Archive for the 'tourism' Category


Two weeks in a tower in Tuscany

This might sound cliché and trite, but why did we wait so long to visit Tuscany?  Fifteen years living just up the road and we’d never made it?  It’s just a hop down the road and beyond the big hills!  If you like good food and wine, wandering around beautiful countryside, interesting cities, museums and historical sites, it’s got to be among the best places in Europe.

We arrived in Tuscany after a three-day drive from Hamburg.  That was one of our many firsts for this trip.  We’d taken our ol’ Swedish Tank on long road trips before, but this was the longest, and our first time driving in Italy.  The drivers weren’t as bad as they’re reputed to be, but one caution: if you don’t like being squeezed onto narrow roads with some guy less than six feet behind you all the time no matter what your speed, don’t get behind the wheel there.

Our second night on the road – and first in Italy – was still far from our Tuscany tower, but if we could have stayed longer, we would have.  Arriving late afternoon we managed to scrape out a room in Torno, a little town tucked into a nook on the shores of Lake Como way up north close to the border with Switzerland.

It’s just 20km or so up the road from the city of Como, which makes it sound close, but it was a narrow, twisting trail cut into the side of the mountain, and full of Sunday afternoon traffic, so the going was very slow.  I thought we weren’t going to be able to squeeze our Swedish Tank through a couple of the tighter spots.  Finding a parking spot for the beast was another trial, but we wedged into a space for the night up the hill and schlepped out gear down to the harbour once we found the room.

As we settled onto the terrace surrounded mostly by locals having an evening drink and meal in the fast-fading evening light looking out over the tiny harbour, the breeze from the placid lake like a warm bath, we felt lucky to be there, like we’d pointed a finger at the map and said: this is where it’ll be perfect, if only for one night.

Another first was the number in our party: Our red-haired girl is no longer little, and getting choosy about which trips she’s going to take with the rents, so it was also the first time in 15 years we’d been on a holiday as a couple for more than four days at a stretch.  Just the two of us, nobody else.

That was OK with us, because we knew we’d booked a place to ourselves, and were looking forward to getting up the morning and not having to deal with anyone or anything but deciding on what to do that day.

Just how much space we’d have around us became apparent as we approached the tower, driving through rows and rows of grapevines past the last house and then further up a small incline to the top of a hill.

The reviews warned that it was small, and that there was no heating, but we thought: who cares?  There’s a fireplace!  And, as it turned out: a gas stove, a decent fridge, a wide, comfy bed upstairs along with bathroom and shower.  Fully self-contained, and stocked with wine made from the thousands of vines stretching out from our doorstep.  We just let them know at the end how much we’d drunk, and they added it to the bill.

On one of our first outings a few miles away we found some firewood stacked along the side of the road and thought, naw, we can’t take it, what the locals saw us loading up on it?  German plates and all…  We like to be good neighbours.  But a few hours later we came across the same spot and said, screw it, let’s just take a few chunks, so we took a few armfuls and threw them in the back of the Tank.  No regrets, because late into the evenings and on the cooler mornings that fire was the best thing about the place.  We bought a couple of bags of good kindling in a store down the road so even though our logs weren’t quite dry, they fired up right away.

The only snag was during a bad thunderstorm the second week.  We’d shut all the windows, but the driving rain seeped through the framing around them, the water running down the walls in thin rivulets onto the upper-floor tile.  Luckily our host had come by the night before with fresh sheets and towels, so we used the old ones to mop up as the storm wore on.  A good thing, too, that we’d decided to stay home that day, or we’d have come home to a real mess.

Small-game hunters were our only visitors, but we caught only glimpses of them as they lurked off in the bushes while their dogs sniffed their way around the vineyard.  Their guns would go pop-pop-pop off in the distance, so we knew they were around, but they kept well away from the tower.

Tucked away as it was about half-way between Pisa and Florence, we did get around for a bit of exploring.  More on that coming up in a while.



In love with Gran Canaria

It was my first time on Gran Canaria.   Although I knew it was going to be sunny and warm, ringed with sand and rocky cliffs and gouged with the remnants of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, I didn’t have any inkling how stunningly beautiful I was going to discover the island to be until I rode a mountain bike one morning from sea level to 1,100 metres.

Away from the coast you slowly climb impossibly narrow and twisting roads to stand facing stark outcroppings of lava weathered to craggy fingers topping massive layers of basalt dozens of metres high.  A turn of the handlebars and you’re following a rocky ledge atop cliffs plunging 500 metres to the valley floor.  Climb a little higher and you enter a pine forest.  You stop for lunch with a view to another island more than 50km away, and suddenly realise the air is so pure, so fresh, you could be miles from anywhere.

