Archive for June, 2013

Escape from New York

Friday, June 28th, 2013

The aftermath of a great trip is sometimes hard.  “Back to the real world,” people say, and for sure there’s been some of that. But overall, coming back to our summer camp in Vermont has been pretty easy. The memories of recent travel definitely soften what could have been a harsh transition.

Not that everything went smoothly.  Our arrival was certainly more complicated than expected.  We had booked a hotel near JFK Airport so we could spend one night recovering from time zone adjustment before driving 300 miles back to base.  The hotel shuttle was slow to respond and left us standing at the airport for nearly an hour in 91 degree heat, and then when we got to the hotel they told us nobody could check in because “the system is down.”  A growing group of tired travelers were collapsing all over the lobby, which (for some reason) had no air conditioning, so it quickly became a refugee camp with bodies sleeping in chairs, on the floor, sweating in the heat, and one woman coughing ominously.

We waited about 40 minutes to allow the hotel staff to straighten out their situation, and they made multiple promises to me that “soon” they would start checking people in manually.  But I discovered they were telling everyone who came in the door that “You’ll be the first person we check in as soon as the system comes back up,” and they really had no idea what to do in this situation (their mini version of a post-computer apocalypse).  They couldn’t figure out how to check in the guests, they couldn’t cancel reservations, and they seemed content to just wait a few hours for some higher power to restore the system, with a lobby full of disgruntled people.  It amazed me that they didn’t have a backup procedure for something as simple and predictable as a reservation system failure. After an hour I called the hotel chain’s national reservation number and after four tries to get through, I cancelled the booking.

Now our job was to attempt to flee New York at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday, while being thoroughly exhausted (we had gotten up at 12:30 a.m. Eastern Time).  Rush hour traffic had begun already.  After two hours of battling heavy traffic we managed to travel just 30 miles.  After three hours we had gone only 60 miles, but things were getting better.  We finally escaped the traffic and spent the night at a hotel off I-87, getting to bed after 22 hours of rental car, airplane, shuttle, dysfunctional hotel, and NY traffic.

(We’ll never again drive to JFK for a flight.  It’s not worth it.  The tolls, traffic, parking, and hotels are all outrageous, easily wiping out any savings on airfare we might have achieved, without even getting into the hassle factor. Next time we’ll choose a more accessible airport.)

And after all this we still thought we had a Great Trip, so you know that the travel endorphins were pretty enduring.

Back at the office, I discovered that my health care provider had relocated the office of my primary care physician 15 minutes further from my house (“to serve you better”), and coincidentally my health care premiums are going up 25% starting July 1.  That took a bit of a shine off the day, but still I could have come home to worse news. All other things in our world seem to have hung together.


Rain is the theme for Vermont this week, so any thought of motorcycle trips has been quashed, as well as boating, fishing, or anything else recreational.  In the sunny gaps I’ve taken walks down the country lane just to get some exercise; otherwise it’s desk time.  The R&B Events team has been hard at work during my absence, and my major task this week has been to rejoin the crew and help summarize what we know so that we can finalize plans for all the upcoming events.

The frequent rains have given me a chance to check the Airstream’s waterproofness. So far I haven’t found any hints of leaks.  The poor trailer is covered in the usual Vermont-summer mess of decaying flowers, tree branches, spider webs, and pollen, which I hate to see, but otherwise seems OK.  Anything that can rust is busy rusting, so I can tell when I get it back to Arizona I’ll be doing some more scraping and painting. I think our Airstream ages a full year for every three months it spends here.  Fortunately, it hardly ages at all when it is parked under cover in Arizona, so perhaps it averages out.

Can you keep a secret?  I’ve got four days before I fly back to Tucson to assume my secret identity as Temporary Bachelor Man.  That’s just four days to get all fatherly-and husbandly duties in place as best I can before leaving my family for seven or eight weeks.  After that, you may not recognize me.

Technology for Europe

Monday, June 24th, 2013

In the last blog I promised to give a few tech tips for those travelers in Europe. This is all circa June 2013, and with the fast pace of technology I can’t guarantee that any of this will be useful in six months.

During the 12 day trip I had to stay in daily contact with my co-workers while visiting three countries. Since I’m already regularly a “virtual worker”, I’ve already got all of the collaborative online tools that I need in place (shared calendars, documents, Dropbox, etc), so I’m not going to talk about those specifically.

Because we were going to be moving almost every day, and luggage would often be stored in a rental car, I didn’t want to risk my expensive laptop, so I brought an iPad with a Logitech keyboard. Not only is the iPad much cheaper to replace, it’s less fragile, smaller to pack and much lighter, and can be quickly recharged in the hotel room or car. The keyboard nests with it to create an aluminum shell, too, so I could just toss it in my luggage and not worry about breaking the screen. The iPad solution turned out to be a great move, so I recommend it to anyone who can do without their laptop for a while.

Before the trip I used the iPad on shorter domestic trips a few times to verify that it had all the apps I needed. For insurance, I installed a copy of LogMeIn and left my laptop on & connected to the Internet at home so I could access the laptop in an emergency.

I also brought two iPhones. The iPhone 5 model A-1429 from Verizon comes unlocked, works on CDMA and GSM networks, and can accept a European SIM card to give me an in-country phone number and avoid extravagant roaming charges. It’s a “world phone,” and I highly recommend it. I bought a German pre-paid SIM from Lebara because it offered ridiculously cheap calls to the USA at $0.01 per minute (plus $0.15 per call). With this we were able to make calls back home for as long as we wanted.

One day at the rally, I had an hour-long call with Brett about business stuff, and paced around the rally field while I was talking. I didn’t realize people were watching, but later some folks came up to Eleanor and asked if we had an emergency, since it had to be serious business for me to pay for an international call that long! In reality, that call cost me 75 cents. If you are paying $1-2 per minute to call home from major European countries, you’re getting ripped off.

The Lebara SIM can be bought in “dm” stores (which are sort of like a CVS) along with a ‘top-up’ card for extra airtime. I bought €20 and used €9.90 of the credit to activate a 500mb data plan on the prepaid SIM card. The remainder lasted me for the entire trip with plenty to spare.

