Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Graveyards and Gardens: Monday in Copenhagen

My sister is spending part of her summer in Europe and I was very happy and excited for her to visit me in Maastricht for a couple of weeks. She chose a great time to come! I almost don't even want to say this aloud because I'm afraid of jinxing it, but the weather has been perfect lately. Dare I say, it's even HOT here. It's not that the temperatures have soared higher than they do in Florida, but air conditioning is a rare commodity so it makes the heat feel stronger when there's hardly any reprieve. I'm not complaining though; I'd much rather be hot than cold and I'm soaking up the Vitamin D as much as possible because I know the long, sunny days are ephemeral.

After my sister's two-week stay in Maastricht, she returned to Copenhagen to be with her boyfriend. I decided to tag along for a few days!

It was a quick (and cheap) plane ride from Eindhoven to Copenhagen. Thank goodness the ticket price was fair because everything else in Copenhagen is extremely expensive! I'm so grateful I was able to benefit from a complimentary stay at someone's apartment rather than having to pay the exorbitant price for a hotel. Even groceries are over-priced in Copenhagen! I was constantly comparing the Danish Krone to the Euro, and then to the U.S. Dollar. It really blew my mind. So my first piece of advice when traveling to Copenhagen: Find a Danish friend and crash at their place.

Lots of areas in the city's center are currently under construction or renovation. I didn't find this too surprising because it seems like bulldozers and cranes always pop up in Europe during the summer. I suppose it's the most logical time for that type of work since the weather is (hopefully) a little nicer and more reliable than during fall and winter. My sister's boyfriend did tell me that there are always lots of projects going on in Copenhagen, very frequently lasting years before completion. It certainly keeps people employed, and that's always a good thing.

We began my Copenhagen tour with Hans Christian Andersen, of course. His final resting site is Assistens Cemetery. It's a beautiful, peaceful place serving not only as a final earthly destination, but also a gathering spot for students, joggers, and young parents with their babies.

Hans' grave was flanked by literary worshipers so I only took a few snapshots and we moved on to other famous residents.

Hans Christian Andersen's Grave

Before my visit to Copenhagen, I had no idea Niels Bohr was Danish. I was never very good at math and science but my 11th grade Chemistry teacher was obsessed with Niels Bohr and his atomic model. I certainly don't remember how to balance a chemical equation but I'll never forget that man's name because it was always the answer to at least one question on each exam. I paid my respects to Niels and wondered whether my teacher had ever made it to his grave. Just in case, I thanked Neils on Mr. Veal's behalf.

Niels Bohr's Grave
Next up was Soren Kierkegaard. He was a Danish philosopher known as the "father of existentialism."

Soren Kierkegaard's Plot

It was interesting to see resting places of the famous but one of my favorite sights at Assistens Kirkegard was all of the living, breathing people enjoying a serene space in the bustling city. Among the headstones and Hans-seekers, there were sun worshipers, picnickers, and, as previously mentioned, young families.

It isn't uncommon to see young mothers gathered to gossip while cradling their babies but I was really surprised to see so many fathers. I supposed the Danish are pretty progressive when it comes to co-parenting. Three dads in particular really stand out to me. They were very trendy, sporting neon sneakers and chic haircuts. They took up the whole pathway, walking side-by-side. We stayed behind them for a while because we were so amused. At one point they came across another hip dad and asked him to take a photograph of all of them. Maybe things like that happen regularly in America but I've never seen it.

The rest of the day passed quickly and before we knew it the evening was upon us. We went for a pre-dinner drink at Ruby Cocktail Bar. Its location is inside an old apartment building and the bar boasts an affluent neighbor: the Embassy of Georgia. The cocktail list is inventive and the staff are friendly and attentive. I enjoyed the "Jack Sparrow," a concoction of cachaca, Wray, and rum with pineapple and lime juice, and ginger beer. It was delicious-- thank goodness because that one cocktail came with a price tag of $20 USD. Steep!

Dinner that evening was at Namnam, a Singapore eatery with an imaginative and mostly affordable menu. The restaurant has only been open for a little over a year but it was crowded even on a Monday night.

An exciting thing happened while we were dining. The table next to us was a group of 8 or 10 people. They were laughing boisterously and having a grand time. At one point we heard one of their party say, "I really miss Georgia!" Even though we were just in close proximity to the Embassy of Georgia (the country), I know this man, with a slight southern drawl and American exuberance, was speaking of the Peach State. My sister and me were intrigued, but just for a moment. After all, it isn't uncommon for Americans to visit Copenhagen. We joked that we should try to initiate conversation with the table by shouting, "Go Dawgs!" At this suggestion, I saw a flicker of uncertainty pass through my sister's boyfriend's eyes. We never did make contact with the table but, as it turns out, we regretted it.