And you are, because having left behind the walrus colony of package tourists and leather-tanned pensioners lolling around in their thousands down on the beaches, you’re up in the mountains with nothing to hear beyond the wind sighing in the trees like a distant river.   Once in a while at the very top you’ll get caught in fog, a thick swirling blanket as the rising air chills, but it’s never there for long.   I went up there for six days of biking spread over two weeks, and every day it just got better.  I couldn’t get enough of the landscape.

Every morning I’d wake up expecting my body to tell me to just fall back into bed after the pounding I’d given it – and the bike – the day before, but I just had more energy.  I just had to get back up there to discover something new.

Is it possible to fall in love with a place?  To miss it so much after being away for only a week?  I guess this first time was a short fling and destined to remain a sweet memory, but I’ll be back one day with the family.  They should see this.

Here’s a sample of what I saw in two weeks on Gran Canaria.

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Hiking the Stawamus Chief

Living as we do out here in the flatlands of northern Germany, every trip back to Canada we look forward to a little bit of hiking.  For the past four trips – 2005, 2006, 2009 and just this past month – the red-haired girl and I have climbed up the Stawamus Chief, a massive granite monolith whose sheer face dominates the eastern side of Squamish, British Columbia.

In 2006, we went up as a family with a friend of hers to Peak 1:

In 2009 we made it the furthest yet -  to Peak 3:

This past month we first went to Peak 3, then skirted down through the forest and up again to Peak 1.

I fully expect the photo of our next hike up to show some little guy next to a tall red-head.

It takes about two hours to climb as the trail winds up through evergreen forest along a rushing creek before branching off into paths leading to three separate peaks.

As the sign at the trailhead says: this is no walk in the park.

The first part is quite steep and dominated by wooden stairways, recently upgraded to allow for the massive increase in the number of hikers over the past few years.  On our way down this year we started counting the number of people we met along the way.  In only 30 minutes we counted no fewer than 215 people including 16 children plus eight dogs headed up the path as we were headed down.

I’d slip into a nostalgic riff about how when I was a kid we used to walk up there on a weekend and meet maybe a half-dozen people on a crowded day, before launching into a tirade about how the explosion of tourism is ruining the planet, but because I get up to that far too often, I’ll spare you.

Besides, the atmosphere in this post-industrial version of Canada is a lot better than it used to be.  You used to see – and smell – great wafting drifts of white smoke shifting up or down Howe Sound from the former pulp mill at Woodfibre.   The former mill site you can see as a white patch on the far shore behind us in the background.  The mill was taken down a few years ago and shipped for reassembly in China.  Far up the Chief you also used to hear the background sound of woodcutting machines at an equally massive sawmill plunked at the entrance to Squamish, but it’s been gone for ages.

These days the town promotes itself as the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada, so if the tourists have picked up and that and descend on the place in their thousands every summer day, that’s the trade-off.  The surrounding countryside is so much cleaner than it used to be, making the view from the top even more worth the climb.


Wet Coast summer gallery

You might find some blue in these photos, but for the past week it’s been wet-wet-wet here on the left coast of Canada.  Not that we’re complaining.  There’s plenty to get up to when you’ve got relatives and old friends to catch up with,  new museums to visit, and a border to cross.  In a first for the little red-haired girl, we crossed the Canada-US border at Blaine, Washington on the way to an overnight in Seattle.  Whoa!  If you’re not travelling on a Canadian passport, be prepared for a lonnnng wait in a brand-new building that, no ma’am, does not have a public toilet.

But that’s another story.  For now, a few of the things we’ve been up to:

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More tickets to give away in Washington

We really don’t know what made that guy give us the free tickets to the hockey game.  K. later said that he looked kind of dejected as he came over to us, so we think maybe he was a scalper holding onto tickets he knew he couldn’t sell.  That or he just got stood up for a date.  We’ll never know because he took off right after giving them to us.

There’s a follow-up to our little ticket story though.

The next morning I got up early to head down to the Washington Monument to be in line for tickets to go up to the top.  We’d tried a couple days before, but they were all gone for the day, and we were really disappointed.

The sign at the counter said get there early, so I arrived 45 minutes before opening to stand in line.  I chose an entry time of 12 noon, thinking that would give us time to see something beforehand.

We met up in the original Smithsonian museum and then went over to the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing for a fascinating tour of the inside of original plant, where you can see them printing all those rapidly shrinking US dollars.