Note the most European SIM cards will come with a PIN code that has to be entered to “unlock” the SIM each time the phone is switched on, so don’t throw away the card that comes with the SIM! The PIN # is printed on it. Be sure to bring along a paper clip so you can remove the tray to swap SIMs.

The iPhone 4 I brought was deactivated and can’t work on European GSM networks anyway, so it was only along as a backup to use when we had wifi, and as a GPS. (A deactivated iPhone is basically an iPod.) I pre-loaded it with a GPS app and local maps for Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. This would have been great but I picked the wrong GPS app (Skobbler) and it was abominable. My advice: just get the GPS from the rental car agency.

The iPhone 5, being the only device that could get online via cellular, was the “hotspot” for the other two devices as needed.

The iPad and iPhones were all loaded with:
— copies of all the electronic documents we had received (airline, trip insurance, hotel confirmations) and a few other things like our US Passports and local subway maps. Sensitive information was stored in an encrypted file using mSecure app.
— Genius Scan: I used this to ‘scan’ all the receipts so I could chuck them daily instead of accumulating paper. This amounted to over 40 receipts by the end of the trip.
— WordPress app: I wrote the blog from the iPad but occasionally made quick edits from the iPhone.
— Skype app: This is a great app but we had no luck using it when we needed it. In Italy the calls were very poor quality due to the hotel’s WiFi, and in Switzerland the hotel blocked Skype so the calls wouldn’t go through at all. When we got skunked we fell back on email and AOL Instant Messenger.
— all the booked hotels and flight information on a shared calendar so that all three devices would be synchronized whenever we got to a hotel and updated our itinerary. Since we were researching and booking hotels as we went, this was very useful later when we said “Now, where are we going today?” and needed to look up the hotel info. One day we forgot to update the calendar with the hotel’s address and couldn’t find the hotel for half an hour.
— various other useful apps: Dropbox, Pages, Numbers,, my bank’s app, Google Translate, Facebook, Twitter, and Weather Channel. Not so useful: Yelp. There just weren’t enough reviews in the local areas for it to be helpful and we found the database to be riddled with errors in Italy.

Part of my goal was to have the absolute minimum number of cords to untangle at the end of the day, so everything charged off the same USB cord with various adapters to connect to iPad, iPhone 4 & 5, Logitech keyboard, European plugs, and car 12-volt outlet. Only the Nikon and Eleanor’s camera required separate cords or chargers.

I also brought specialized connectors, including Apple’s 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter for the iPhone 5, a 30-pin-to-HDMI adapter so I could give a presentation from the iPad, and a micro-USB adapter so that the Logitech keyboard could be recharged. By the way, you can transfer photos from your iPhone to your iPad using the proper connectors and a USB cable.

Traveling to different countries in a short time span presented a particular problem. The Lebara SIM would allow roaming in Switzerland and Italy, but not data. Data was really what I needed most. Also, the cost of calls to the USA soared from a penny a minute to as much as EU1.49 per minute (about $2), so effectively my German SIM became useless once we crossed the border. I could have bought Swiss and Italian SIMs but in those countries I still couldn’t find a good deal on calls to the USA and it just wasn’t worth it to get new SIMs for only a day or two of use, so I fell back on hotel wifi instead.

If you do plan to buy SIMs in various countries, research them before you leave home but buy them when you arrive. You can buy them in advance from various companies at massively inflated prices, but there’s no reason to do that. You can easily pick them up at the cellular network’s own outlets (which are located in virtually every city and large town), as well as grocery stores, pharmacies, and tobacco stands just about anywhere.

Each country has several competing networks so it takes a bit of research to find the ones that offer the deal you need. You’re looking for a prepaid or “rechargeable” plan. Data and voice are often sold separately, and the tariffs can be confusing. Some countries require registration with a passport when you buy the SIM, but that’s no big deal as long as a local address isn’t required. A requirement for a local credit card can sometimes be bypassed simply by purchasing the SIMs with cash in a local store. Read the fine print when doing your research. Google Translate is a big help here.

If you have an iPhone 5 you’ve got a special challenge. This phone requires a ‘nano SIM’ which is smaller than what are typically offered. The easiest thing to do is buy a SIM cutter than will chop a standard micro-SIM down to nano size (if you do it correctly the SIM will still work), and bring the cutter with you to trim the SIMs you buy.

Hotel wifi is unpredictable. As I’ve noted, sometimes certain services will be blocked. Don’t count on Skype or any streaming service such as Netflix or Facetime. Some connections are tediously slow. More annoyingly, many hotels charge a daily (or even hourly) fee to use their Internet connection and this can really add up, often €9-20 per day. We looked for hotels with free wifi, free breakfast, and free parking since these three items will typically add €50-60 per day to the bill, but we usually only got two out of three. This information is usually listed in the details provided by major online booking services, and it’s worth checking the reviews by prior hotel guests to see if they thought the Internet service was usable.

Even “free” public wifi (such as at a coffee shop or in a city center) often requires you to register and receive a text message (SMS) on your phone with a passcode. All three places outside Germany where I found “free public wifi” required me to have an in-country phone number, which I couldn’t supply, so I couldn’t use the wifi.

The iPhones provided us with two pocket cameras but we most often used dedicated cameras, one Canon digicam and my Nikon D90. I brought three lenses for the Nikon but only used two of them: the utility Nikkor 18-200 zoom with a polarizer, and the Tamron 10-24mm ultra-wide for interior shots. The cameras both had 16gb memory cards so we would have huge photo storage capacity (over 2,000 JPG high-quality photos) and so wouldn’t have to worry about downloading the pictures and clearing the card during the trip. If I were going to be out longer I’d probably look into either a way to backup the card via Dropbox or I’d copy the photos to the iPad just in case the camera was lost.

Before going you may want to check with your bank to see if they offer a replacement VISA/Mastercard with a European SIM embedded in it. Supposedly some European establishments now have card machines that require this SIM, so I had one of my cards upgraded, but in practice we never found any store that required it. Everyone took American Express except those restaurants that only accepted cash.

