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

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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