We then went over the monument and arrived spot on 12 to find a line-up so long it looked like we’d be standing there for at least an hour.  We asked around and it turned out they’d let in a huge tour group that backed up the queue.

So we decided not to go up.  Although it was nearly mid-October the mid-day sun was baking hot, and there’s not so much as a twig for shade for hundreds of yards surrounding the Washington Monument.

We walked down the slope again to the little house where they give the tickets away and found a woman with her young daughter standing in front of the counter peering in.  The sign on the window said tickets were all gone for that day.

“Do you want to go up the Monument?” I asked, showing them our tickets.  “You’ll have to wait at least an hour for the 12 o’clock entry because it’s running late, but we don’t want to stand there, so if you want them, they’re yours.”

“We only need two,” she said, so I gave them a pair and off they went.

They were so happy!  They ran as fast as they up the hill to join the queue.

I stuffed the third into the slot at the counter, knowing someone would soon be along to take it.

I don’t know if you’d call it karma, and of course they weren’t $65 hockey tickets, but I felt like I was passing along a little of our good fortune from the night before in the same way we’d come across it:  to strangers, no questions asked.


Quick note on holiday to a friend

Hi Douglas,
Just a quick hello from Washington.  We were in New York for a fun – sometimes exhausting – week and arrived in DC yesterday afternoon. We’re all getting colds from the freeze-your-ass air-con settings they so love in this country, not to mention the constant change from sauna on the subway platform to meat-locker on the train.  I’ve been stuffed up for four days.  NYC is so much cleaner and friendlier than the last time I was there (1991) I could hardly believe it.  At times the crush of people on the streets felt overwhelming, like Hong Kong at high noon.  Just not used to it anymore.  Still expensive, though with the dollar taking a well-timed nose-dive just as the hotel bill came due, it’s a bit easier to take.  Our hotel room was in the Lower East Side right in Chinatown almost beneath the north end of the Manhattan Bridge.  Wan Chai chaos outside the door, subway train rumble every two minutes outside our window – I tell you, it wasn’t a place to unwind with a thick book.  Since we’re headed back to the same place in four days, I must remember to get a photo of the man selling sky-blue crab and sea snails the size of your fist just to the right outside the door.

We took the Chinatown bus to Washington and have settled in to one of the most beautiful hotel rooms I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying in.  It’s like being in someone’s 1903 living room – lots of space, old-time luxury, and blissfully quiet.  Compared to New York, this could be a country retreat.

This whole trip is our 15th wedding anniversary to ourselves.  It’s going great.

In lieu of a longer email I bid so long and will get back to you in 10 days or so.  I hope to do a couple of write-ups of this trip on the blog thing when I get back.

Don’t fret about spending precious holiday time with the family.  I do sometimes, and then realise how life would be without them, even far away.



Dear online travel site: what are you guys good for?

Dear online travel site,

Thank you very much for offering to, uh, expedite me three plane tickets for our family trip to Canada next summer.   The price I thought I was going to get was most reasonable.

Filling out your pages and pages of order forms was a treat, as was the receipt of notification at the very end that it was not possible to fulfill my booking request at that time.  It was, however, quite helpful to re-direct me to your telephone service hotline, who told me the same thing.

The friendly lady on the other end kindly offered to remedy the situation, however.  She passed me onto a colleague in the sales department, who also informed me that the tickets I wanted – the cheap ones – were no longer available, but that a competing airline was offering nearly the same route for only €250 more per ticket.

Gee, how could I possibly pass up such an incredible deal?  Call me crazy, but I guess once in a while you have to let others enjoy the good things in life.

I then went directly to the site of the airline offering the much lower fares.  Funny thing, the tickets were still available!   Within minutes I had the booking code, and the airline had its money.  Wasn’t that simple?   Just what are you guys good for, anyway?

With some of the €750 I’ll save, I will gladly send you framed, glossy photos of my daughter with her grandma when next summer rolls around.

Yours sincerely,

A non-customer


A Hamburg weekend

If you’re going to be meeting me and a few other bloggers in Hamburg the weekend of Sept 10 – 12, this post is for you.   These photos will illustrate some of the details I’ll be posting on our little forum site.

For the Friday side trip with Umlauts, go to the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof and look for this view:

If you’re standing right here, turn around and you’ll see a huge Burger King sign.   We’ll meet there!

Do resist the urge to indulge as you wait for others to arrive, as we’ll be having lunch in Umlautsville.

Personal anecdote: the first time I was at the Hamburg central station, my wife-to-be and I almost tripped over some junkies shooting up in a corner just outside.  The place has been cleaned up a bit since then.