Beware of machines that claim to accept credit cards, like automated train or bus ticket machines, parking garages, toll booths, etc. We found that many of them would refuse our cards (even the one with the SIM in it) without explanation.

Personally, I’d just be sure to have two working ATM cards so you can get local currency easily without exchange fees. By picking up cash only as we needed it, we ended the trip with about 3.80 in Swiss francs and ten Euros, so we lost very little to exchange fees when we turned in the cash at the airport on our last day.

Got questions or more info? Go ahead and put them in the comments. Hope this helps.

Eating around the blue laws

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

Being the last day of our trip, we had nothing on the agenda except to cover 250 miles or so back from St Gallen CH to Frankfurt DE. This is pretty easy because almost the entire route is A-road (the equivalent of an Interstate in the US) and so travel is quick along smooth and mostly straight pavement.

The trick was to somehow work our way around the blue laws that prohibit employment on Sunday in Switzerland (with a few exceptions), so we could buy some food for breakfast and lunch. Looking up the generalities of the law we discovered that train stations and other tourist areas are exempted, so after checking out of the hotel we drove to the hauptbahnhof (central train station) and found an open convenience store where we could get a few pastries and some yogurt.

We still had plenty of other small food items in our backpack to augment this, plus the last helpings of Dr Oetker. Breakfast was very glamorous; we tailgated in the parking garage. That’s the second parking garage meal and the fourth or fifth in the car. Can you tell we aren’t “glampers”?

From there it was an uneventful ride through Switzerland and back up to Frankfurt, partly following the route we came down earlier. Since it was uninteresting I can break away from the travel saga to comment on bathrooms.

In Europe, you often are expected to pay for the public bathrooms. This is well worth it because in exchange for half a Euro or Swiss franc you get a facility that is actually clean and stocked with supplies. Today we were out of francs and didn’t want to get more at an ATM because we were leaving the country, so we stopped at a highway rest area with free bathrooms and the difference was … enlightening.

We got to the Frankfurt area around 5:00 pm and didn’t want to go directly to the boring airport hotel, so we called Eleanor’s brother who lived in Weisbaden for several years, and he suggested we go back to Mainz to see a few things we didn’t catch the first time. We took this advice and found a huge Sunday crafts market going on by the river. Parking was a challenge (as it always seems to be in every European city, so nothing new there) and once we got settled we found the crowd at the market to be overwhelming, so we moved on.

We ran into a guy from Florida who was visiting his old friends in Mainz. Like a lot of Americans in this town, he used to be in the military at the nearby American military base. Apparently when we stopped to take pictures of a fragment of the old Berlin Wall (on display here and in many other places), we brought it to his attention. He’d driven past this spot for five years and never noticed it.

He introduced us to his local friend and we got directed to one of the very few restaurants open for dinner in Mainz on a Sunday night. You get a choice on Sunday nights: Greek, Mexican, pizza, or whatever the hotel restaurant serves. We chose Greek.

The last day of a good trip is hard to face. We didn’t want to let the trip go quite yet, so after dinner we wandered through Mainz again and found yet another beautiful church (St. Peter Mainz), the Natural History Museum with its giant hourglass, and some floral parks.


At this point Eleanor started talking about how we should have booked just two more days, and I felt the same way but I knew it wouldn’t be enough. It’s the same reason we set out to travel full-time in our Airstream for six months and ended up traveling for three years. We could travel forever and I think we’d still want just a little more.

Today we fly back, and the next things will start to happen. It’s really not the end of anything, just another step along the long road.

I want to thank those of you who have written in during this trip to say that you enjoyed reading about it. I do occasionally get those notes but in the past ten days I’ve gotten more than usual. I’d probably write the blog even if only one person read it, but it’s nice to know so many people are interested and find the story entertaining.

In tomorrow’s blog I’ll write about the technology that I used to help smooth the trip and keep in contact with work as we traveled. Geeks will like it; others may wish to check in a few days from now!

Tunnels, bells, and cascades in Switzerland

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

After our late wake-up in Milan, we didn’t have much time to meander around. (Those black-out drapes in the hotel room really work too well!) Since the hotel was in an area with no local restaurants and few shops, we just took off in the car hoping to spot a grocery store before we got on the Autostrada.

As luck would have it, we were making an unscheduled detour from our route and that brought us to a panetteria. We were getting hungry and I was busy doing the usual Milan traffic thing, which means driving like I’m in a video game, when Eleanor shouted “PANETTERIA!” To raise this to a miracle required the availability of an open parking space nearby, and so we felt doubly blessed when we scored that too. To be accurate, it was on the sidewalk, but that’s where they park here.

When in Europe I tend to go for muesli and yogurt for breakfast, although I am easily tempted by a good pastry. I’ve been carrying around a half-empty box of Dr Oetker’s “Vitalis” FrüchtMüsli since we left Germany, and whenever I can get yogurt I mix the two together. So we came out of the panetteria with pineapple yogurt, two small pastries filled with nutella (for later), and an apricot tart, and made a quick breakfast while parked on the sidewalk.

Yogurt note: The best yogurt I’ve found in Europe is in Germany. I wish I could take a few dozen containers home on the airplane.

Traffic note: Driving in Milan is only slightly crazy, far better than Rome. The abolition of 2-stroke motors means that the urban streets are now breathable, too. Anyone who has lived in the Boston area can easily handle Milan.

From there it was straight to the Autostrada and rather quickly to the Swiss border. The border dips south there, so from Milan to the Italian-speaking portion of Switzerland is not far at all. The route passes through the stunningly beautiful Lakes region of Italy, up past Lugano, and then into the Alps—almost every inch of which is scenic. We only wished there were more frequent pull-outs for the many places we wanted to stop and take pictures.

Right after the border on the Swiss side there’s this unusual piece of architecture. It’s a shopping mall. We tried to stop and take a look inside, but couldn’t find the entrance to the parking lot! This was a solid 20 minute detour, during which we found a sign telling us where to enter. Following the directions, we found only an exit.