As soon as the party left, my sister's boyfriend (let's just call him Anton), turned to us and said, "Do you know who that was, sitting at that table?"
"The American guy?" we asked.
"No, no, the other one. The one with white-blonde hair," Anton breathlessly replied.
"I didn't notice anyone with white-blonde hair," I said. My sister concurred.
"Well, for your information, that was Peter Schmeichel."

This was met with blank looks from us. Anton continued, "Peter Schmeichel! You don't know who that is?! He's a very famous soccer player, not just in Denmark but in all of Europe. If you said his name anywhere in Europe, people would know who he is!"
"Really?!" my sister exclaimed. "He's like Pele?"
"Or David Beckham?" I asked.
Anton was becoming more and more flummoxed. "He's Peter Schmeichel! He doesn't need to be Pele or David Beckham!"

By now, of course, my sister and me were wondering why Anton didn't approach Peter for an autograph.

"You don't understand," Anton explained. "Denmark is a small country so it isn't uncommon to see celebrities often, especially in Copenhagen. I'm sure he didn't want to be bothered."

We looked at each other incredulously and said, "So what! He would've loved to talk to us! And there was even a guy from Georgia sitting with him so we definitely had an in. Why didn't you let us say something?!"

This whole conversation happened within a minute and I looked outside to see Peter standing on the sidewalk, saying a long goodbye to his dinner partners.

"Anton," I anxiously whispered, "He's still outside. Do you want me to go out there? Because I'll go out there right now and get his autograph for you."
"No!" he cried, terrified, "I don't want his autograph! I don't want to bother him! This is exactly why I didn't tell you two!"

I was really just teasing anyway. It isn't like I really would have ran outside and jumped on the ivory-haired football player. I mean, I didn't even know who he was until just that moment. I just found Anton's fear of embarrassment amusing but I admit it would have been nice to share a photo of Peter with you. If you're a soccer fan, I'm sure you care about him very much. And now you know that he hangs out with American southerners and enjoys Singaporean food. You're welcome.

After the excitement of Peter Schmeichel died down, we ended the night at Tivoli Gardens, the world's second oldest amusement park. I'm really glad we saw it in the evening; the darkness made it all the more magical. It was like a cross between Willy Wonka's Chocolate Room and a more mysterious Disney World.

We were there just in time for the light show, which the admissions agent charmingly referred to as a "lightning show." It was a beautiful waterworks display set to a soundtrack of musical theatrics. Thousands of lanterns and fog machines cast an eerie glow throughout the park. The scene was made even more dramatic by gusts of strong wind blowing the illuminated water every which way.

Tivoli was whimsical. Walking through was like stepping back in time. It was nice to go with Anton since he has fond memories of going there with his family when he was a boy.

From a graveyard to a garden, my first day in Copenhagen was unique! The fun continued for two more days. Next I'll take you to the palace, on a boat tour, and to Christiania. But don't get your hopes up too much-- we never did run into Peter Schmeichel again, much to Anton's relief.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Welcome, Summer! And Andre Rieu!

It's an exciting time to be living in Maastricht! The weather has been gorgeous the past few days, reminiscent of summer in Florida even. The streets are filled with tourists and everyone is wearing summer dresses, flip flops, and shorts. All of the sidewalk cafes are filled and the entire city feels like it's on vacation-- relaxed, lazy afternoons whiled away on blankets in the park, and couples and families eating waffle cones overflowing with gelato. This is exactly how I imagined Europe before we moved here.

Maastricht is in the running for the European Capital of Culture. Several other cities in the region are participating in this "Summer of Culture" and the winning city will be announced in 2018. With its rich selection of museums, galleries, restaurants, and festivals, Maastricht is a tough opponent. There is always something happening here! I frequently hear the sounds of marching bands wafting up to my windows from the Vrijthof. All sorts of street musicians provide a soundtrack in the cobblestone streets. It's not uncommon to pass a folk singer and then a few steps later, a classical violinist. Speaking of violins, Andre Rieu is in town.

Rieu is Maastricht's rock star. He's a violinist, conductor, and composer from Maastricht. Every summer he brings his orchestra back home from their worldwide tour to play concerts in the Vrijthof. The Vrijthof concerts are his most popular and people come from everywhere to hear him play in his hometown, against the enchanting backdrop of the "twin churches," Sint-Servaas Basiliek and Sint-Janskerk.