Skipping to Saturday afternoon, I’ll be posting a raft of nautical options to enjoy after lunch.  Beside, on, or under the Elbe – your choice.

Bonus flashback look at winter on the Elbe, as seen from the upper deck of one of these ferries:

OH!  That reminds me.  A blogger in Alabama kayaking (!) through the Panama Canal a while back thought of me when she saw that very ship – or one in its fleet – sailing through that busy ditch.  Here’s what she posted on her blog:

Double-secret-special-bonus photo of the bar That Queer Expatriate and I were forbidden to enter, probably because we weren’t dressed for it:

I guarantee you the best view of the entire harbour through those huge, tall windows at the top, but if you go, make sure you’re clothed in a little better attire than just jeans and t-shirt.  If not, walk straight in like you own the place and head for the windows just to get a glimpse before they throw you out.  It’s worth it.

And finally, the Sunday breakfast/brunch thing:  We’ll catch a boat on the Alster to get to the restaurant. This way you’ll have covered Hamburg’s two great natural attractions – the Elbe and the Alster.  We’ll meet at the foot of the big wooden quay on the southeast corner of the Binnenalster.  The end of the quay looks like this:

Please remember to wave to man standing guard as you float by:


Lawrence of Arabia would weep if he saw the Sinai Desert today

In the classic 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia the American journalist Jackson Bentley asks Lawrence what he loves so  much about the desert.

Lawrence answers: It’s clean.

It’s a good thing T.E. Lawrence died a long time ago, because he’d be absolutely horrified if he saw the condition of the Sinai desert today.

When I first visited the Sinai 30 years ago in December, 1980, I was awe-struck.  I’d never been in a place that looked so stark and felt so empty, so unsullied by modern life.  I remember looking at the Sinai’s towering folds of jagged rock, the endless craggy peaks splashed with rust or slashes of black fault lines running for miles from the desert floor to peak and thinking: who needs Eden?  This is purity.  This is paradise.

Even more striking was the contrast with the seemingly endless array of tropical fish and coral just under the surface of the clean, clear waters running for hundreds of kilometres along the Sinai’s eastern coast.  You’d be swimming along in the water with fins and snorkel one moment, stop, look up, take off the mask, and be equally dumb-struck that such a barren landscape could be the backdrop to the completely foreign world teeming with life just below.

Not that it was complete wilderness back then, but aside from a few paved roads and some scattered coastal villages there was hardly any sign of human intrusion.  What was to become the all-inclusive, charter-flight Eurotrashed hell hole sprawl of Sharm-el-Sheikh at the peninsula’s southern tip was still a modest little town.  I really wish it had stayed that way, because if you travel overland by bus for nine hours as we did from Cairo to Dahab, you will be astounded at how dirty and spoiled it is, both from afar and up close.

How can they have allowed one of the world’s most beautiful expanses of coastline to be cluttered with faceless holiday villages, many of which stand empty as half-built ruins?  The horror show starts about 15 minutes after you leave the tunnel under the Suez Canal and start heading south.  You start seeing one ugly clump of concrete after another, and it goes on for miles and miles.  On the northern end closest to Cairo the resorts look ready for business, but they look empty of guests.  As you travel further south you see the more recent attempts at construction: columns and slabs of bare, grey cement with no sign of activity for miles, the site abandoned for who knows how long to the salt air and desert.  Those piles of rubble that seem closer to completion but remain unfinished are often linked to the roadside by a crumbling entranceway, the road behind it to the resort lined with the stumps of palm trees left to dry out and die in the sun.

As you leave the last military checkpoint heading north out from Sharm-al-Sheikh toward Dahab 90 kilometres away, the visions of what the world might look like after the apocalypse get even worse if you dare to look up close. The sight as you slowly rise through a wide expanse of desert ringed by high mountains on either side should be awe-inspiring, and I’m sure it once was, but today it’s sickening.  How else to describe the feeling of seeing mounds of discarded plastic strewn about everywhere?  It’s like driving through a garbage dump, only instead of the garbage staying in one place, it’s spread out for miles.  Whipped about by constant winds, it’s even creeping up the mountainsides to lodge in crannies hundreds of metres above the desert floor.

Once we were settled into our place in Dahab I could ignore it and really enjoyed the place, but as soon as you venture away from the coastal strip you’re jarred back into reality.