Our route this time would take us over the San Bernadino Pass, toward Chur. The tunnels begin on the Italian side, and get longer as you head north. I didn’t keep track of the number of tunnels we passed through, but three or four of them were longer than 1 km, and the longest was 6.6 km. After that one, I noticed that the exit ramp signs had changed from ‘USCITA” to “AUSFAHRT”, indicating that we had passed from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland to the German-speaking part. The tunnels are the only times the road is not scenic. In a way they are a break from the almost overwhelming vistas, allowing time to digest what you’ve seen.

We saw a castle ruin high atop a hillside and stopped off to explore it. The ruin is unmarked from the road and there is no signage indicating its presence, but the narrow dirt road leading to it is easy to find. A short walk up the hill revealed an old and still active church, then the ruins, and then a surprise: the area of the ruins has been nicely refurbished with walking paths, modern bathrooms, and open grass for gatherings.

We had walked right into someone’s private gathering, perhaps a family reunion. They had elaborate tents set up with food and even a dance floor. Nobody seemed to mind our presence, so we wandered around for a few minutes and took some pictures.

I have been meaning to note the sounds of this country that we’ve enjoyed all week. Our favorite sound is the cow bells in Switzerland. Once in a while we’ll go past a field with cows or goats and hear the clanging of their bells, which sounds like an orchestra of bells tuning up for a performance. It’s a little like the sound of bells that you sometimes hear atop sailboat masts in the harbor.

The other sound that I love to hear is the church bells. They are different in every town. The first time I heard them on this trip was on Sunday in Weilburg (Germany) at the Airstream gathering, and they were fantastic. I’m pretty sure we could hear more than one church at a time, ringing those huge bells for all they were worth. It’s an old-fashioned sound that you rarely hear in the US anymore. They ring on Sundays but also in some towns they ring out significant hours, so you can be pleasantly surprised by a bell at unexpected times.

Along this route we also saw a lot more of the snowmelt cascades that I mentioned in an earlier post. It always seemed that they were located where we couldn’t exit the highway, so we have few pictures of them. We finally got a good opportunity to photograph this one. Multiply this by about 50 and you’ll have an idea of the scenery along the Furkapass.


Today the goal was St Gallen, Switzerland. We had no preconceptions or guide book references to steer us here—it just looked interesting and was along our route back. It turned out to be an excellent “find”, not touristy but filled with interesting things: great architecture, a huge pedestrian area in the downtown, students doing some sort of rituals (which involved singing and towing a little wagon filled with alcohol, often wearing costumes), and (my favorite) the Mühlweggbahn.

The Mühlweggbahn is just a little funicular that goes to the upper part of town, but it had a couple of the hallmarks of being worthy of exploration: (1) the rail car disappears into a tunnel; (2) we had no idea where it went and there was little explanatory signage. So we bought a pair of tickets from the machine and rode it up the tunnel. At the top we found ourselves in a quiet residential part of town with, yes, more gorgeous views and beautiful buildings. It’s a lovely place, Switzerland.


Today is our last drive, back to Frankfurt. The weather has turned gray and much cooler so we are finally getting a chance to wear the long sleeves we packed. The church bells have been ringing this morning, reminding me that it’s Sunday. In Switzerland that’s a bit of a problem because of very limiting Blue Laws in this country—we are going to have to be clever in order to find breakfast—but we have read up on the exemptions to the law and have a few ideas where we can get something to eat as we depart St Gallen. In any case, in a few hours we will be back in Germany and wrapping up our trip.

A day in Milan

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

Even though it put us out of our way a little, I think we made the right choice to come down to Milan. The drive was only 90 minutes from Verbania (on Lake Maggiore), across the lake on the same ferry we took the day before, through some pleasant countryside and down the Autostrada. The day started off cooler and quite a bit less humid than we’ve had lately, so the breeze on the ferry was the type that makes you just want to spread your arms and grab as much of it as you can.


In the photo above you can see our technique for self-portraits. I hold the iPhone with one hand, and Eleanor taps the ‘shutter’ button. This results in the classic iPhone self-portrait with arms extended as if we are about to grab and hug you. We haven’t done a lot of these, but we do a few as insurance because I’ve noticed when you give your camera to a stranger to take a picture of you, the result is often awful. We have photos from many beautiful places showing us as tiny dots or dark blobs in the foreground.

The Italian Autostradas used to have a fearsome reputation but I have always found them to be very convenient, despite the tolls. We emptied my pockets of Euro coins but soon were landed in Milan, so it seemed a fair trade.

It would be impossible to attempt to absorb in a single day even 10% of what Milan has to offer. This is a city of great art, culture, architecture, and design. Our goal was only to walk some of the city’s center and find a great plate of risotto. This turned out to be harder than we expected. While walking is easy, the restaurants of the center are mostly pizzerias. Risotto takes time and effort to make, so places that specialize in feeding tourists or providing quick food won’t bother with it.

We started at Milan’s “Duomo” station on the Metropolitan (subway). This is a tourist mecca, and there was a line to go inside the Duomo complete with inspectors. Since it was once again hot, and the line was long in the sun, we opted to keep walking.

You really can’t go here without walking through “the world’s oldest shopping mall” Galleria Vittoria Emanuele, right next door. It’s all high end brands in here, and Eleanor joked about doing some shopping but we kept on going. (At least, I think she was joking.)

We walked for miles, literally. I can’t begin to describe our route, since it was convoluted, but we pretty much checked out every street in a half-mile radius. The Castle of Milan was a highlight, where some Italian artist (musician?) was doing a dance routine for what will probably be a music video later.

Energy flagging … water supplies running low … no risotto in sight. What to do? Eleanor supplied the solution: a massive cone of gelato in two flavors, coffee and cinnamon. It’s amazing what gelato can do to revive the spirits. Refreshed, we continued our quest for risotto.

We finally found what we were seeking at a well-hidden restaurant down a narrow side street. You can’t rely on Yelp for restaurant recommendations here (there are few reviews to rely on). We found it the old-fashioned way, by poking our heads in every corner until we found a menu that worked. This was the Calafuria Unione, on Via Dell’Unione, 8, and it had a very nice risotto con funghi (Porchini mushrooms) for Eleanor, and a risotto osso bucco (saffron rice with a very tender veal shank) for me.

