Thursday, June 27, 2013

Como, Italy and Lugano, Switzerland

Hotel Borgo Antico
Buongiorno! I spent a few days with a friend in Como, Italy for my birthday. Apparently we chose the perfect time to visit; several locals told us that the weather had been dismal just a few days before our arrival. Luckily for us, it was sunny, warm, and beautiful during our entire stay!

Before this, my only exposure to Italy was Milan for this past New Year's. We had a wonderful time but Milan is certainly a "business" city. It wasn't really the Italy I imagined: coastal, filled with beautiful and friendly people, and lots of delicious pizza and pasta. I'm so glad I was able to see a different city in Italy. Though Como is only 40 miles away from Milan, it feels like a different country.

We flew into Bergamo and took first a bus and then two trains to reach Como. Our hotel was just a five minute walk to the train station. Hotel Borgo Antico has only been open for a few months and it was absolutely perfect for our stay. The value is unbeatable and breakfast is included. Staff were eager to please and the property is extremely secure, with a 24-hour desk attendant who buzzes guests into the hotel after hours.

Duomo in Como
We spent our first afternoon eating lunch on a terrace in the historical center of Como. I didn't have one bad meal in Como and the wine (I mostly had house whites/reds) was fabulous! I was grateful for the reasonable prices. Maybe it's because I just returned from Santorini and felt slightly robbed. Anyway, it was a pleasant surprise.

There are lots of shops in Como stocking the usual touristy items, but also many upscale boutiques selling the fashionable image of Italy. We browsed around in a few and if I had the dough, I would've definitely purchased a Gucci gown from Tessabit... you know, for all of those film premieres and private parties at Villa d'Este.

We had a lovely lunch of pizza and prosciutto with fresh melon the next day. This was fuel for our journey up to the top of Como on the funicular. The views were stunning and it was actually my first time on a funicular. Como's has been operating since 1894. The walls of the waiting area at the bottom are filled with old photos from a time gone by, when the funicular was operated by steam engine and female passengers wore long, billowing skirts and fancy hats.

After our bird's eye view of the lake and Alps, we decided to take a quick train ride to Lugano in Switzerland. We didn't know much about Lugano but we thought the side-trip would be a fun way to spend the afternoon. Before we knew it, the sparkling waters of Lake Lugano stretched before us, framed by a mountainous backdrop.


As we made our way down to the lakeside from the station, we happened upon the Cathedral of San Lorenzo. The cathedral was founded in the early Middle Ages. It was under serious restoration but windows were strategically placed in the plastic partitions and we could still look in and get an idea of what the church looked like without all of the construction. Fortunately one small section wasn't covered in scaffolding. The frescoes on the ceiling were breathtaking.

Next, we strolled down the Lakeshore Promenade toward Belvedere Garden. Lots of people were out, lounging in chaises while reading, napping on blankets in the sun, and playing ultimate frisbee. It was a beautiful, lush park with playgrounds, lots of trees, and spectacular views of the lake and mountains.

The day was coming to an end and we had to catch a train back to Como for dinner. Lugano was lovely and I'm really glad we went, even if just for an afternoon.

Newspaper Art in a Lugano Tunnel

Our final day in Como was next. It involved wine, some rowdy Americans, and George Clooney.

Ciao! Ciao!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Hello, Maastricht, Our New Home!

The past two months have been very busy. We had a visitor for a little over a week and the rest of the time was spent preparing for our big move. We are now proud residents of Maastricht in The Netherlands! We are only a 30-minute drive from our house in Germany but it feels worlds apart. We are very fortunate to be able to experience life in two different countries. Though they share a border, we are already noticing little differences here and there. We spent a lot of time in Maastricht before the move so we're lucky we can just focus on relaxing and settling in rather than wandering around aimlessly, trying to figure out where everything is in the new town.

With that said, I feel like I'm already losing some of the German I spent a few months learning. It looks like I'll have to keep current with it on my own since I won't have daily interactions with the language anymore. Dutch is very different and I know some of the basic words and greetings, but it seems like people here just prefer to speak English. And their English is excellent.

