Rushing Home for Another Hike

How he did it I will never know… Mirco drove from 8am until 3am the next morning.  And though that wasn’t necessarily our plan, I guess we really wanted to get home.

We left Siena early and had decided to make our way home.  Though we had originally planned to camp for a night in Florence and Verona, I had received an email about exciting exchange student stuff!  They organized a city tour and dinner for September 2nd and a hike on September 4th (yes I know it’s the middle of October and I’m just getting to this now…).  Our goal was to cut the trip short and make it back to Dortmund by the 4th.  We would drive as far as we could today, sleep for the night in the car and travel on home.

We decided to stop in Verona for a break and lunch and even though it was only an hour or so, I was really happy we got to stop in the city!  Another home to Romeo and Juliet as it were.  We visited Juliet’s Balcony.  Touch her boob they said, its good luck they said.  We wandered the city and we had some coffee and a rest and continued on our way.

Because we were so close to Lake Garda at that point we decided to drive along it for the view on our way into Austria.  It added some time to our drive but we preferred the view over the autobahn.  When we arrived we drove down the coast until we found a nice place to stop and have a snack.  I even tried the water and it was warmer than we both expected. We enjoyed the water a bit until a snake swam over Mirco’s foot!

 

After that it was into Austria (to avoid the ridiculous tolls in Switzerland) and I got to add another country to my list! We made sure to get out of the car and have dinner so I could count it as an actual stop.  Mirco wanted to drive a bit further after dinner so I decided to take a nap and he just kept on going and going.  Then before we know it we were home and it was 3am.  We immediately passed out and went to sleep.  I couldn’t believe I managed to get from the car to our room.

We slept but not too late and we made it to Dortmund right at 3pm with just enough time for me to hop in the shower and make it to the city for the tour.  It was nice and everything but I can’t say I enjoyed walking for two hours after my vacation.  My feet hurt after an hour, even in sneakers and I couldn’t wait to sit down.  I met some more American students and we had all be assigned a German “double” to help us with the transition and I met her too.  It was nice after so long to start everything up!  We went to a cool, trendy salad bar for dinner and out to a bar for drinks after.  It was so incredibly nice to start making friends.  I cannot stress how great it was…

On Sunday we all met up for a hike despite the weather forecast of heavy rain.  It drizzled a bit but it was all fine and good until we got to the last half when the skies opened up.  We stood in the woods for 10 minutes while we figured out another plan.  It was determined that with the lightning it wasn’t safe to continue, so we headed back into the city center (in the pouring rain to find out we missed the bus and had to walk even further) to go to an American diner for lunch.  Lunch was a bit chaotic with about 17 of us ordering and a lot of the orders were turned around.  We made the most of it though!  I have decided that I have absolutely no luck with hiking and I’m going to avoid it for a while.

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When in Italy: Drink LOTS of Wine

We decided last minute to go to a wine class in Siena.  Mirco and I love to drink wine together, but we really aren’t that knowledgable.  My father loves wine as well (must be genetic) and we though it would be a great opportunity!  We were in wine country after all.

We knew we had two options.  We could take a wine tour of the area (more expensive and would require us to drive there) or stay in the city of Siena (which greatly limited our options).  Because we were lazy and there was rain in the forecast we decided to stay in Siena.  Based on reviews online we chose the Wine School of Siena.  We signed up for a two hour wine class for 45 euros each.  And let me tell you did we get more than expected!

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Our class was not full, so we had ten people total, all couples.  We each received bread and olive oil and three wine glasses (for 5 wine tastings).  We started off with a white wine and then had three reds and finally a dessert wine.  Not only was it incredibly informative, but it was a lot of fun!  Our sommelier had a wonderful personality and had a great time teaching us.  We studied mostly sangiovese wines from Tuscany but we also talk about the different categories and controls of the wine system in Italy.  We learned how to taste for tannins, how to recognize a sangiovese (did you know you could read through it??) and had 5 generous pours of wine.