It’s even more satisfying to find a good meal when you’ve been on the quest for several hours. I had gone through a water bottle or two from my backpack on this long and hot walk, and killed a half-liter of sparkling mineral water at dinner too. Dinner was around 9 p.m., which has been typical for us this entire trip.

It was a good day in Milan, and a full one. We walked roughly 4-5 miles over a period of six hours, shot dozens of photos, saw many beautiful things, and ended up with a great meal. The train had us back to the hotel in 20 minutes. Everything was wonderful … except that we remembered we hadn’t bought anything for breakfast.

So we kept walking past the hotel to a grocery store that a certain online service told us was four blocks away. It wasn’t. It didn’t exist. Should have asked the hotel concierge instead. All we found were a lot of quiet dark streets and two hookers. (One of them gave us a distinct “hmph!” and turned away as we passed by—not sure what we did to offend her.)

Ah well, you can’t let a little thing like no breakfast or an irritated prostitute ruin your day. It’s the next morning now. We slept till 10 a.m. and will have to check out in a couple of hours. We’ll pick up breakfast along the road, as we head north now, back to Switzerland.

Across the lake and up the mountain

Friday, June 21st, 2013

It’s funny how quickly we settle into what I think of as our “Italian mode.” Eleanor and I haven’t traveled together to Italy since the late 1990s but I notice that we are in the same pattern as before: two meals a day, gelato in the afternoon, exploration all day long, and an earnest search for good food and good atmosphere every night.

Being on the shore of Lake Maggiore certainly inspires relaxation. Although our hotel is along a busy street right at the waterfront, it is quiet in our room. Just a few feet from the front door are narrow alleyways paved with cobblestones that lead to hidden ristorantes, shops, and pasticceria, forking off at angles periodically in a fun-house maze.

It’s impossible to ignore the draw of these alleys; after all, this is where the fun is. They are sort of the Italian version of malls, filled with life, and unlike American alleyways they are safe and clean. We rarely buy anything but we do take a lot of pictures and find surprises. I’d much rather wander the alleys of any Italian city, especially the hill towns, than follow a guidebook.

Inevitably in any Italian city you will encounter the duomo (church), near the center of town. Being a fan of architecture I will always stop to take a look, but the real beauty of the duomo is inside, so even if you are shy it pays to walk in and quietly explore. Because we know we will be doing this, we are careful to leave the hotel with appropriate clothing. (You can get tips on what to wear from any decent guidebook.)

After walking the town for a couple of hours, we hopped on the ferry across Lake Maggiore to Laveno. The warm humid weather has continued, so it was a nice change to feel the breeze on the lake and get a cheap tour in the process.

I have been noticing all the motorcyclists along the route through Switzerland and here in Italy. The passes we drove were popular for motorcycling, probably because of the narrow twisting roads and of course the exceptional scenery. I didn’t envy them, though, because the Furkapass was rife with blind corners where cars were encouraged to honk their horns before continuing. That’s a little bit outside of my comfort zone on a motorcycle.

For my brother I have taken a few pictures of BMW motorcycles in action, which is not hard since it seems that about 80% of the bikes here are BMWs. The photo above shows two fully loaded BMW F650GS bikes, the same type we ride in New England.

Laveno is a smaller town than Verbania (our base location), and the main attraction is the Funivia (gondola) that climbs steeply up a mountain overlooking the town and Lake Maggiore. At ten Euros a person for the round-trip we thought it was a little expensive but then we didn’t have a clue what we were in for.

The gondola baskets are offered in open and closed varieties. The closed ones I suppose are for sissies or when it’s raining, so we happily chose the open one. It’s one of the steepest gondolas we’ve ever ridden, and quite long, ending up at 3,000 feet elevation about 25 minutes after you board it.

Your vista of Lake Maggiore quickly emerges, and it is stunning even on a cloudy day such as we had. I thought I’d be a little nervous about being in an open basket strung on a wire high above the ground but honestly it’s a very pleasant ride—and the view is distracting.

The top is developed with a restaurant, bar, gift shop, snack shop, a small hotel, and an antenna farm, along with what appears to be a small house for permanent staff. A hiking trail leads off to points unknown (to us), and with the tiny peak being so exposed, the wind is ever-present.

The big surprise at the top is a platform for launching hang-gliders. It looks like a place for convenient suicide at first, but then after considering it I could actually see myself jumping off a spot like this with a trustworthy wing strapped to my back. After a lot of training. After a lot of gear checks. After a lot of other circumstances fell into place. The sign at the launch ramp says that launching in a north wind is not recommended, for example.

We thought it might start to rain so we walked back through town without much more exploring … but we did of course stop for a couple of gelatos. That’s just mandatory.

At dinner we just popped into a place around the corner (in an alleyway). Here in Verbania we have found, unlike Switzerland and Germany, most of the waiters, gelato servers, newsstand clerks, ticket sellers, etc., speak no English, so we have finally had a chance to dredge up the Italian words & phrases we remember and put them to use. Ordering dinner last night was fun, and I finally had a chance to say “piu lentemente” so that our waitress would go through the dolce choices a bit more slowly. Dolce is serious business and you want to be sure to get the right item. I had creme caramel, which in Tucson would be called flan.

We’ve planned our final days. (Having wifi in the hotel is extraordinarily useful for that purpose, and these days almost every hotel offers it.) Today we are heading to Milan for a night, then we will work our way back north via St Gallen Switzerland, and up to Frankfurt. We return to the US on Monday. I hate to think of leaving, but we have had a very good trip and the memories will sustain us a long time.

Lake Maggiore, Italy

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

We have settled into the town of Verbania, on the shore of Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, and I think we will stay here for a few days. I’ve been driving too much, primarily because there are so many incredible places to see. It’s just too tempting to get in the car and drive over the Swiss Alps, as we did yesterday, but I have to remind myself that driving in that part of the country is not speedy, especially when you choose the scenic route over the Furkapass and the Solonpass.

We spent most of the day in the car (after having driving half the day on Tuesday and three hours on Monday) so I’ve requested a three-day rest here. We’ll still do some daytrips.