I'm looking forward to new adventures in Maastricht! Before my attention turns to all things Dutch, here is a list I compiled for a blog contest a few months ago about living in Germany.

Things Americans Should Know Before Moving to Deutschland

Forget about personal space. Get accustomed to strangers standing close enough to breathe down your neck and skip you in line before you can say, "Entschuldigung."

Be a good hausfrau. The sidewalk in front of your house is directly correlated to your social acceptance in the neighborhood. Shovel and salt it before 8am if it snows and make sure it's swept clean of miniscule dirt particles at all other times. And wash your windows, too.

The weather is completely unpredictable. When I first moved here I thought people were being rude when I asked for a description of typical German weather because they always replied with something like, "Well, who knows! Maybe this morning it's sunny, maybe this afternoon it snows!" Take their "advice." You should always have a jacket, an umbrella, a scarf, possibly gloves, and rainproof shoes.

Unless you are moving to a region time hasn't touched (which might seem the case but probably isn't), know that most people speak English and they are offended if you ask, "Sorry, sprechen sie Englisch?" Once I made this mistake and the man indignantly bellowed, "Of course I speak English! It is the international language!!!"

If you are American, people know it. I don't know how they know; they just do. You can stop wearing Nikes everywhere, throw your elastic-waisted pants in the garbage, and take off your baseball cap but they will still see you coming from a mile away. Inexplicably, after several months of living here you will also be able to distinguish other Americans in a crowded place before hearing them speak.

Learn to love recycling. Some villages actually weigh your Restmull/Restabfall (everything that can't be recycled/composted) and you can be fined if you go over your allotment. It's easy to get the hang of it. You'll live by your Waste Calendar and your days will be classified as Glass, Paper, Bio, Recycling, and Regular Trash. Before you know it you'll be happily recycling everything from wine bottles to toilet paper rolls. You're such a good German!

Water is served in tiny glass bottles with their own special designer cup, typically at room temperature. Don't ask for tap water unless you want to be forever shunned. The good news is that beer is usually either the same price or cheaper than a dainty little bottle of water. This results in guiltless day drinking.

Ice cubes are nonexistent here. I've read some theories as to why but haven't discovered any concrete reason for ice-less beverages. I suggest you purchase some old-fashioned plastic trays and munch on the nostalgia in the comfort of your own haus.

Carnival is as exciting as you imagine! It's like Mardis Gras and Halloween on steroids. There are endless parades with intricate floats, everyone wears painstakingly-crafted costumes, and all of the candy thrown from the floats is washed down with beer. Lots and lots of beer. There isn't a bad place to participate in the Carnival festivities. In fact, you can attend lots of different celebrations because there are so many villages and each has its own parade. Just be sure to use the right salutation: In and around Koln, it's, "Alaaf!" Almost everywhere else it's, "Helau!"

Driving is an adventure whether cars are whizzing past you on the Autobahn or you're zigzagging around haphazardly-parked cars on a one-way cobblestone street in a quaint village. Always yield to pedestrians and don't hit the cyclists. Don't worry; you'll become accustomed to the whiplash.

Don't leave home without your shopping bag/basket. German grocery stores do have bags available-- for purchase. If you want to avoid buying and amassing lots of oddly-sized plastic bags, just bring your own. And hone your bagging skills because there's no friendly teenager offering paper or plastic. German cashiers are extremely efficient so all of your purchases will already be waiting for you at the end of the conveyor belt while you're clumsily fumbling for money and everyone in line behind you is sighing and glancing at their watches. Move out of the next person's way as fast as possible, even if that means throwing all of your items into your bag, breaking your eggs and crushing your bread, and awkwardly yelling, "Tschus" to the cashier as you run out of the store. Grocery shopping will eventually become less traumatic.

Do you love asparagus? You will during spargel season or you just might starve. Germans are obsessed with white asparagus and as soon as spargel season arrives (usually mid-May), roadside stands pop up and it dominates restaurant menus. Spargel soup. Steamed spargel. Spargel with Hollandaise sauce. And don't forget to peel it. I only made that mistake once but once was all it took.