One of the most interesting things was when we tasted a red wine just after she poured it and then about an hour and a half later.  The wine had time to breath and was ten times better!  We learned so much and our class actually went an extra half hour.  Mirco and I were so enamored that we purchased two bottles of wine.  If you ever have the chance to try a 2010 Brunello de Montalcino, I would go for it! It only put us back 42 euros…  We also bought the Brunello’s little brother: a Chiante Classico.  This was by far my favorite experience in Siena and I can’t wait to take another class in the future!  Here’s a picture of all the wines we got to try!

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Our experience was much more than a wine tasting, it was a wine school, and truly a wine experience.  If you have the chance (and are a beginner in wine tasting) than this is definitely a great deal for you.

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Siena – The Final Destination

So we packed up early from our camping place to leave as early as we could and head to Siena.  I had wanted to visit Siena for forever!  Ever since I had read the book Juliet by Anne Fortier.  It’s a work of fiction but uses Siena and its history as a backdrop for the story.  It’s the birthplace of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the way Siena was depicted as a romantic and winding city had me just dying to go.

Our host was amazing even before we arrived because we interrupted his daily “riposso” to arrive just before 12:30.  The apartment was small, but clean and organized and our host had a number of brochures and maps and books for us to become oriented with the city. He had two other rooms rented out at the same time so we met a young woman from Paris and two girls from San Fransisco.  We changed and got refreshed and adventured into the city.

The weather was beautiful.  Though there was some rain in the forecast it looked like it would be a good afternoon.  We walked to an old fortress that had a great view of the city.  Unfortunately the parts closest to the city were blocked off for construction but the view was still amazing!  Then we walked into the city from the far end and traversed the whole thing!!

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We saw all the winding, medieval like streets, the churches, and towers, and the little apartments.  My perfect vision of it was dampened by all the tourists, but I was a tourist too (so no judgement).  We visited the Basilica di San Francesco and Piazza del Salimbeni.  We went to Piazza del Campo, where they hold the Palio (an ancient horse race) every year!  In the square was the Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre del Mangia.  We bought tickets for the tower (10 euro each) and walked up the more than 400 stairs.  Being that we were trying to save money we weren’t sure 10 euros was worth it but the views from the top were amazing!  I would definitely recommend it.  We got lucky because it looked like a storm was rolling in so we went to go have a glass of prosecco while we waited it out.  Little did we know it would be a torrential downpour for hours! So we had a another glass.  A great tip: when ordering a drink, most of the time you receive a small appetizer for free!

When the rain looked like it had finally settled down we made a run for it and quickly found a pizzeria to have real Italian pizza.  Another great thing about Italian restaurants is that you can very often buy a house bottle of wine for much cheaper!

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We headed back to our apartment and made plans for the rest of the day.  I want to take a walk in the morning and visit a few things we had missed the day before.  We also decided to take a wine class! (separate blog post to come)

While walking around the next day we visited the Sanctuary of Santa Caterina, the Fontebrande, and the Basilica of San Domenico.  For lunch we went to the most amazing place: Prètto Prosciutteria.  Not only did they have amazing sandwiches but they had amazing tasting boards with authentic meats and cheeses that were from the area and produced the same was as 40 years ago!   We really got a taste of Italy!

We also found a wonderful botanical garden that we wandered around in until the mosquitos chased us away… Once again it started pouring and we hid in a laundromat until we had to race away to our wine class, which was hands down the best part of our trip! Stay tuned!!

On the way home from our class we saw a double rainbow!  It was a beautiful way to end our trip.  One of the most exciting things about Siena was bringing a book I read to life.  Seeing the streets and the shops and historical building that actually exist in real life brought a reality to the book in a way I have never experienced before.  The romantic in me loved it!  The only thing we didn’t do was pay to go into the many museums that Siena has to offer.  If I ever go back that will be the first thing I do!

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Hiking the Cinque Terre, Italy

Our second day in Levanto was an exciting one!  We were planning on traveling through the Cinque Terre, a now national park in Italy comprised of five towns: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare.  Now that the area is considered a national park =, there is a fee.  There are two options, a ticket for just hiking the park for 12 euros or a ticket for hiking the park and unlimited use of the trains and buses in the area. For 16 euros.  I would definitely recommend the latter.  Though we had only expected to take the train twice, the ticket ended up paying for itself and we were happy to have it.  A single ticket for a train is 4 euros.  The tickets also include free use of bathrooms and a wifi code for the hotspots.