I don't have tickets this year but I do have a bird's eye view of the rear of the stage. I can hear the music clearly and I feel so lucky to be able to enjoy the concerts gratis from the comfort of my own apartment. I know a few people who have gone this year and they say much of the concert is devoted to the celebration of the coronation of newly-crowned King Willem-Alexander. His beautiful wife, Queen Maxima, is Argentinian. A resounding edition of "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" is a staple at each concert. By now, I've heard it five times and I still think it's amazing.

Each concert ends with a spectacular fireworks show and then all of the concertgoers file out of the Vrijthof, quietly and obediently. The stadium lights go out and the streamers and confetti are swept from the streets before the next morning's hustle and bustle begins. We still have next weekend before the stage is removed and the Vrijthof goes back to being the Vrijthof. I'll be sad to see it all go. My weekend dinners will be much less exciting without the sounds of a live orchestra, and a fireworks show to send me off to bed.

Though Andre and his orchestra are packing up soon, Maastricht's Summer of Culture is just beginning. Forecasters are predicting a warm and sunny July and I've brought all of my sandals, dresses, and sunscreen out from storage. It came late this year but I'm glad it's finally happened-- Welcome, summer!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Hello, George? It's my birthday."

The weather was beautiful for our final day in Italy. We decided to take the long ferry from Como to Bellagio, "the pearl of Lake Como." The journey is a pleasant two-hour meander past charming Italian villages perched along the edges of the lake, flanked by mountains.

Villa d'Este
We shared the ferry with lots of other tourists, mostly Australians, Canadians, and other Americans. Some passengers purchased headphones so they could listen in to commentary about the villages and scenery we were passing. Villa d'Este was the first landmark of note. Its majestic facade appeared before us in the tiny town of Cernobbio. Villa d'Este was built in 1568 and continued, for many years, to be embellished in the Renaissance style. It's been operated as a luxury hotel since 1873 and its guest roster boasts many famous names including Mark Twain, Madonna, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Ralph Lauren, and Aristotle Onassis. It was also a vacation destination for the Prince of Wales and his American sweetheart (and the woman for whom he'd abdicate the throne),
Wallis Simpson.

Villa Fontanelle
Moltrasio is the next village on the route. One of its most notable residences is Villa Fontanelle, former home of Gianni Versace. It was built in 1800 and sold to the Versace family in the 1980's. Madonna was a regular summer guest, and the villa served as the location for Jennifer Lopez's 2001 wedding. Today Villa Fontanelle is owned by a wealthy Russian restaurateur.

Since we didn't have the headphones, we were relying on others to tell us about the sights we were passing. Luckily, a family of four from Minnesota or Wisconsin or some other friendly midwestern state, excitedly relayed everything. We gradually came to realize that we all took the slow ferry for the same reason: George Clooney. From the beginning, before we even pulled out of the dock at Como, some middle-aged women behind us were daydreaming about the possibility of seeing him.

"Do you think he'll be home, Shirley?"
"Well, I don't know. It's summer time and this is where I'd be if I had a villa in Italy. I'm sure the chances are good, Evelyn."
"I can't wait to meet him!!"

I freely admit that I had my camera poised and ready to capture George at Villa Oleandra. Perhaps his girlfriend and maybe even his good friends Cindy Crawford and Brad Pitt would be sipping wine with him on a veranda. They would wave happily at our ferry, filled with throngs of tourists snapping photos like paparazzi. And then, miraculously, George would signal to me. He would hold up a sign reading, "I know it's your birthday! We're having a party for you! Please, come over!" And I would jump off the ferry and swim across Lake Como gracefully, like Esther Williams. George, Cindy, and Brad would pull me up from the water and envelop me in a luxurious robe with my initials stitched onto the front. Then they would give me presents and we would have dinner at Villa d'Este.

I'm not crazy like all the other women on the ferry; I didn't put too much thought into a chance meeting with George.

Villa de Clooney
I had been snapping photos of every large and semi-large villa we passed, thinking it must be his. I thought Versace's house and a few other estates along the way might be it. I should have known that there would be no doubts when it actually happened. We were sailing along smoothly when all of a sudden the headphone-wearing female passengers collectively gasped and ran to one side of the ferry. The boat rocked precariously as the horde of women took hundreds of photos and waved excitedly at the villa. The American teenage girl we were sitting behind turned to us and breathlessly said, "The guide just said that if his boat is docked outside, it means he's either here or on his way! Eeeeeek!" And I freely admit that I "eeeked" with her and ran over to the side facing his house so he could see my birthday face.