The most important thing to know before moving here is that you'll become accustomed to everything. As long as you embrace your confusion and learn some common German phrases, people will be receptive. In no time, you'll be zooming down the Autobahn, cycling everywhere, and complaining about the weather like any good German. Viel gluck!

Sunset from our Apartment in Maastricht

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

See ya, Oia!

I took an unintended two-month hiatus from the blog. A lot has happened during the past two months but I'll get to that after I share our April trip to Santorini!

Last year we traveled to Mallorca to escape the never-ending German winter. This year we planned ahead for a sunny getaway in early spring. As we left Germany, snow was still on the ground and it was a dreary, misty day. You can imagine our anticipation to get to the ocean as fast as possible.

Andronis Luxury Suites
We arrived in Santorini at night and a car service from our hotel picked us up at the tiny airport. It was a 40-minute ride to Oia and the friendly driver zipped through narrow roads hugging cliffs hanging over the Aegean Sea. We couldn't see it of course, since it was dark, but he managed to inform us about the steep drops in between answering his cell phone and taking his hands off the wheel to gesticulate animatedly several times. I think we were pretty relieved to not be able to see how close we were to the edge.

Compliments of Andronis
We chose Andronis Luxury Suites for our stay in Oia. It's on the pricey side but we were able to save money because we went very early in the season when prices are lower, and we were also upgraded to a deluxe suite because the hotel wasn't full. The reception was first-class. With our glasses of champagne (Pommery-- how funny since we'd just been to that Champagne house in Reims), we were shown to our beautiful suite and given a complimentary bottle of wine served alongside little tastes from the kitchen. The room was sparse, but tastefully decorated; the circular white walls gave the impression of being in a cave inside a volcano.

The next morning we awoke to a fresh and delectable breakfast. The breakfast served at Andronis is one of its highlights. It's all made-to-order from a diverse selection of everything from eggs-your-way, breakfast meats, local delicacies, and the most scrumptious Greek yogurt served with honey and fresh fruit. Breakfast can be delivered and set up in your room's private balcony or taken outside on a small cliff jutting over the sea. The view from our balcony took our breaths away: panoramic sweeps of the caldera, mountains in the distance, and endless ocean. Sun was sparkling off  soft swells and we couldn't wait to apply sunscreen for the first time in months.

We spent the first glorious day lounging by the infinity pool and strolling through the white, marbled streets of Oia. There are lots of touristy shops (to be expected) and many cafes and restaurants, each with its own commanding view of the landscape.

Since we went so early in the season, some of the top-rated restaurants were still closed. The weather was also a little iffy at times. The days were hot and the nights became a little chilly after sunset. On the final night of our stay there was a terrible windstorm, reminiscent of  tropical storm or hurricane winds in Florida. Evidently this sort of thing does happen in Oia, though not usually in April. But it was no matter to us. We spent our final day inside the hotel reading, relaxing, and enjoying our in-room jacuzzi.

We also made use of the wonderful masseuses in the spa at Andronis and we were able to visit Sigalis Winery to sample the local flavors at an expansive tasting right beside the vineyards.

Tasting at Domaine Sigalis Winery
Oia was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime trip. It wasn't as affordable as we'd expected-- we noticed a big difference in pricing and value between Mallorca and Oia, but it was stunning. The blindingly white walls of the city are a unique contrast to the cerulean Aegean Sea. People are friendly and the cherry tomatoes and other local dishes are delicious. If we had it to do over again, I think we would have chosen to go later in the season. Though it gets extremely crowded then, the water is warmer and all of the restaurants and shops are open and ready to accept visitors.

Our vacation to Oia was incredibly relaxing and indulgent. It was the perfect way to take a break from the cold, dreary days in Germany. The sunshine was just what we needed and the sunsets were breathtaking. We were sad to put away our swimsuits and sandals and replace them with jackets and boots. Hopefully we'll be able to return some day. See ya, Oia!