Even though it was cloudy in the morning, from the moment we left Luzern the drive was spectacular. Eleanor kept trying to get shots from the car, which rarely turn out well (it didn’t help that our windshield was rather bug-splattered), so we stopped frequently. The Alps loom over everything with their sharp snowy peaks and down below flat-bottomed valleys are green with farms and dotted with small villages.

You probably know this, but the Swiss are absolutely amazing at building tunnels. At one point I began to feel as if we had spent more time underground than above. The tunnels are toll-free (that’s what our vignette helps pay for), smooth, and sometimes incredibly long. Since we skipped the Gotthard Tunnel the longest one we traveled in was nine kilometers. We’ll probably take Gotthard Tunnel on the way back, for 14 kilometers under the mountains.

The Furkapass was our favorite section of road. At points it is a highway with a 100 kph speed limit, and then it drops into a village for 50 kph, and then later it narrows into a 1.5 lane road that winds like a snake up into the elevations. It’s definitely not for the timid driver or someone who has a fear of heights, but we loved it and the photo opportunities were spectacular. The snow is melting rapidly in June, and so incredible long cascades of water can be seen tumbling down the steep sides of the mountains. It should be obvious, but in case it isn’t: Definitely don’t come this way with a trailer.

We ran into a bit of a delay along the road to the Simplonpass, and a detour that sent us up a lonely road far into the mountains, which was … exciting … Because of road construction I had plenty of opportunities to check wireless coverage in out-of-the-way spots and I was consistently amazed to find 4 or 5 bars of coverage everywhere. That has helped answer a key question about my ability to work from Europe if we come back with an Airstream someday.

(By the way, the worst place for cell reception I’ve noticed so far has been Stuttgart. All that masonry and concrete construction creates many dead spots even in the middle of the city. It’s much better along the major roads.)

Road construction has been the one constant in every country on this trip. Tis the season, I guess. I’ve been to Europe many times, driving in England, Wales, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, but never in the summer. Only on this June trip have I encountered so much construction. Building an expectation of road delays into the trip plan would have been a good idea.

Still, the scenery was so great everywhere that we didn’t mind. Every village begs for exploration, every corner reveals yet another astonishing vista, every tunnel and cliff-hanging section of road is cause for amazement at Swiss engineering. Both Eleanor and I brought big 16gb memory cards for our cameras so we wouldn’t run out of storage space. My card will hold 2,100 photos, of which I think I used 80 or so just on this section of the drive.

After driving across the Italian border (with a cheery wave to the agent who was sitting in his office), we descended for the last time to yet another picturesque valley and then down to Lake Maggiore, one of the beautiful vacation spots of northern Italy.

Of all the European countries, I think I am most comfortable in Italy. Perhaps it’s because we’ve spent a fair amount of time here in the past, but I think it’s really just that I like the easygoing feel of the country. If I have business to do, Germany is a great place. It’s clean, organized, modern, and efficient. But for chilling, Italy is my choice. We’ve spent weeks touring here and always have a great time.

… which is what I’m going out to do today. Our hotel is near the lakefront, and the ferry dock is a short walk. We’re going to just browse in town for a while and then ride the ferry aimlessly to other towns around the lake. It will be 81 degrees today (finally a little cooler than it has been) and humid, so the ferry should be a nice way to spend the afternoon. We’re packing a picnic lunch again and we shall see what we shall see.

Luzern, Switzerland

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

The unexpected wave of heat made our night in Stuttgart fairly uncomfortable. When we went out for dinner at the Vietnamese restaurant at 9 p.m., it was an opportunity to notice that air conditioning is not something you can take for granted even in nice hotels and restaurants. (We didn’t really want Asian food again after having had it recently in Mainz, but we often find the only choice is Asian, Italian, and German plus a few of the American chains. Eleanor says that eating Thai is the only way she can get vegetables with her meal around here.)

As I mentioned earlier, our hotel lacked air conditioning too, so we slept atop the sheets. The temperatures barely cooled overnight, but it wouldn’t have helped anyway because we had to keep the windows closed against the street noise. We’ve had better nights of sleep.

As with all the hotels we’ve encountered so far, our room had two twin beds, which Eleanor hates, but on this night I think we were better off being a few feet apart. The forecast was for more of the same on Tuesday and we didn’t relish the idea of another hot night, but fortunately I was able to cancel our second night without penalty. We got breakfast in the hotel’s elegant little restaurant (with views of the koi pond) and checked out.

I mentioned in the previous blog that the only reason for us to go to Stuttgart was to visit the Mercedes Benz museum. I have lots of pictures from there and will post them on a Flickr album later. In short, it was excellent and exciting. We took about 2.5 hours to tour the museum’s 7 floors, descending in a spiral from level to level, and then caught the 11:45 tour of the adjacent Unterturkheim factory, where MB makes engines, transmissions, and forged parts. The tour’s main feature was a walk through the plant where they are currently making the OM651 4-cylinder Diesel engine and some M271 gas engines.

The heat had struck again so at this point we were glad to get back to the car. The museum is air conditioned but the walking tour is definitely not, even inside the engine assembly building. We had a quick picnic lunch in the parking garage and then headed out to the Autobahn.

I’ve got the hang of the Autobahn now and I have to say it’s actually more tiring to drive than the US Interstates. Most of the time there are two lanes. The left one is too fast, filled with people who think they are Michael Schumacher zooming along at 150 kph+, while the right one is too slow, occupied by trucks that sometime creep along at about 80 kph. After the frequent slow-downs, the Citroen is rather casual about coming back up to speed (it is happiest about 120-30 kph, given some time to get there) so I had to change lanes frequently and it ended up being a lot more work than I would have expected.

On the other hand, it was a very pretty drive down to Switzerland. Once we got free of Stuttgart the scenes were pastoral and seemingly endless. The border crossing was a non-event, since most of the Western European nations have abolished the need to show passports for EU and US citizens, and we were just waved through without a second glance. There wasn’t even a sign saying “Welcome to Switzerland,” and since the signs in that part of the country are all in German it was hard to discern any difference. It was slightly disappointing to not have a bit of fanfare about entering Switzerland, but on the other hand I couldn’t help thinking that it would be nice if the border between the US and Canada were as straightforward. If they can do it among 14 nations in Europe, why can’t we do it with our friendly neighbor to the north?