Alas, we never saw George. I think some of the women convinced themselves that he was home but maybe he was just in the shower or grocery store. Otherwise he surely would've invited a gaggle of Canadian, American, Australian, and various European admirers into his estate. It's amazing how far-reaching his celebrity is.

Next up was Villa La Cassinella in Lenno. It's the property of Virgin mogul Sir Richard Branson and reportedly rents for a cool 80,000 Euros per WEEK. But it comes with all the fancy trimmings one would expect for that price tag: a chef, concierge, English-trained butler, a hidden infinity pool, and state-of-the-art cinema. I'm considering staying there next time, if George & Co. are out of town of course.
Villa La Cassinella
The James Bond Villa, or Villa La Gaeta, lorded over us next in San Siro. Casino Royale was filmed here in 2006. The Bond lifestyle can be yours-- luxurious apartments inside the villa are available for rent.

One of my favorite properties was the Grand Hotel Tremezzo in Tremezzo. It's a 5-star property dating back to the early 1900's. Meticulously-landscaped gardens surround the palace and the lake views must be stunning. I'd love to take a dip in the floating pool!

Grand Hotel Tremezzo

After the architecture-overload, we finally arrived in Bellagio. We had several hours to spend in town before catching another ferry back to Como. It was already after noon and we were starving, so we decided to find a good place for lunch. We walked away from the tourist-lined streets and vendors selling postcards and ended up on a charming side street. As we made our way up the cobbled steps, a low-hanging wooden sign caught our attention. We glanced inside Enoteca Cava Turacciolo and immediately decided we'd found our spot.

It felt as if we were walking into a private wine cellar. The damp air smelled ancient but the dark atmosphere was lit by glowing candles and festooned with fresh flowers-- cozy and welcoming. Another reason we decided to stay was the boisterous laughter emanating from a room deep in the cellar. A large party was having a wine tasting and also, from the sounds of their mirth, the time of their lives. We sat down at a high-top for two near the entrance and were immediately waited on by a friendly woman. We decided to have a tasting of 3 reds and 3 whites, along with some champagne to start. We paired it with local cheeses, pastas, and olives.

It became evident to us that the large party in the back was a whole bunch of Americans. It sounded like they hailed from Oklahoma or Texas, based upon their accents and figures of speech. Their laughter was our soundtrack as we sipped and nibbled and, I must say, it was nice to hear my fellow countrymen having such a grand time. It reminded me of some of the positive attributes of Americans. I think (very generally, of course), we are friendly, open, inviting, welcoming, and yes- loud. But sometimes noise is appropriate, especially if it's happy noise. And the owners of the cellar were also very happy because every single American in that group spent several minutes choosing wines to be shipped all the way back to the states. It was a win-win for everyone.

Bellagio is a small resort so we kept running into them after we'd all left Enoteca Cava Turacciolo. We heard them before we saw them, their voices always animated and cheerful with lots of, "Ooooooh! Did y'all see that?!" and, "Wow, I ain't never seen a place like this in my life!" They reminded me of home, and made me miss it.

We spent a long time at the wine tasting so we ended the last hour in Bellagio with a walk around the waterfront. We cooled down with some tasty gelato as we watched ferries and boats come in and out of the harbor. The highlight of our harbor-watching was seeing a bride and groom in a taxi-boat on the way to Varenna.

We took the fast ferry back to Como. It cut the travel time down to 40 minutes so we were there in time for dinner. The concierge at our hotel recommended a restaurant close by called The Market Place. We didn't have reservations but the staff found a spot for us in the small dining room. The kitchen was open and we watched the chef carefully and lovingly prepare and inspect each dish before it went out to patrons. We chose the 50 Euros tasting menu, paired with international and Italian wines. It was amazing! The dishes were original and inventive. The lasagnette with potato and leeks was particularly delicious. All of the staff were incredible and it was a great value. All in all, a remarkable meal and one of my favorites in recent memory.

I was sad to leave the sunny shores of Lake Como. The wine, food, sights, and people made for an unforgettable vacation and birthday. Though we didn't meet George Clooney, running into all of the Americans in Bellagio was just as exciting. Who needs George and James Bond when you're already in a dream world of inexpensive wine, creamy gelato, delectable pasta, mountains, a deep blue lake, and sunny skies.

Molte grazie, Lake Como! And give my regards to George.