This is the main street of Dahab running parallel to the tourist strip along the water:

This was a stone’s throw from a beach where tourists were taking windsurfing lessons:

This is the coastline just north of Dahab:

This is the garbage dump / desert landscape along the highway running past Dahab:

I looked at the pile of empty plastic water bottles we’d accumulated in our week in Dahab and knew that because they obviously make no attempt to dispose of their waste properly, to say nothing of reusing or recycling, that our mere presence there was actually making the situation worse.  I know that the cash we spent on our hotel rooms and daily restaurant visits helps support jobs in a country where unemployment is high, so that’s a good thing, but how much more can the environment take?  How much more garbage will have to lodge itself into the landscape before tourists are so turned off by the sight they’ll stay away?  I guess Sharm-al-Sheikh will always attract the last-minute crowd, the idiots who don’t give a damn about anything beyond their immediate gratification and conspicuous consumption and never leave their tourist ghettos unless it’s via air-conditioned bus to another pre-fab tourist ghetto …forgive me, I’m starting to rant here….

But if they really cared about the place, they’d do something about it.  If they have enough money to build concrete ruins, if they have enough money for all the military installations littering Sharm-al-Sheikh, if they have the money to build, staff and maintain the array of military checkpoints you have to go through, then they have enough money to collect and properly dispose of waste.  There’s no excuse for it, I don’t care if it is happening in a developing country like Egypt.


Egypt’s gas shortage up close

One of the things we try to do on holiday is stay out of the tourist bubble.  We buy at local shops and take public transit, for example, to try to get more into the streets and get a taste of what the locals are going through in their daily lives.

But one day we ran into a problem that is so acute in Egypt that the day it happened to us, someone actually got killed fighting over it: a shortage of fuel.

We were at the half-way point on our way back to Cairo after two unforgettable nights in the White Desert.  Having said farewell to our 4×4 driver and guides and shoved our grimy luggage in the back of a big, white mini-van, we settled in for what we thought would be a quick three-hour drive back to the city and a warm, hot shower.

But as we turned a corner down a side street before leaving the oasis town, we knew something was up.

“Petrol-e-um,” our new driver said.  “Tank empty.”

We arrived at a gas station to find a huge tanker truck parked at the entrance and a few people milling around the pumps.   After getting in line and shutting off the engine, our driver explained that we’d be on our way again in a half an hour.  First though, the tanker truck had to fill the gas station’s reserve tanks before they started fueling the waiting vehicles.


No gas?  Not good.  Besides, we’d learned by then that Egyptian Standard time ticks at least three times slower than ours, so it would probably be closer to two hours by the time we got going again.

Thirsty, we took a walk hoping to find a teahouse or a cafe, but that was useless.  We were in the middle of the outskirts of a very basic town, and there was nothing.

So we turned back and sat down on building blocks in the shade for a while, swatting flies and contemplating how nice it was to be stuck in the noonday desert heat amid garbage and rubble with dust and oil fumes wafting around, the little red-haired girl passing the time playing Nintendo while we ate the last of our dates and oranges, wishing our tour company was just a little bit better organised.

“I mean, when you come to a foreign country, you expect things to run differently, that’s a given,” I said, “but what I can’t understand is, why didn’t they just  tank up on the way down from Cairo?  On the way down here we filled up at Giza within sight of the Pyramids, remember?  And then half-way down he topped it up with only 20 litres.”

Then we looked over and realised things were getting pretty testy around the gas pumps.

Our van had been third in line when we arrived, but only a half-hour later there was no more line, just a gridlock of cars, vans, trucks, motorcyles and men on foot carrying gas canisters as word got out that there was fuel in town and you’d better come down and get some.

By now we’d wised up and had been sitting watching it all from the air-conditioned comfort of the van, but we all piled out for a closer look just as the first screaming matches were breaking out.

I don’t speak any Arabic beyond Salaam and  Inschallah! but you don’t need a dictionary to figure out nobody was happy:

The man who drove us through the desert for two days, the same guy who helped set up camp and cook our meals, came through for us in the end.  He’d driven up about an hour after we’d arrived because he needed gas for the next group he was taking out.  He fought for our place in line along with our van driver.  When our turn came, he grabbed the nozzle and filled our tank.

I asked him earlier why the driver waited to get to the far-flung oasis instead of tanking up along the way.

“It’s a problem all over Egypt,” he said.  “There’s no gas.  The van driver wanted to fill up, but the town where he usually does it 100 km away had none, so he had to wait until now.”

Ah-hah.  I felt a bit stupid just then. Coming from a country where people bitch over a few cents’ rise in prices, the thought that such a basic commodity would be in such short supply had simply never occurred to me.

The banner photograph shows the town of Britannia Beach, BC, Canada, where I grew up. It's home. But I don't live there anymore.

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