There was one painful reminder to us that we were in another country. Switzerland requires tourists to have a “vignette” (a window sticker) that shows we’ve paid the road tax for use of the highways. (In the USA this tax is built into fuel prices.) We stopped at a convenience store and bought one: it costs 40 Swiss francs, which is about $45. We’ll need it for three days.

At one point we were considering stopping in Zurich, so we skipped the route that would have brought us around the city and ended up getting caught in a massive traffic jam. This cost us the better part of an hour, and all for nothing since we realized we’d rather continue on to Luzern instead.

Luzern is a nice place, located on the shore of a lake and with nice views of the snow-covered Alps in the distance, but very expensive. Hotels in town start at CHF200 and rise rapidly from there (we splurged on a nice one so ours is more like CHF290, double what we’ll spend in Italy) and the restaurant prices are unbelievable. After a short walk around the downtown we hit a local grocery and made a smorgasbord for dinner and breakfast that cost CHF31. That’s what the hotel would have charged us just for one breakfast for one person. The prices here tell me that we’d be much better off traveling this region by Airstream, and I suspect that’s what we’ll do someday.

Downtown Luzern seems to be mobbed with tourists, and more Americans than we’ve encountered anywhere else. Perhaps that explains the Burger King, McDonald’s, and Starbucks all on the same corner.

At this point I am thinking we’ve done a little too much driving. Every day we are driving 4-5 hours, arriving in town around 5-7 p.m., and then spending the evening getting settled into the hotel and taking care of business (I still have to do some work while I’m “vacationing”). Dinner ends up being at 9 or even 10 p.m. and then we talk about what we are going to do the next day, and we don’t get to bed until 12:30 a.m. Today will be similar but to break the cycle we have booked two nights at Lake Maggiore (Italy) and will likely extend it to three days. We plan to use the Lake Maggiore hotel as a base camp for day excursions.

Today’s plan is to make our final southward drive through the Gotthard Pass and down to Italy’s lake region. It should be the most spectacular drive of the entire trip, and shorter than the past few drives, so we’re looking forward to it.

If you’re wondering about fuel cost, it’s about $8 per US gallon. We’ve put two tanks of gas in the car, which cost about 60 Euros each ($80). That’s expensive for a small car but really still not a bad deal, since we could spend nearly that much on breakfast here in Luzern. We can economize in other ways, which we do mostly by eating out only once a day.

Off to Italy …

Steaming in Stuttgart

Monday, June 17th, 2013

The Airstream rally is over, and we are moving again. This morning we awoke to find only a handful of the Airstreams still on site, and everyone was packing up to go.

Part of the reason this rally was the biggest one in Europe since the Wally Byam caravans of the 1950s was the fairly central location. Since it was in Germany, the Dutch and the Germans could come for the weekend, even those who have day jobs. Only the British really had a long drive (400-600 miles depending on where they came from) and they seemed to relish the excuse to cross the Channel and explore the continent. So except for the Brits, nearly everyone bugged out on Sunday or very early Monday to get back to work or other obligations.

We tidied up the Airstream and emptied the tanks again, reluctantly packed up and said goodbye to our friends who were still on-site, and VERY reluctantly handed the keys to the new Airstream 684 back to Armin. When I say “new” I mean really new: we were the first people to sleep in it. I’d buy it if we afford to have a third Airstream permanently located in Europe, but alas we are not quite in that bracket just yet. Still, we already are certain we’ll be back one way or another.

I have to give special thanks to Armin Heun of Airstream Germany and his team, who really did an excellent job at putting together this event. We feel privileged to have been invited to come, and to stay in an Airstream while we were here. I hope Armin and/or some of the guys from Airstream Germany come to America and allow us to somehow try to repay the favor.

Today’s drive was down to Stuttgart, but since we were so close to Limburg, and everyone raved about it, we took a short detour to explore the downtown. It does look like a neat place. Our parking ticket downtown was good for only 2 hours and we needed to get going on our drive to Stuttgart, so the visit was short but enjoyable.

Once again we were fahren fahren fahren on der Autobahn, which is trickier than you might think. Despite the myth that “it has no speed limit” it often does have speed limits, varying from 80 kph in construction zones up to 100 kpb in moderately congested areas, and 130 kph in less congested areas. Only a few spots along our three hour drive today were truly free of speed limits, and even then we had to be constantly on the lookout for sudden changes in speed. We could be zipping along at about 140 kph (about 86 MPH) and then in a flash traffic would slow to 90 kph and I’d be stomping the brakes as other drivers quickly weaved from the slow lanes to the fast ones.

The Citroen made the drive more challenging, because that little tin box really wasn’t very steady above 120 kph. At 140 with a little breeze crossing the road, I had to wrestle with it, constantly making course corrections as it bobbed and wandered in the lane. I rarely dared enter the leftmost lane, which was the exclusive domain of German-made automobiles such as Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen, and Audi. Those cars are Autobahn-ready, whereas I think Citroen built this C3 for toodling around city streets.

Eleanor offered that we might go to Europcar and ask for something a bit more capable of handling the Autobahn, but I didn’t want to go to the trouble. Soon enough we’ll be in Switzerland and Italy and we won’t be going all that fast anyway. Although I am wondering how it will do at Gotthard Pass …

We have only one reason for visiting Stuttgart, and that is because I insisted on seeing the Mercedes-Benz Museum. This town also hosts the Porsche Museum, which we drove by today, but we may not go into that one, depending on whether we are burned out on car stuff after MB.

Unfortunately, I made a strategic error when planning this stop. I booked two nights and didn’t notice that the hotel lacks air conditioning. This is not uncommon. This wasn’t a problem a few days ago when the forecast said Stuttgart would be nice and cool, but in reality it was 91 degrees today and it will be the same tomorrow. At 11 p.m. as I write this we are in our hotel room with windows wide open and it is still close to 90 degrees. Plus there’s a lot of street noise, which doesn’t bode well for sleeping tonight.

