again. A few hours of hard skiing and we were really ready to get off the mountain and back to the Hotel.

The dinners were great at this little hotel. This third night we both ordered a Bavarian Hefe-Weissen. I do not remember the name of it but it was a fantastic beer. It had the picture of a monk on it which sounds like a few of the Bavarian beers I can think of.

On the way back to Bern we stopped off in Germany to see the famous Neuswienstein castle. It is the castle that inspired the Walt Disney Fantasyland logo. The weather was not so good. It was raining and snowing and we missed the tour. It was fun just walking up the road to it and checking it out more closely.

I would highly recommend Austria for anyone that likes to ski and likes wide open runs. The slopes are steeper here than your typical place but it just feels so good to ski fast.

Benealux

Benealux refers to the grouping of the three small countries in Northern Continental Europe. These countries are known individually as The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg.

Holland

Our friend Martin Laura and I in Amsterdam A great reason to go to the Neatherlands Flowers More flowers

Laura and I had a week that we wanted to take off during late April. We had always been talking about going North and seeing some of the countries that I had never seen. These countries are known as the Low Countries. We are referring to the Netherlands and Belgiun. We had high expectations and I think we were still surprised about how nice these places were.

We started driving early in the morning on Saturday. The plan was to make it to Arnheim, Holland to see a friend that lived there. Anheim is about an hour south of Amsterdam in Holland. It was the sight of an historic WWII battle that was made into the movie “a Bridge Too Far”.

It was about 8 hours in the car. The drive was easy though on the German Autobahn. The thing I love about Europe is that whenever you go from one country into another there is just something that strikes you as being different. Holland was different than Germany and it wasn’t just the language that were printed on the signs. Holland was flat of course but so many large rivers flowing through it. It just seemed wetter. When we got to Arnheim, we were surprised to see lots of rolling hills. It actually reminded me of parts of the Midwest. Green fields and forests of trees were all over the place.

Our friend Marten took us out to dinner. Great food! It was continental but presented in a very nice way. Arnheim is just a comfortable city with plenty to do and lots of nice architecture, although mostly modern. I thought most of the nicer neighborhoods looked like something that you would see in New York or Boston. To be continued…

Belgium

A great reason to go to Belgium 2 more great reasons to go to Belgium Beautiful canals of Brugge Palace in Brugge Brugge city hall

Let me just say that Belgium is King of Beers. Over 300 different types. The chocoalte is also quite good. They invented dark Chocolate. Brugge is also one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. It is in the north part of Belgium.

Luxemburg

Luxemburg Laura and the girls in Luxemburg Derek with the girls in Luxemburg

We only spent an afternoon here. It is a very clean country. In the middle there is a beautiful park that you can go down into a little gorge. Nice place for a walk.

England

February 2003 - The next day we flew back into London where we were planning to stay for the next three days. We took the train into London from the Luton airport. We had reservations at a Hostel that was in London so we got off the train and walked down the street in search of the place. We finally found it after a 30 minute walk. Laura wasn't excited about the appearance of the place. We checked in because you can't judge a book by it's cover and found that this would be an exception. I had doubts that the sheets had been washed and I would have reservations to having my dogs stay there. While we were there I got online and checked into some other possibilities so we both packed up and moved out knowing that we didn't want to risk the stay. This was the most disgusting hostel I have ever seen. We got on a bus and headed into the heart of London to find accommodation.

There was a place that I had seen online called Piccadilly Hotel. We walked to the train station and checked to see if anyone at the information desk had heard of the place. We got directions and in two minutes we were checking in. This was the nicest place I have ever stayed for budget travel. It is a hostel that is next to some of the nicest hotels in London. They had been open for 2 months and Laura and I lucked out.

Out into the town we went. We wondered into Lechester Square then by Downing Street where Prime Minister Blair lives then down to the riverfront to see the Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Parliament building then along the other side of the river by the London Eye and wondered back towards our digs for the night. We decided we would try to see a show and decided to make it a priority for the next day.

Fist thing in the morning we ran down to the theater and got some cheap tickets to the production Chicago‚ for that night. Then we walked to the British Museum. Three hours later Laura was about to fall asleep so we decided to take a bus and ride around town on the top of a double Decker. It is a fun experience in itself. We toured up and down Oxford Street and visited the neighborhood Notting Hill. One of the things that Laura liked the most that day was a little sandwich bar in So Ho that had a bunch of older Italian men working there. The hot sandwiches were great. We were exhausted in the afternoon so we returned to the room for a nap. It is important to get your rest when touring especially if you plan on being up late at night. We went out to see the show. It was a good show, great music and dancing. Just the kind of experience we were looking forward to.

The show was so much fun that we decided to see another. The next day we woke up and got tickets to "This is our Youth". It featured Freddie Prince Jr. and two other young actors. After we had our tickets we decided to get a day pass again for the bus. So we took the Double Decker to the Tower of London and the London Museum and wandered into a church that coincidence would have it John Quincy Adams was married in (I happen to be reading John Adams biography). The London Museum is awesome. It talks about the history of what is now the largest City in Europe, London. The city started as a Roman settlement and has grown from those humble beginnings. We had to hussle back to the room before the show and run back to the theater. The seats we actually paid for were terrible, I couldn't see half the stage. So after the show started we snuck into a private viewing balcony that gave us one of the best seats at the theater. The show wasn't all that good but it is always fun seeing a live performance. Freddie Prince Jr. is from New Mexico so we liked that connection.

The last day was just as much fun as the first two. We walked through So Ho to the British Museum. This is where the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon and the Rosette Stone are both on display. This is interesting to us because we will be in Athens in March. It is a huge Museum and we really skimmed most of it. They have many of the valuable archeological artifacts from all corners of the world. It is a very exhausting place to see. That day Laura wanted to return to the place that had the Italians working there so that is what we did for lunch. It was really good. We needed to get to the airport so we took the tube to the King's Cross Station. We really wanted to see everything that is around there too and we had some time, so we started walking towards the biggest prettiest building around and we were pleasantly surprised by what we found. We found a magnificent building called the St. Pancras Chambers. It was a Victorian Hotel more than a hundred years ago and had since deteriorated and has just recently been restored. The outside is perfect red brick construction. It is 6 floors high and every floor towards the top gets shorter. It has a fantastic staircase that has been used in Spice Girls videos and the movie Bridget Jones Diary. What we really enjoyed about the place was the two security guards that were working there. They had such pride in the building that you would think that they helped build it. We talked about the building and living in London and some politics and walked away feeling pretty good about the whole experience. The old hotel is across the street form the British Library, probably the largest library on earth. The Chambers will be the future home of the King's Cross Station that will offer high speed train service to the South of France in 3 hours. It is reassuring to see these beautiful buildings being in such able hands. They asked us to let our friends know about it and we have.

That was pretty much out February trip. We enjoyed ourselves and found all the Irish and English people to be very outgoing and friendly. The things that I would recommend in London are all the galleries and museums. Also the architecture there is fun to look at.

Ireland

Belfast

February 2003 - It was raining when we arrived at the Belfast International airport. We both knew that Ireland had a reputation for rain and we had come prepared. We drove towards Belfast not really knowing what to expect when we got there. It was in the middle of February and the thing that did strike us was the amount of green everywhere. Green grass, hedgerows and vines were everywhere. On our way into town we saw a local barbershop and decided that I needed a haircut, so we stopped. The man that owned this little shop was about our age. I think he was as excited as we were to chat. It was enjoyable talking with someone that probably has a limited exposure to people that were not local. He made some recommendations for drinking Harp ale and said he had never had Guinness because he did not like the color. This dispelled the myth that all Irish people drink Guinness Stout. After a very good haircut (I told him to cut it like his), we drove into the middle of what appeared to be a vibrant modern city that could have been anywhere in Europe. Hundreds of people were strolling along the wide boulevard, we soon found a parking spot and joined the throngs of locals.

We looked for a tourist information office and quickly found that it was closed. There was a security guard that was just beginning to lock the door. We hurried to ask him if he had a map. He told us to wait a second, ran up the stairs and brought us down a map and a tourist book with all the attractions marked. He then gave us detailed directions on where our hostel was located. We got back in the car and drove in that direction. Driving in the UK isn't all that hard. Stay to the left. What made it challenging for me was the gearshift on the opposite side than I am used to. Everything else you get used to pretty fast.

We stayed at the Belfast International Youth Hostel. It looked like any other hotel in that part of town. We moved into your tiny two-bed room with a sink and went out on the town. The front desk guy recommended a good restaurant around the corner. The restaurant was an old hotel that had a bar on the first floor and up the steps was a very nice brewpub type restaurant. The deal was that everything on the menu was discounted to the time of the order. So it was 6:15 and we paid a little over 6 pounds(9 USD) per plate for a very nice dinner of sea bass and some other type of fish.

After dinner we walked around the downtown for some more scoping out of some of the sites that we hoped to see the next day. There were still hundreds of people going about their lives. People were shopping, socializing and having a good time. Everyone that we talked to went out of his or her way to help us.

The next day we started early. First we walked down a street called Sandy Row. We saw Unionist murals honoring the men that had died in the violence that this area is probably best known for. Also, everywhere there were "Union Jack" flags, this means that the area is loyal to the British Empire. We stopped into a little bakery and the nice lady sold us a bag of scones and an apple & pear tart. Yum!

The tour of the day was that of the Belfast City Hall. A beautiful classical renaissance style building with a big dome and a handful of memorials outside on the park like lawn. One of the memorials was for the victims of the Titanic disaster (the Titanic was built in Belfast harbor). Our tour guide, Julian, took us on a tour to see the beautiful and symbolic stained glass windows, explained the origins of the four types of marble that was used to construct the building and took us to a room that had been destroyed during World War II. The tour was cut short because of a wedding that was to take place in the building. They allow weddings and other civic meetings to take place there. It is a beautiful building.

We also visited the St. Anne's cathedral. Julian had explained that when they built the cathedral they allowed the church that was originally there to stand until the outside of the cathedral was finished than the church was taken down from the inside out. The cathedral has a large amount of material from the war, flags, photos, paintings and other nick-knacks. We enjoyed talking with the man there that had traveled to the US for charity reasons. His son lives in Utah and we compared notes from our experiences in New Mexico.

Dublin

We had to get to Dublin for that nights stay so we figured it would take 90 minutes, the distance is only 100 miles. That would be if they had an autobahn like the rest of Europe but they don't. It took 3 hours due to the highway being diverted through towns with stoplights and lots of traffic. Despite this it was a very pretty drive and we enjoyed it. There were some castles north of Dublin that we wanted to stop to check out but we were hurting for time and weren't able to. When we got to Dublin we drove around looking for the Brewery Hostel. It is next to the Guinness brewery so it was easy to ask directions. One taxi driver stopped and gave us a very detailed way of getting there. It made me nervous because the traffic backed up while he was talking. We saw a cyclist that was on the Irish National Team. Ireland has had some very prominent cyclists in there years, Steven Roche won the Giro, Tour and World Championships in 1987, and Sean Kelly won everything under the sun during his career.

The Hostel was not bad. It had a car park that was good to have. It was close to the downtown and we didn't plan on doing anything but sleep there anyway. There was still some light so we set out to see some of the town. Dublin has lots of old buildings. There is an area north of the river that has bars and restaurants and coffee shops and that is where we decided to eat. We pulled into a Turkish place that had excellent kabobs on freshly baked bread. We sat next to a couple from Spain and some other Americans. It seemed that everyone was visiting from somewhere else. Dublin is very international. We walked around for a few hours that night. We walked up and down O'Connell Street. It is reported to be the widest boulevard in Europe. We found a pub on the way back to the hostel and after another pint it was time to turn in.

Upon awakening we were in for seeing some of the free things in town. The Dublin Museum is excellent. It contains works of Caravaggio and Monet as well as several wonderful works of Irish painters. We spent a few exhausting hours in this building. Next we went to the Irish Natural History Museum. It had an excellent exhibit on the Vikings and their influence on their culture. We walked back to O'Connell Street to see the protest. It was the International Day of Protest against a war in Iraq and 80,000 people marched. Everyone it seemed was out enjoying the Beautiful sunny day. Back to the car and onto the road. We had another long drive back up to Northern Ireland.

We were booked at a Hostel in Armagh. It is a city that neither of us had every heard of. We found the city and then, after some walking, the hostel. It had only been there for 7 months and was very nice with in room bathrooms and no one else staying there. The man that was running the place was very knowledgeable about the conflict in Northern Ireland. He told us that the Chocolate in the republic was better because it was made in Ireland and gas and fags were cheaper. Fags are known to North Americans as cigarettes. Apparently St. Patrick worked in Armagh and there were two beautiful cathedrals to show for it. He told us to drive back into the Republic for cheaper gas so we did. We also dropped into a pub for some food. The men at the bar let us know that there were no pubs in town that served food. So we walked to an authentic take-away fish & chips place. I had mine loaded with salt & vinegar, yum!, the best food the whole trip. Remember that if you are in Dublin to try some of the Cadbury's chocolate.

France

Summer 2003

Mayo winning stage

We wanted to see the tour at least on one stage and we had lots of friends coming to see the race. The plan was to stay at a ski resort town and drive to the stage Alpe d'Huez early in the morning to see the stage. Upon arrive at Les Arcs we realized that the early drive would be impractical. We decided to check out other options. After a one night stay in Les Arcs we asked the hotel manager if she would help us to find accommodations near the stage finish. She was a very nice woman that had been an exchange student in the states 20 years ago. She called the central reservations in a town called La Grave and booked us a bed at a Gite. A gite is a hostel for adults. It had 4 and 6 bed rooms that we could rent. All including private rest rooms and breakfast. So after the 4 hour drive from Les Arcs to La Grave, we checked in and bedded down.

The next morning we awoke and had a leisurely breakfast. Then we took off for the short ride to the bottom of the famous Alpe d'Huez. We had plans to meet up with some friends at the bottom and after we met them we started riding up. It is a mountain road that leads to a ski area. The road has 21 switchbacks that are numbered form the beginning to the end. The ride is not that hard but the thing that kills the racers is the fact that they ride a few other passes before this one and the 15-20 days of racing that they do before this. Riders of all abilities were making their way up the mountain. Even families were walking up to a place that they could watch the race. About 15 switchbacks up we heard music. When we saw what was ahead we were happy. It was a camp of Dutch people playing music really loud, having a dance party. They were all running around in orange clothes, drinking and spraying water on people as they passed by. I thought that maybe the next year we could watch the tour with these guys, they know how to have a good time. The plan was to hang out at switchback 5 with all the other Americans. Whoever had this idea had never seen the 5th switchback. There was almost nowhere to stand there and it was the geography not the number of people that determined this. So, we went up the road a little more. We found a nice slope with some trees that we could sit under. It was at the 2.5k marker. Perfect. We could see the race make several switchbacks.

Summer 2004

The Backside Us at the roadside Lance tearing it up

La Grave is such a nice place that we made it our base for the 2004 tour. This is the year that Lance went on to win a record breaking 6th tour de France. Brian Key was visiting from New Mexico and our old friend Lesley White was over from Florida. Jim, my college roommate and his wife Amy were back for their second time too. We spent three nights at the gite. All of us staying there made it nice to get together for dinners.

The day of the individual time trial was fantastic. Brian and I woke early (4 am) to ride up the back side of Alpe d'Huez. The pass on that side is more difficult than the front side. It took us 2 hours to reach the top. Once there we grabbed a croissant and rolled down onto the course. We were able to get the same spot as we had the previous year. Just before the roads closed Laura and Lesley found us. The ITT format for this climb was perfect. Each rider came through by themselves. It gave us an opportunity to get lots of great pictures. We were standing next to a woman that was keeping splits on everyone so that we would know who was posting the fastest time on the climb. This also helped us to know what riders would be coming up next. The most amazing moment of the day was when we were expecting Basso to come around the corner. We could hear the crowd down the mountain cheering and a helicopter was hovering just below where we were standing. It was amazing how much energy was in the air. I thought that there was something big happening. Down the road we could see nothing until the first motos came around the switchback. Then the man in Yellow appeared. He had caught his 2 minute man. The woman turned to me and told me that he had gone a minute faster that Ulrich at this point. As Lance rode by it was so surreal. His face was completely focused on getting up there as fast as he could deliver himself. He is an amazing athlete.

The next day we all slept in. That was nice. Then after breakfast we loaded up the car and drove to the start of the next stage. It started in Bourg d'Oisans. We were pretty happy to find a really good spot to park. It was about a 5 minute walk to the Start. When the riders started rolling we got to see them come though very slowly. Great for taking some pictures. Then after that Laura, Lesley, Jim and Brian went up the Alpe d'Huez. I had done it before so I stayed back to do some shopping with Amy, which was a nice change.

Germany

Mosel River Valley

June 2003 - Our friend Dave came from New Mexico to visit us. During the week while we were working he did tons of riding and hiking around our area and the Alps. The weekend that he was here we decided to travel to Germany for a change and check out Germany's famous wine making region.

About 500 years ago the most popular wine in Europe was Riesling wine. The area best known for that type of wine is the Mosel river valley. The area exists in western Germany between Trier and Koblence.

The trip started with the drive North and a short lunch/shopping stop in Baden-Baden. This city is an ancient resort town to the romans. The water has qualities that were believed to help your health. The city is still pretty nice and still has the old bath. It also has a new one that we did not see. It also has the typical european streets that make it really a nice place to walk and people watch.

After the stop we drove to a town near Trier. The name of the place is Fell. It is a town that for years depended on its production of slate shingles. Now that industry is gone but they still seem to do pretty well with the production of white grapes used for their wines. We checked in and I asked where we could get a bite to eat. There happened to be a wine festival going on so we got ready to get out and see the place rock. We were happy to have stumbled onto this festival. I'm sure that we were the only ones that didn't live there (besides the band). The wine was great and along with the food made for a very cheap meal. We hung out watching the locals and listening to the great local music.

Trier is the oldest city in Germany. The city was originally founded over 2000 years ago by the Romans. The thing that stands out the most in this city is the Porta Negra(black gate) and the 30,000 seat Roman Amphitheatre. Both were accessible to walking and our doggies, they had a good time running in and out of the tunnels and up and down the sides of the structure. After the look at the amphitheater we headed out to see the river. The valley is pretty as the river meanders down a gently sloped hill region. Grapes grow everywhere you look. As you drive down the river you see signs advertising wine festivals everywhere and wine tasting rooms. Towns are about every 5 kilometers, so it makes for a leisurely bike ride. Hundreds of people were out that day riding from one winery to the next. The valley was dotted with small towns but noticeably absent was a good castle. Our guidebook told us about a castle in the valley that was about 10 minutes from the river and another 20 minutes hike. I was excited to see a castle so we went up. A huge rainstorm was moving in and after we got out of the car the skies opened up. It was a 15 minute run to the castle. As we approached we saw what we were looking for. A medium sized castle perched upon a small hill on a bend in the river. Laura wanted to get back to the car to watch the dogs so Dave and I went on the tour. The tour took us thought the weapons storage room and into the living quarters. The rooms were quite large and some actually had toilets. The toilets would deposit onto a shelf and the next rainstorm would take all of it away. The castle was quite cool. The only thing that I didn’t like was the lack of light, not a lot of windows and lighting didn’t exist then unless you had a candle.

That night after finding a hotel we went to a restaurant that seemed very popular. It was packed with people on the small porch outside. No tables were available unless we ate inside. So inside we went. We were seated next to a German family. The man turned to us and said that if we had any problems reading the menu that they could help. I wanted to know what he was eating. That is what I got, Spätzle, a German specialty, wonderful! We spoke with them a lot that evening and really enjoyed the conversation. They gave us there number and said that if we were ever in the area again to drop by. Very good experience.

The next day we wanted to head back to Bern. We also wanted to see some of the cool castles on the Rhein river. One of the most famous castles in Europe is the Marksberg. We took another tour. This time Laura came and so did the dogs. This castle is beautifully preserved and has a wonderful view of the river below. I think it also smelled interesting because the girls seemed to think so. The tour was given in German and we were given a piece of paper to follow the tour with in English. After I was done reading the guide would go on for five minutes describing the room we were in and other interesting things. I wish I could speak German. The Rhein river has a dozen or so castles in about 30 kilometers. It is so interesting to drive down the valley and look at all the different ones.

After the castles and buying a few more bottles of Riesling, we headed back to Bern. The weekend was a good time but not really long enough to enjoy the calmness of the area. I think the Mosel river is calling our name to come back for another visit.

Berlin

Berlin is a city without the majesty of London or the beauty of Paris but on its own terms is a city worthy of the distinction of one of the greatest national capitals of the world.

This is a place that I have been lucky enough to be sent for work. I was scheduled to spend 4 weeks straight here setting up a storage system. The mid summer late sunsets left me with plenty of time to get out on my own or with work friends to check out the town.

Berlin has had a turbulent history. After the fall of the wall 15 years ago it has really come into its own. During the cold war, Berlin stood out as the "western Outpost" in the eastern block. Berlin was heavily bombed during the second world war and the soviet union tried to starve West Berlin into submission in the 1950's. This was the impetus for the Berlin airlift, which was considered the first battle during the cold war. The airlift lasted 2 years and this is the 50 year anniversary.

We flew directly into Berlin from Berlin via Intersky. The airport that we flew into is a historic airport built by the nazis prior to the second world war. It has the look of a building that was constructed during that time. It is a powerful place. Ironically the airport gets very little traffic and services mostly regional aircraft. The airport itself was the one that the allies used during the airlift. There is a hangar that still says US Army Aviation.

Laura came into town and we did all the typical tourist things. We saw most of the attractions in a day. Interestingly, a shop keeper told us that Berlin is the least expensive capital city in Europe. I believe it. The food is very good too. Every type of food is available here. We found a cool neighborhood that had gobs of little ethnic restaurants; Italian, Indian, Thai, Chinese and Mexican, to name a few. This place has so much potential. Now everything seems so reasonably priced, I wonder if that will be true 5 or 10 years from now.

Architecture. Wow! Some beautiful buildings in Berlin. The old and the new. Berlins removal of the wall left some space got some ultra modern building projects. One night, Laura and I went to see the Matrix 2 on the Imax in Potsdam Platz. This is the most modern building project I have ever seen. Beautiful indoor courtyard with a huge suspended roof of glass. The place glows at night, beautiful. I can't tell you about the museums. There is an area that has a bunch of museums called Museum island. I didn't think we had enough time to go into the museums without a real focus so we stayed away. I will keep them in mind for future trips.

In short, Berlin is a hopping town that is really fun to visit. The subway system(U-bahn) is top notch, and the numerous choices for ethnic food is terrific. What more do you need?

Constance(Konstanz)

Constance is also one of those towns that I was able to travel to for work. It is a smaller city. It is the only larger German city that wasn't bombed during the war. The story goes that the allies bombed Schefhausen Switzerland by mistake instead. So, Constance has a great little old city area. The buildings have murals on a bunch of them and sidewalk cafes are all over the place. Constance is about an half hour away from Zurich and sits on the Western shore of Lake Constance. Locals enjoy sailing their boats and swimming in the Rhein river which flows out of the Lake in the middle of town.

We stayed in a cute little hotel near the lake called the Petershof. Great little place. Best breakfast I have ever seen.

Greece

Athens

April 2003 - Laura and I have been talking about taking a trip to Athens for more than 7 years. We both love the cuisine and the history. This trip timed out right due to my uncle Mike and aunt Pamm offering their apartment in Athens and the need for us to take a trip like this before having our dogs flown over from the States. We also planned on seeing a Greek Island or two while we were in the area.

Before we left Bern we had contacted several friends that Aunt and Uncle and my Parents had gotten to know during their stays in Athens. We looked forward to some real "Local" treatment.

The flight was beautiful, crossing the Alps near the Swiss Austrian border with a good view of Lake Constance, then over the Adriatic coast of Italy and then onto the destination.

The plan was to stay at the Pella Inn the first night. The inn is located about a stones throw from Monastiraki Square, named after the former monastery that used to occupy the site. The square is now the central point of Athens new subway system. We ran out to a restaurant that the cab driver recommended. It was a popular place that sold soulvaki and Greek salads. We both ate for about 12 bucks (€). Cheap! After that we went out looking for Baklava. We found a small grocery store and bought a chunk that weighed about a pound. We ate it as we walked. Most of the weight of the pastry was from the honey. I dripped about half of it down my shirt, jeans and shoes, man it was worth it though. The hotel ended up being a old crummy room but what did we expect. We really just wanted it for one night. The traffic, mopeds, motorcycles and city noise kept us both from getting much sleep. Sometime around 3 o'clock I nodded off.

Breakfast was a fun time. It was held in a sun room that overlooked the area. Standard breakfast, nothing fancy. We met a woman from Germany that was in Athens learning Greek. Laura liked trying her German out on the woman. We talked about Greece for some time. This woman loved Greece to the point that we agreed that she was born in the wrong country. She was truly in love with the culture.

We wanted to get moved into the apartment so we headed down the street with some directions that my uncle sent along. A few blocks away we found Annie and Stratos' Ouzo shop. They are friends of Mikes and hold the key to the place for him while they are away. Annie ran us over to the apartment. We had expected it to be a dump so we were actually surprised that the place was OK. I opened the shutters on the patio. Just beyond was a view of the Acropolis, beautiful! It is impossible to not try to compare new places with other places that we know. The area just outside the apartment reminded us of Juarez, Mexico. This was not a bad thing. It has flavor. I love looking at old buildings and this place has some of the oldest. The Parthenon is over 2,500 years old. Some of the buildings in the area are easily 100 years old and some looked like they were in worse shape than the Parthenon. Moving out of out suitcases was a good experience. We would be calling the two-room apartment home for the next week and a half.

The first order of business was to call George. George is a friend of my families and had expressed a desire to show Laura and I around. So, I went out and gave him a call. We made arraignments to meet him the next day at a coffee shop. We also were told to go see Tony who runs a jewelry shop in the Plaka. The Plaka is the shopping area that was across the street. This area is very old and the tourists love it. You can literally get lost on the curvy, narrow streets. It was an easy place to find. Cute little place with lots of beautiful jewelry. Tony is a friendly guy and he took some time mapping out our first day in Athens. Everything that we were told to see was within walking distance. We set out to see some of Athens. We walked past the Syntagma Square, across the street from the parliament building and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Then up the road towards the embassies. Then found a museum that was open. We decided that we didn't have enough time so decided against going in. We headed back to the Plaka to check out the shops and get some food. Food is reasonable in Athens. Probably half the cost of what it is in Switzerland. Most of the time we had gyros, soulvaki or Greek salad. For a gyro at on the street it would cost 1.30 euros, what a deal! We also made arraignments to go to the island of Santorini on a ferry Monday morning. That night we went to the Ouzo shop to meet Stratos. He was not there but we hung out there anyway. Ouzo is a alcohol that tastes like licorice or fennel. George told me that, "Ouzo gets its taste mostly from star anise. It also might contain coriander, cloves, angelica root, licorice, mint, wintergreen, fennel, hazelnut and even cinnamon and lime blossom." So if that sounds good you may like it. It is usually mixed with water and ice. The Greeks love it, we didn't. The food that we had with it was fantastic! We had a surprise when the German lady happened to wander in. We welcomed her at the table and talked for a few hours.

The next day we met George for Coffee. We really didn't want to put him out but he really wanted us to have a good time. We got in his car and he drove us to the eastern coast. We found a coffee shop on the beach and sat down for a while. It was a beautiful day. Athens was having a cold season so we wore jackets as the drinks were served. George told us about Athens, we talked about Switzerland and the States. We had a good time. We found that George likes just about the same music that Laura and I do. It was a totally relaxing time there. Then we drove back towards the center of Athens. George has lots in common with us. He likes computers and music and really believes in living life. Great guy!

We made plans for the next day to go to Sounio on the southern coast. We also told George that we would be going to the restaurant that he works at to eat that night.

The tempo for the trip was not very fast. Typically we would wake up and just take our time going out for something to eat. Mike's apartment is across the street from a popular disco. Typically Athenians don't go out for dinner until 10:00 at night and that could stretch until 2 in the morning. The disco would start playing music at around 11 and would not stop until 4 or so. Our schedules changed to accommodate these new elements.

Dinner at George's tavern was very nice. We ordered light, as we were still full from our lunch. I think we disappointed him by not ordering the house specialty, lamp chops. Lamb is the cheapest meat in Greece. That said it is also the best meat as you can imagine. Next time we promise to order lamb, George.

Next was the Acropolis. There is a paved path from our apartment that goes up to the entrance to the Acropolis. The Acropolis is the famous hill that the Parthenon is built upon. It also has some other buildings of note and two theaters, most being 2,500 years old. We walked around up there and toured the museum, took a break sitting on the wall that overlooked Athens' 4 million people and decided that we should get a hold of George.

We contacted him with the cell phone that he had loaned us. We made arrangements to get together. He had made us a CD with about 200 songs for us to take back home with us (I am listening to it as I type this). We got in the car again and headed to Sounio. On the way we stopped into a bakery that George said was his favorite. We ran around for the next 30 minutes eating one Greek pastry after another. George ended up paying for most of the stuff, it is hard to argue over the tab with a Greek. After sampling a good amount of the pastries in the shop we got back on the road. The road itself was wonderful. It wrapped itself around the rocks and beaches along the waterfront. We saw some swimmers and lots of boats. The water was crystal clear.

Sounio is where the Temple of Poseidon is. Poseidon is the Greek God of the Sea. The temple sits on top of the hill that juts into the Aegean Sea. It still has 15 columns standing. The architecture is similar to the Parthenon but about 75% of the size. We walked about for a while and drove over to an old Greek Orthodox church that we had seen while driving in. There happened to be some other people looking at it, some of them were also from Switzerland! Talked to them for a while. One of the Italian men had the same last name as George (Columbus). Small world in so many ways!

Santorini

Monday we woke early to head out to the islands. An easy half hour train took us to Pireas, the Athenian port. We took the high-speed ferry from there out to Santorini. Santorini is considered by many to be the prettiest of the Greek islands. I don't know, I think they are all pretty. This one is an old volcano. It erupted and blew up leaving a crescent shaped island. The sun sets off the inside of the crescent, so the thing to do is to sit at a restaurant with a terrace and watch the sun go down.

We met the hotel bus at the ferry docks. He took us through town to our room. Nice place. The thing that we loved so much was the fact that it did not have a disco across the street. We walked all over the town of Fira where we were staying. We decided to grab a Giro at a little shop. While we were in there another American pulled up to the bar and ordered two himself. After some slow service and a few minutes he asked us where we were from. I always have a hard time answering that question. Most of the time I say New Mexico, sometimes Bern and Kansas City sometimes. This time I said Kansas City and Laura said Chicago. We asked him the same and he said, "New Mexico". Turns out that he and his wife are from Albuquerque and they were on their last day of a two week Greece vacation. We were excited to talk to him so we walked up the street to meet his wife at a shop and then sat down for a while to talk about NM, travel and the like. Another small world thing. Fira is beautiful. Perhaps slightly on the tourist side but what can I really expect? We walked the steps down to the little harbor that they have there. I think it works out to about a 150 meter drop. There are old men on the steps with donkeys offering to give you rides up and down the hill. Every time we replied with a, "No thanks, we want the exercise," they would get make a funny face and make a comment about exercise. Pretty funny. After getting back up the hill we decided that we would take some time to rest before the next meal.

Dinner was at a small restaurant in town. Poseidon was the name of the place. We ordered a bottle (small) of Retsina. Retsina is the wine that the Greeks have gotten used to drinking with its pine tar ingredient. It wasn't as bad as I had remembered. Actually it was pretty good. I also ordered calamari. Greeks know how to eat!

The next day we rented a "Smart" car. This is a small two seater that is made by Mercedes. It has enough room behind the seats for a load of groceries, maybe. We had been curious about these cars for some time so it was fun to check it out. We drove around the island. First down the hill on the other side of Fira to the Black sand beach. It was pretty cool. The sand is black because of all the black volcanic rock. We found a small dog that liked us and joked about "renting" him for the day. It belonged to a guy doing some construction and he probably liked seeing us running around taking pictures of his dog. We are obsessed. It was also fun running around and climbing around on the cliffs in the area. No one was out because we were really there before the season and the weather was crappy. So the next location that we wanted to see was the Red sand beach. That was cool too. The sand is made of the red volcanic rock. Now, ten points if you can tell me how the white sand beach is formed. Next there was a lighthouse on the southern tip of the island. We drove out to it and walked around there. We stopped into a restaurant and had some more Greek seafood. Fresh catch of the day was the special, yum!

After the late lunch we took off for the other end of the island. There is a town there called Ia. This was the best town on the island. We ran down to the port here too. There was a steep staircase just like Fira. The buildings were more vertical here. The colors also quickly made it my favorite town in Greece. We walked out to a straight where the water was flowing between the island and a large rock off the shore. The winds were high there, probably around 30 knots. Then back up to the town. Ia also has some really cool jewelry shops. I usually wouldn't say that but they were the kinds of shops you would find in Santa Fe, Taos or Nob Hill in Albuquerque, cool stuff. We picked up a few pairs of earrings for Laura. Ia is so cool with all the colors of the rainbow covering its tiny rooms that rent to tourists. Plenty of great little shops and bars, this was the place. That night we were also treated to a good sunset.

The next day we decided to take a boat tour. The tour was to include a trip to the caldera of the volcano and then a trip to the hot springs on another island. We were running behind schedule because me had to return the car but ended up making it to the boat with a few minutes to spare. The boat had a glass bottom that allowed the passengers to see the stuff under the boat. Mostly just rocks and small fish then when we got started the water got deep quickly and we couldn't see anything. The caldera is a big island in the middle of the crescent shaped bay of Santorini. We hiked to the top. It took about 20 minutes. We met a family on the boat that was traveling from Basel, Switzerland. The man had lived in America for the past 16 years. He was originally from Switzerland and his family (wife and four kids) were all American. He said he was enjoying holiday as an American for the first time. I think it gave him an interesting perspective. We also met a couple from Melbourne, Australia. We ended up eating lunch with them on another small island after Laura had a swim in the hot spring. They were having a good time and had been on the islands for a while already.

After a lunch on top of this island overlooking Santorini the boat crossed over some coral reefs. That was kind of cool but they were not as colorful as you would expect. The reef was just a tan color, but it was fun to see regardless. On the way to Ia we encountered 4 Greek Navy boats. As far as I could tell there was a missile boat, supply boat, radar boat and another small one with the guns. They were moving very slowly. It was definitely a cool thing to see that wasn't on the itinerary. After dropping some folks off at Ia, it was back to Fira. We said our good byes to our new friends and started the hike back up to the top of the hill. We decided to eat at a restaurant near our place. It was packed with Germans. They were having fun eating and drinking the house wine. They also apparently ordered the last of the special, which was something like cheese stuffed steaks. We wanted that. We ended up eating some appetizers and Laura got a chicken to eat.

The next day was pretty much just packing up and getting back to Athens. Once we got to the apartment we turned on the TV and chilled out. Tony had scheduled us to get together with him and his girlfriend Olga. Around 9 we went to his store and picked them up. They took us to this really neat tavern in the Plaka with some stairs near it. He ordered all the food; fried cheese, eggplant salad, octopus, squid, sword fish, lamb soulvaki and lots of house wine. Everything was great! The Greeks have an advantage when it comes to paying the bill. They can speak to the waiter and pay the bill before you know it. Nasty trick. Shows you how generous Greeks are. Olga is from Russia. This was the first time that I had met a Russian. She likes Greece too.

Friday we were just going to roll out slowly and just take our time. We were getting used to the lifestyle. We called George after lunch and he was ready to pick us up in an hour. So we ducked into the Ouzo shop again to meet Stratos for the first time. He was busy but really wanted us to stay and eat so we ordered some Greek coffee, hummus, bread and some halva. Great food, even on a full stomach. The service was also great. We had a Greek girl that wanted us to be taken care of. We asked for the check and she told us that Mike had already taken care of it. Thanks Mike (and Stratos).

George picked us up and started driving. He took us to a really nice area that was like Beverly Hills. Laura did some shopping and George bought a Harley Davidson hat. Then we got back in the car and started going. We ended up about 70 km NE of Athens on an island that is attached by a bridge, called Evia. There was lots of waterfront strolling there. Greeks were getting ready for their most important holiday, Easter. Easter in Greece is celebrated at a different time than in most of the Christian world. It was a week later and they start celebrating a week or two in advance. They were doing something outside the restaurant that we picked. I think they had a procession down the boardwalk with a representation of Christ. This was serious stuff. After yet another great meal, George took us home so that we could get some rest.

The last day was reserved for doing all we had missed the previous 10 days. The Greek Museum was closed so we really thought we had done really all we had planned. George picked us up around 12 and we went out. There is a food that they eat in Greece and they love it. It is called KOKOPETΣI (say "kokoretzi"). It is really just parts that most people don't eat from the lamb. We went to an area that specializes in Kokorechee. The place was deserted due to lent, Greeks aren't supposed to eat meat during lent. George did the ordering, he didn't observe lent this year. The first course was bread, eggplant salad, and Greek salad, second was Lamb livers. Then onto the Kokorechee and then lamb chops and lamb steaks. All of it was great! I actually liked the livers the most. Laura loved it too. I think her eating preferences changed this trip because she seemed to like everything that she tried, including octopus. The place was so happy that we were there that they gave us an order of honey and yogurt, a popular desert. Sometimes restaurants give you a desert to show their appreciation, great custom!

After the meat parts picnic we went for some coffee. George is an ambiance guy. He picked a bar on the beach, great location. We could see people enjoying the water that was protected by some breakwaters out in the bay. After nursing the drinks we had a stroll on the beach, what a great thing to do on the last day of a 10 day vacation in Greece. Back to the Plaka and some more walking around the Acropolis. Then my last gyros and baklava for hopefully not too long. Then up to Santagma square for the changing of the guards.

George graciously volunteered to pick us up at the airport at 5 the next morning. We accepted the offer. George thanks for the ride(s).

We did a fair amount of traveling on the way back to Bern. First flying back to London. After a 3 hour layover we flew to Geneva and then a hour an a half on the train. When we got to Bern it finally felt like we were home.