Our plan was to take the train from Levanto to Riomaggiore, the first town of the five and the furthest away.  From there we would take the leisurely coastal path between all the cities.  Our rest day had done its job and though we were still sore we weren’t in a lot of pain.

Riomaggiore is a beautiful town.  The houses are all colorful and built together, nestled into the landscape.  There are amazing restaurants and café’s but also old churches and monuments.  We didn’t spend much time in Riomaggiore, but because it was so early in the day it was lovely and peaceful.  And then we were in for a surprise…  The Via del Amore, our lovely coastal path, was closed.  Which meant the only way was to hike up and through the mountains… Which was not our plan.  The walk from Riomagiore to Monarolo was only about 50 minutes so we thought we could manage.  And we did, but not before Mirco’s knee started bothering him.  We only had to walk about a million steps…  We ran into a lovely couple on the way who gave us some tips.  We definitely didn’t want to walk from Manarola to Corniglia because that was a three hour hike!  And there were some great places to go swimming in Manarola; you could even jump off the cliffs!

Manorola was lovely as well.  A bit larger than Riomaggiore, but just as quaint.  Same colorful houses nestled into the mountain, same lovely charm.  One of the most incredible things were the views of the ocean.  Every time we walked past a break in the trees or the houses the sun glinting off the ocean made it seem so alluring.  It was also because we were hiking in 85 degree weather and we knew how refreshing it would be!  We didn’t end up going swimming here because it felt a bit crowded to us.  We took the train from Manarolo to Corniglia and I’m glad we did!  The trail did not look fun at all.

Corniglia was special in its own way because it is the only one of the five town not directly on the water.  It was full of amazing restaurants and color and many, many people!  It definitely had a charm to it that was different from the other’s because it wasn’t on the water.

We walked from Corniglia to Vernazza.  The hike wasn’t the worst but it was difficult enough that we both started hurting again.  It took about an hour and a half and we were more than happy when we finally reached Vernazza.  Vernazza was my favorite of the cities.  It was one of the larger of the five and directly on the water.  It was busy but not too busy and the color of clothes and the smell of food from street vendors were great for the senses.  But what ,ade it the best was not what we saw but what we did.  Mirco and I walked underneath a big cut out of the cliff (almost tunnel like) to an almost secret beach.  It wasn’t as crowded and it was clearly more natives that tourists.  We claimed a spot on a large warm rock and relaxed in the sun.  we had brought our suits with us, and I cannot tell you how refreshing the ocean was after the long day we had had.  We floated in the salty water for a while before returning to our rock to dry off.  It was a special experience.

We took the train to the last city: Montorosso al Mare.  Although similar to the others, it was my least favorite.  It was definitely the most crowded, had a lot more tourists, and a lot more hotels and buildings that disrupted the serenity that the other cities had.  And the beach was ridiculously crowded…  The historical part of the city is the better half and we wandered around for a bit before looking for a place to eat.  Unfortunalety it was early, only around 5pm, and most restaurants don’t open until 7pm at the earliest.  Our first two choices were closed so we finally settled on our third.  It was a nice restaurant and I had the best salmon appetizer.  Thinly sliced pieces of raw salmon marinated in lemon juice and spices!  Mirco had beef carpaccio and it was a wonder I didn’t steal it all from him!

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We both got the mixed grill for dinner, which was a bit of a disappointment.  There were two pieces of mystery fish, three whole crayfish, and a whole bunch of grilled squid.  Much too much in my opinion.  But we still enjoyed ourselves over our bottle of wine trying to figure out how to get the most meat out of our crayfish, which we had never had whole before.  Dessert of course was gelato.

For us, only staying a day in Cinque Terre was more than enough.  We loved exploring and wandering around and you could easily spend a day in each city.  But we are happier off the beaten track with less tourists, so we were happy with just our one day.  The we trained back to Levanto for our last night before we left in the morning for Sienna!

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Via Dell Amore

A day at the beach – Levanto, Italy

We were so incredibly sore.  All we wanted to do was rest and relax so we had decided to continue on with our trip and not stay in Como.  It turned out that we made the right decision because the day was hazy and staying on the lake wouldn’t have been as beautiful.  Our next stop was Levanto where we would camp for three nights.  We took our time traveling down the coast of Italy, stopping for lunch and to look out at the beautiful water.

The campsite in Italy was quite a bit different than in Switzerland.  I guess you could say that I was incredibly lucky with my first camping experience.  The ground here was dryer and harder, the bathrooms not quite as clean.  But all in all it was a comfy spot and we were excited for the next few days.  We even had some nice landscaping around our tent!

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Our first day in Levanto was a beach day.  We slept in for the first time in a while and took our bikes down to the coast.  The back was a rocky beach and not a sandy beach like I was used to, but it was still comfortable.  And even though it was during the week it was quite crowded, but still nothing like Jersey Shore during peak season.  We relaxed on the beach and then took a dip in the water.  It was amazing!  It was definitely cooler than I’d hoped but once you had submersed yourself it was ridiculously refreshing.  It was also a lot saltier and the salt dried in little patches once you were out of the water.

img_7624On our way home we stopped by the store to get some meat to grill for the evening and of course, a bottle of wine!  We had to wait a bit, as we were caught off-guard by the Italian version of Siesta, called “Riposso”.  This means that from 12:00-14:00 (or even 16:00!) most restaurants and shops are closed.  And a lot of restaurants do not open for dinner until 19:30!

We cooked dinner near our tent, happy that the smoke from the grill kept the mosquitos at bay, and enjoyed our wine out of plastic cups.

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When hiking a Mountain wasn’t enough so we drove up one – Lake Como, Italy

I can’t really explain how terrifying it is to drive up and down a mountain.  It might actually be worse than hiking one.  I just kept picturing myself in a heap of crushed metal at the bottom of the mountain.  I really have to stop doing that…  We weaved all up and down and around the Swiss alps until we made it into Italy.  I was so excited for this part of the trip!  It was definitely going to be nice to be in a real bed again too.  Because Como was so expensive we decided to stay with Airbnb in Brunate, a little town right above Como.  While that seemed like a great idea at the time, we didn’t quite realize how steep the roads were, or how narrow.  With a car like ours we constantly had to be careful around turns, especially without mirrors.  On more than one occasion it didn’t seem like both cars on the road would fit.   Mirco stalled three times driving from Como to Brunate; I ruined his one time a year average (Sorry Mirco!)

We finally made it up and parked.  We brought out bags to our little apartment and settled in.  Then we realized that we had parked somewhere we shouldn’t and had to walk back and repark.  Afterwards we took the Funiculare (a little tram) down from Brunate into Como.  It was a beautiful afternoon and we walked around the lake.  We walked very, very slowly.  Between the pain in Mirco’s knee and the way my feet felt we needed a relaxing night.  The lake was beautiful, though pretty cold.  We stopped for a class of sangria in a little café and it was the best sangria I have ever had.  Though I guess we were in wine county now!

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Afterwards we walked around to the other side of the lake.  It was very touristy, which should be expected, and almost everyone could speak English.  Because our trip was so flexible we played around with the idea of staying an extra day and taking a very to Bellagio or Lake Como’s only island.  The tickets were cheap, only 20 euros a person!  We decided to make a decision spontaneously.

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As it was starting to get late we began to look for a place to have dinner.  We wanted something a bit nicer to celebrate our trip and because we had been eating camp food for a while, we wanted a nice meal.  Walking around was starting to get a lot more than uncomfortable and we chose a nice quiet hotel restaurant with a great selection of seafood.  We ordered Italian wine and I had the best tartar I had had in a while.  Mirco and I love food and we love eating food together.  It’s a really fun experience when it’s something you enjoy so much.  It was nice to sit and relax with a bottle of wine.  We decided to continue on with our trip instead of staying an extra day.  After dinner we found an gelato shop and walked back to the Funicolare to take up to Brunate.  The lake was so beautiful at night.  All of the lights from town twinkled on the surface and seeing it from Brunate was beautiful.  On the short walk back to the apartment we heard music playing from a nearby restaurant and Mirco and I danced together on a deserted cobblestone street.

 

 

 

 

One foot in front of the other – Switzerland Day 3

We woke up to the birds chirping and another wonderful day in Switzerland.  Though we were definitely sore, it wasn’t as bad as we expected, so we decided to tackle our second hike.  We were going to hike up to the top of Schilthorn.  At 2900m, it would be the highest we would hike during our trip and it was also used as a filming location for an old James Bond movie.  It was the opposite side of the mountain so it would make for a different hike.

We took the gondola from Stechelberg (location of our campsite) to Mürren to cut about an hour and a half off our hike.  We knew it would be a pretty long day and the hike up to Mürren wasn’t worth it, in our opinion.  If we had known what the day would be like we might not have started out.  As soon as we did, it was steeper than anything we had hiked the day before.  And there was no relief.  Up and up and up the trail went, curving around the mountain.  At one point the trail was so steep I could use my hands to balance myself in front of me and when I turned around the trail dropped off and you couldn’t see where it went.  Our legs hurt, our knees hurt, and we were both exhausted…  We had made it about three quarters of the way when we ran into our first snow pile!  That was both exciting and very refreshing.

We could see the top!  There is was in front of us.  We had another 400m of altitude to go, but we could see it!  And that made it easier to put one foot in front of the other and just keep on going.  The last hour of the hike turned into the real deal.  We had to pull ourselves over rocks, twist over the slippery tops of the mountain, use ropes to make sure we didn’t fall over the side and choose our footing very carefully.  It was exhausting and my legs began to shake again.  It wasn’t until the last bit when I wasn’t sure I would make it.  The mountain dropped off on both sides leaving only a distance about a meter that was available to walk.  The rocks looked smooth and slippery and there was a rope on one side, like that would do anything to keep me me from falling.  My breath started coming in gasps and I could feel myself panicking.  I didn’t know how I would get over it and I certainly didn’t know how I would do it on the way back.  I slowly moved forwards.  Every step I felt like I would slip and I could see myself in my mind tumbling down the side of the mountain.  At one point I even had to let go of the rope…  Somehow I made it over.  But then the rest of the climb seemed too daunting.  Every rock too slippery, every path too narrow, but I knew the only way forwards was up.  My breath still coming in short gasps and with encouragement from Mirco we made it to the top.  Even with concrete beneath my feet, it didn’t feel completely safe…

We were dead.  Metaphorically of course.  In order to sit we had to use our hands to help bend our legs.  Everything hurt.  I think even our ears hurt.  The view from the top was amazing but we were almost too miserable to enjoy it.  We decided in that moment that we were taking the gondola down.  Our bodies had had enough and that was the least we could do.  So with that decided, we had a beer.  On the top of a mountain.  In a rotating restaurant.  As we looked out over the Swiss Alps.   Absolutely amazing.  And we had hiked all the way up here!  Amazing.  The world didn’t quite seem so big anymore.

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But then we ran into a problem.  The gondola down was 56 CF a person…  We didn’t want to spend that kind of money.  We debated for a while but we made the only choice we could.  We would walk back down.  Could we do it?  And hour before I would have said my body couldn’t manage it.  And my mind couldn’t manage to walk the terrifying trail of death again.  But what could we do?  We put one foot in front of the other.  Step by step we made it down.  I walked back over the terrifying trail of death.  We chose a different way down the mountain hoping it would be better.  It was and it wasn’t.  It was probably a bit less steep but the footing was more challenging.  And at one point Mirco twinged his knee.  And at some point my toes had been slammed into the front of my hiking boot so many times I would have sworn they had fallen off (I still have bruises today).

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Every step was painful.  Every step our bodies said they couldn’t do any more.  And we just kept putting one foot in front of the other.  I don’t know how we did it.  I think it was the first time I had really pushed myself past what I thought I could do.  Most people don’t push themselves that far; I had never had to.  I think the hike was an amazing metaphor for overcoming obstacles.  Even when you think you can’t go on anymore and you have no strength left, even when the only options appears to be giving up, you can still do it.  In our case it was another three hour grueling hike down the mountain, but it really does apply to everything.

And then we were in Mürren again!  With a sigh of relief, we took the gondola home and coasted our bikes the whole way downhill into our campsite.   Somehow we managed to have the energy to shower and make dinner.  It was meat out of a can and mashed potatoes but it tasted like a 5-star meal to me.

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