I am going to see if we can cancel our second night and head off to Switzerland tomorrow after visiting the Museum instead. Hopefully the hotel will be accommodating about this. This is just the sort of thing that reminds me why I hate making reservations, even when camping.

Since our hotel was chosen for convenience to the museums and not for walking access to the city, we had to use the car to get to dinner this evening. Navigating and parking were an adventure, as they always are in European cities, and that was expected, but once again I forgot that air conditioning is not to be expected 100% of the time as it would be at home. We ended up in a very nice Vietnamese restaurant sweating bullets as we ate our dinner. The mountains of Switzerland are looking better and better all the time.

Once we leave Germany we will no longer have Internet on the phone, or any phone for that matter. The SIM card I bought will roam to other countries but the cost of calls becomes prohibitive and the Internet functionality simply stops. So from here on in we are going to rely on public and hotel wifi, and Skype to call home occasionally. If I really get crazy about connectivity I might pick up an Italian SIM card, but maybe I’ll forget about the real world while we are in Italy instead.

Driving the Mosel Valley

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

One of the things that made us look forward to attending the EU Airstreamers’ gathering was that we would be able to be regular old attendees, instead of running the thing. It has been while since we had the opportunity to do that, and it has been a nice change. Nobody is asking me for my opinion on anything, and I got the impression that everyone is happy I’m not here to sell something. This is a laid-back group.

Since nobody was going to notice or care if we disappeared for the day, we made plans to drive west to the Mosel River valley for a leisurely tour of that scenic area. The road winds along the Mosel, and the hillsides are lined with grape vines, and every once in a while there’s a castle and a quaint village. There are even quite a few nice riverside campgrounds.

But before we could go do that, it was our day to try the European equivalent of dumping the holding tanks and filling up with fresh water. They have a much better system for that than we do. Since many campgrounds lack hookups, campers bring along a plastic barrel called an Aqua-Roll. The Airstream sucks water from this barrel to fill its own internal tank automatically, and when you need more water you just disconnect the Aqua-Roll, attach a sort of giant fork/handle, and roll it over to the water source. It’s dead easy.

We have been scrupulous about our water usage so our supply was still mostly full, but we did take a couple of showers and so there was some water in the external gray tank, which is called a Wastemaster. This is basically the same as our American “blue boy” tanks, but with more drainage points and a special shape that allows it to be slid almost entirely underneath the Airstream, to get it out of sight. The EU Airstreams ride lower than the US ones, so this is a neat trick.

We also decided to try our hand at emptying the cassette toilet, with considerable trepidation. It turns out we shouldn’t have worried; it’s a much nicer and cleaner system than the famous “stinky slinky” that we use in America. The cassette removes from the outside of the Airstream through a special door, and it’s virtually fool-proof. You just open the door, release a catch, and slide it out. It’s clean on the outside so there’s no “ick” factor like there is with the sewer hose.

Also, you can’t spill it unless you really try hard, it doesn’t smell, and it has wheels and a handle like your airplane luggage so it’s simple to roll it over to the designated spot and dump it out. We gave it a quick rinse, added fresh chemical, and popped it back in the compartment. Job done in just a few minutes. No drips, no errors.

Being Sunday, a few people have had to leave the rally to head back to work, but most of us are staying until Monday. We said goodbye to some new and old friends, exchanged email addresses, and promised to get together again in two years when this gathering will be held in the UK. Michael Hold will be organizing it, and he says he’s going to beat this record attendance of 54 Airstreams. We plan to be there to take a careful count in person.

We have a Michelin map of Germany, but some nice folks from the UK lent us their book of German maps, and it has much better detail. With that in hand and a picnic lunch in the car, we finally headed out to find the Mosel river valley at about 11 a.m., two hours after I had thought we might leave.

We didn’t even get 1/10 of a mile before running in to a tiny car show. It was irresistible, so we pulled over and took a few pictures of the Mercedes, Volkswagen, Porsche, Peugeot, and MG cars there. I could see we weren’t going to get very far today. (Note that the Mercedes to the right has a tow bar.)

Still, just about everywhere we’ve driven in Germany has been scenic and interesting. We eventually stopped at a famous castle called Burg Eltz for a tour. Between our picnic lunch at the car, the treasure room, and the castle tour, we killed a couple of hours there, but it was worth it.

If you go, seriously consider paying 2 Euros for the shuttle ride back to your car, otherwise you will be facing a long steep hike. But walking down pays off in more than monetary ways; you will have the opportunity to take some fantastic pictures of the castle from the road.

We continued along the Mosel for another hour of driving, and I can’t begin to describe how fantastic it was. The weather has been ideal all week, and today was the best yet, so we wound our way down the smooth road with all four windows down and all four eyes wide open to take in the scenery.

Eventually we stopped in the town of Cochem and began walking through the old part of town without any expectations. We discovered a vibrant shopping and restaurant district hidden behind the gray stone walls of the buildings that face the road, which completely sucked us in for the next 90 minutes. At 6 p.m. we headed for what the locals would call an early dinner (we were the only people in the restaurant for a while; everyone else was sitting at a pub somewhere), and once again got a surprisingly excellent meal. (Ignore the French Fries, they seem to come with everything. Under that crisply breaded veal is a bed of wild chantrelles in a delicious cream sauce.) I’ve grown cynical about restaurants in tourist areas, but our luck has been fantastic while we’ve been here. Is it just Germany?

We followed the Mosel west for another 30 km or so, and then broke off to head back to the Autobahn for our trip back to base. Just as we were leaving we spotted a sign that said Nurburgring was only 23 km away. That’s a giant raceway that you can pay a fee to drive with your own car. It’s another car fantasy of mine to drive that track with something suitable, and Eleanor was encouraging me to do so, but once again that fantasy did not involve me racing in a Citroen four-banger. So we headed home, doing battle on the back roads with the VWs driven by 20-somethings who obviously (from their driving style) wished they were on the Nurburgring as well.

We missed a turn or two on the way back, and ended up pulling in at about 10:30. There was just enough light left for us to see the rest of the group clustered around an open fire, playing guitar and accordion. Obviously they had a nice day too.

Tomorrow we will all have to leave, so we’ll say goodbye in the morning and head off to Stuttgart.

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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine