Friday, June 26, 2015

Prague? Czech.

A great shot for the Czech Lonely Planet Guide blog taken by our new friend Bara.
We left Austria in the rain and arrived in the Czech Republic in the rain. The downpour seemed more ominous there - maybe because our destination of Brno (pronounced Bruno) is a gritty city with a dark history. Why, you ask, would the Nomads visit a city with a name that sounds like the moniker of a pit bull? It has to do with the Lord. Our quest to meet the organizers of The Late Night of Churches throughout Europe resulted in this short side trip on our way to Prague. The event, held in 1,500 churches all across the Czech republic is organized from here. If you read the blog I wrote from  Salzburg last week you'll know more about this event. That meeting is the only reason, and will remain the only reason for this stop. However, as consolation, we were able catch the Eurovision 2015 Finals on TV live from Austria (but that's it's own story).

A damaged photo mural in Brno summarizes the state of the city.
This country has a history of conflict that goes back hundreds of years, including the last century where the Balkan wars, a Nazi occupation and 45 years under Soviet rule brought them to ground zero. Many Czech cities other than Prague, with it's tourist draw and subsequent income are still dealing with outdated infrastructure, dilapidated buildings and a struggling economy. Brno is no exception. When we emerged from the dark underbelly of the train station we met our host Daniel who drove us to his apartment. The drive took us much further from from the center than we expected and ended in a neighborhood crammed with bleak concrete housing blocks. Welcome home! Here's the link:

Brno is a "a study in gray." This was taken next to our front door.
The view from our apartment looking towards abandoned buildings
As it turned out, we weren't that far from the center if you don't mind a 20 minute walk through blighted neighborhoods. Once we reached the main square things looked up a bit. We scoured the tourist office for things to do during our four days here and found a concert by The Ranger's - a popular Czech folk rock group from the 60's! It turned out to be a fun evening and even though we didn't know the words, it was still "groovy". And we got to go "back stage".

We spent a fun evening with these old Rockers.
The information at the Museum of Roma Culture was eye-opening
 Around the corner from our Airbnb we found the Museum of Roma Culture. Not something we would normally sought out, but our afternoon there was moving and very insightful. We had a private tour with a very knowledgeable young man who walked us through the history and current plight of the Roma people. Throughout Europe Roma (or Gypsies) are blamed for most anything crime related, especially pick-pocketing. You find them begging on the streets usually holding babies, and small children dart everywhere trying to sell packs of tissues - and of course they do commit petty crime. It breaks your heart and makes you angry at the same time that these people have been reduced to such a sad state. Unfortunately, they been persecuted for hundreds of years and have lost hope. Efforts to assimilate them seemed half-hearted, and it doesn't look like the children will be all cleaned up and sent to school any time soon. Our takeaway from the guide at the museum was these people have a rich culture and heritage, that they are no longer connected to and have been relegated to the margins of all the European cities where they live. There are organizations that are trying to help but progress is slow.

In most every major city we've visited there have been Roma on the streets.
Our meeting with the Late Night of Churches organizers was the other highlight. We must have spent two hours in the offices of the Catholic Diocese near the imposing Cathedral discussing the event, the state of the Catholic church and life in the Czech Republic. Afterwards we had lunch with our hosts in a convent where the food is prepared and served by a rotating coterie of nuns from around the world. They arrive with their recipes and blend them into the menu as part of their mission to nurture the community through food.

A meeting of the minds between Michael and Zlata at the offices of the Brno Dioceses.
A large and stunning painting of the Good Samaritan at the convent.
We were ready to leave Brno behind and looked forward to a week in Prague. The last time we were there was in 1990. The Berlin wall fell in 1989, but Czechoslovakia had already had a peek from behind the Iron Curtain and had seen the bright lights of freedom. I remember the young tour guide that walked us around the city - he was still twitchy about openly sharing information. Fast forward to last week when we took a kitchy walking tour full of outlandish stories that could have gotten our lively guide arrested and tortured just 25 short years ago!

Amusing baby Alfred while waiting for dinner.
Our Prague Airbnb adventure was one for the record books. In a good way. Our hosts Hana and Lukas own this apartment and live there with their two small children, Lola 4 and baby Alfred, 9 months. They were heading to Grandma's house in the country while we took over their home, but they were intrigued by our story so they invited us to join them for dinner before they left. That's a first! Hana made a delicious goulash. Here's the link:

Goodbye Host family! See you in a week.
We enjoyed a good visit and played with the kids while she cooked. As the evening progressed it got a bit chaotic, as it does with small children nearing their bedtime, and while it was odd to shoo residents out their own front door with a promise to do the dishes! We were happy to finally collapse after a long travel day. The apartment was great, and once again the Nomads scored a great location:

A happy group setting up for some rousing folk dancing under rainy skies.
A less than subtle call for tips on the world famous Charles Bridge.
It was a quick 10 minute bus ride from our front door to old town and the center of Prague. From there, we enjoyed large market squares where you could down a fat sausage and a frosty beer, jostle your way across the Charles Bridge, watch the amazing astronomical clock do it's hourly thing, and breath in the pungent aroma of horse droppings from hundreds of carriages.

Our best day out took in a free three hour walking tour with our most exuberant guide yet - Sarah, a fiery red head from the states. Prague is a city with a complex history, a lot of it brutal, and Sarah used some mean kick-boxing moves to illustrate some of the many battle scenes that took place here. Somehow the city has come through intact, and there is a sense of pride that you can feel in its citizens.

Sara and her puppet. She was an excellent tour guide.
The New York Times article about our travels has peaked the interest of our potential hosts as we inquire about renting their homes (we now include the link on our profile) When we book a property, we often hear back from hosts we sadly declined hoping they can still meet us for coffee to hear about our adventures. This interaction has opened new opportunities to meet people living in the cities we visit and we love it!

Bara and her mother and sister. We had a great time together.
In Prague we met with Bara, a host who couldn't take our booking but wanted to interview us for a blog she writes for the Czech language Lonely Planet blog. It also turned out she and her mother and sister would be exploring the Late Night of Churches so we met them for a drink and then enjoyed a wonderful evening wandering the city together and got to witness the event through their eyes. The perfect end to our stay. Here's a link to the story she wrote: We haven't translated it yet, but if you speak Czech let us know if she got the facts straight!

Could this be Mona Lisa II? Portraiture on the Charles Bridge.
Our next adventures takes us to Budapest! See you there.

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Some Notes on Salzburg

If Mozart had written the soundtrack to the Sound of Music, the Austrian city of Salzburg would be double in size just to accommodate the souvenir shops, tour buses, themed restaurants, umbrella wielding tour guides, throngs of tourists, street performers, and costume shops (yes, you can dress like a composer or a Von Trapp).

Mozart meets the Sound of Music!
As it is, Salzburg's two main tourist attractions are separated by a couple of hundred years, so there is plenty of room for both to be exploited. My favorite Mozart moment was the sign outside an Italian restaurant that stated "If Mozart was alive, he would definitely eat here". He would also love a certain brand of ice-cream, his namesake chocolates, and would probably pick up a few t-shirts. Not sure about the rubber ducks. As for the Sound of Music, one store banner read: "We have Apple Strudel, Mittens, Brown Paper Packages Wrapped in String, Sorry No Kittens". Love it.

I wonder if anybody buys these for how they taste as opposed to the packaging. Yuk!
If you don't need a rubber duck you can buy a squeezy stress ball Mozart.
If you put Amadeus aside for a moment and avoid the hawkers selling Sound of Music bus tours to the hills, which are apparently still very much alive with the above, you'll find a very charming city.

We traveled to Salzburg by train from Verona, Italy. We knew we were in for a solid seven hour journey so we had our Kindles loaded, two newspapers on deck, travel Scrabble close at hand and the snack bag filled to the top. 

Most of the time, however, we were glued to the windows! The journey to Salzburg trumped any Sound of Music Tour. Miles and miles of countryside filled with vineyards, quaint Tyrolean villages and glacier covered peaks whizzed by under sunny skies. Our ride on Austria's OBB line was smooth and efficient, and the train itself was modern and very comfortable (we had a compartment for 6 to ourselves). The complete opposite of our Italian train adventure the day before.

The view from our train window as we head toward the mountains.
We love European train travel. Sure it may take three hours longer to reach your destination by train instead of by plane, but once you factor in arriving at the airport two hours early to check in, suffer multiple security checkpoints, run the gauntlet of duty free shops and join the unhappy herd at the gate, it often ends up being a push. And it's so civilized.

There is so much to see and do at the train station you could spend a day there and not go anywhere!
Train stations in major cities are fascinating. They are vast and noisy, and filled with thousands of travelers from around the world merging under one big vaulted roof. The atmosphere pulses with sounds - trains chuffing into the station, announcements in multiple languages, whistles, and the soft click, click, click of the reader boards steadily updating arrivals and departures, and the steady hum of human voices. It can seem overwhelming as you join the fray, but it is worth it since you don't have to check your bags or chug your water before clearing security, and you can settle in your comfortable seat (and maybe even at your table) and enjoy the world passing by at eye level.  

Fresh off the train and ready for a mile walk to our Airbnb.
We arrived rested and ready in Salzburg. Our hosts were out of town so we needed to collect the keys for our Airbnb from the restaurant on the ground floor of our building. Either Eva or Abraham could help us. We were expecting a Kosher deli, but instead we found two late twenty-somethings with those Biblical monikers doing a brisk business in their very stylish Mexican Cantina called Cabreras  Eva could have been Gleneth Paltrow's younger sister! Abraham is Mexican, thus the theme and the delicious food.They fixed us up with keys, beer, dessert and the wifi code and let us into the apartment above the restaurant.

Abraham and Eva, owners of the Mexican restaurant right below our apartment.
This place was one of the most unique Airbnbs we've lived in yet. It was partially carved into the side of a cliff,  and looked out over the Salzach river that bisects the city. It was large and lovely and filled with old-world charm, a little dark perhaps, but it was basically a cave so that was to be expected. We loved it! Here's the link

The bathroom ceiling carved from solid rock.
There were a couple of other small challenges. One, having 300 year old ceilings carved out of rock meant a light dusting of grit and small stones regularly drifted to the floor, the sink and the toilet seat in the bathroom (the dust buster next to the bathroom door should have been a clue).

Michael washing dishes in a sink the size of a salad bowl.
The kitchen was smaller than the galley we had aboard the sailboat in Le Grazie. There wasn't a washing machine and the wifi was spotty. We must been so taken with the idea of cave-dwelling, we failed to do our usually thorough job of carefully reviewing the photos and the amenities list.

Lucky numbers 8 and 9 at the Green&Clean.
Laundry had built up so Michael headed to a laundromat about a half hour walk away. It was closed (as in never opening again) so he asked for help finding another one at the Tourist Office. He was directed to one a further half hour away called Green&Clean. Now Mr. Campbell knows his way around a laundromat, so he was comfortable with the system where you pay at a terminal and then push buttons to activate the machines you will be using. He did however, need to buy some soap. The dispenser for that didn't really sell anything that said "soap" so he bought "washing additive" and hoped for the best. Later he learned from the owner that soap is added to your wash automatically and you are not to add any more - Probably part of the Green&Clean bio system that keeps people from putting unsavory chemicals into the environment. Fresh, clean laundry made it home and Michael made friends with a "laundrymate" who was a professional Italian violin player in town for a prestigious music festival. You never know who you'll meet on the road.

We actually enjoyed feeling right at home in Starbucks for couple of hours.
So a bit about the wifi. The Internet signal for our apartment had to travel through thick rock walls from the restaurant below and it didn't like that very much so the signal was weak. If Michael and I were traveling for a couple of weeks on vacation this would be annoying, but not a game changer. But in our case, reliable access to the internet is critical as we book future travel, take care of day-to-day business and stay in touch with family and friends. Then there is Michael's voracious news consumption and our desire to catch up on Downton Abbey and Newsroom. We always include wifi in our Airbnb search filters, but actually, looking back we didn't check that box when we booked this place. It didn't list wifi on the features list - so our fault. We limped along and found a Starbucks nearby for doing the most critical tasks. Lesson learned.

We had rain most of the week but it didn't stop us or any other tourists from having a great time!
Once we had our bearings we discovered no matter which direction you headed, within a few minutes walk you'd be experiencing one of the Top 10 Things to Do in Salzburg. And, if you dodged the tour groups you'd find free outdoor concerts, stands offering grilled sausage and frosty beer, fantastic churches and uncrowded squares and gardens. All under the watchful eye of the magnificent Hohensalzburg Fortress on the hill.

Despite the crowds there were plenty of restful corners of the city to enjoy
We had a little business to attend to in Salzburg as well. Michael has been interested in an event we discovered last May in Vienna called The Late Night of Churches. It is an annual event where churches open their doors to the public on a Friday night in May for a free evening of concerts, tours, entertainment and discussion. A sort of "Open House" concept to encourage people to visit churches without pressure. We found out this event takes place in other European cities as well, so as we travel we meet with the event directors when we can. In Salzburg that was Johannes Wiedecke. A strapping young man who organizes this, and another week long event for Salzburg's Catholic Dioceses. He is also talented opera singer and father to an 8 month old girl. We had a great lunch discussing a wide range of topics and learned more about how the event works. Someday, we may bring it to Seattle.

An example of what Late Night of Churches could look like. This was a youth event at the Cathedral.
Our hosts came back to town and we had an enjoyable lunch together. They are really interesting people - they own a small advertising agency and have three children, 16 and 17 year old sons, and a beautiful 10 year old daughter they adopted from Ethiopia. They had just returned from three weeks in Ethiopia where they shared the story of their daughter's adoption as a baby. All three kids are talented musicians (I think it's something in the water here) but the oldest boy, Ferdinand is an exceptional pianist. He is still in high school but he also studies at the Universitat Mozarteum, one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the world and nearly impossible to get in to.

Just one of dozens of concerts available for free at the Mozart Universitat
The students there perform concerts on campus on a daily basis and our hosts invited us to join them for one of their son's performances. They also told us that we'd find dozens of free concerts at the school where the talent is so rich you could be sitting in any concert hall in the world and barely tell the difference. They were right about that! We would have never known about this treasure trove of music without having met our hosts. Almost every time we've spent time with the person that owns the home we are renting we've come away with our best and most unique experiences in that city. And that's what makes Airbnb work.

Not only did we enjoy Ferdinand's performance along with two young girls playing violin and cello, we attended two fabulous opera concerts, and three more string performances all by students ranging from 16 to 25 from all over corners of the world.

A talent scout spotted in the audience.
However, one performance we attended that will not make the "amazing" list was the Salzburg Marionette Theatre's performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute. Puppets performing opera is not a good thing - we would have been better off on the Sound of Music Sing- A-Long tour bus. Another lesson learned.

Great interactive art in the city center. Kids and adults alike loved racing the balls down the stream.
Coming up next our visit to the Czech Republic with a stop in Brno to meet with the Czech Long Night of Churches directors and then on to to Prague. See you there!

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Welcome Aboard the Cinque Terre!

We left the island of Malta with the Cinque Terre in our sights - a special part of Italy that hugs the coastline between Pisa and Genoa and is known as the Italian Riviera. It is a protected national park, and while heavily trod upon by tourists, the region remains much as it was for over a thousand years.

Travel challenges within Europe often include strict weight policies and flying Air Malta was no exception. Their requirements caused us to re-jig our checked luggage to meet a very restrictive
20 kg limit (that's about 44 lbs). That also involved wearing our coats so we could stuff our pockets, and jamming our carry-on bags to their maximum capacity. That made our day packs so heavy they could  easily flip us on our backs with one false step - and made us comical at security. All this was to avoid the fees for overweight luggage which is about $20. per kilo. For reference we usually travel with 23 kg in our checked bags so we could have been out $120. In reality the same kilos were going to be on the plane anyway, so this was just one of the "almost" fun things we deal with as Nomads.

Still in love after just one of many bag packing episodes
Michael is our Chief Travel Planner. I am the Chief Meal Planner. Of course we both hold middle management positions as well, but these two roles are definitely set. As we approach a travel day I plan ahead for what we might eat during the journey. For this particular trip I topped up the snack bag (cookies, nuts, apples, and oranges) and planned on getting pastries and coffee at the airport. The wish list usually includes a Diet Coke for Michael, Gummie Bears for me, bottled water after security clearance and a current English newspaper.

No matter where we are, a newspaper makes a great travel day read.
And then the miracle happened. For the first time in a long time, an airline offered a nice sandwich, a cookie and a choice of soft drink for free! Thanks Air Malta - I felt like we just got bumped to Business Class! More often we are left perusing the laminated menus in the seat pockets that offer overpriced fare you wouldn't buy at a gas station - so this seemed quite civilized. I saved our snacks for dinner - although I could have done without the extra weight in my carry on if I'd known.

Another thing we've learned as Nomads is to embrace public transportation. With a little extra time and patience you can save a lot of money by taking the local bus, tram or underground. The ticket machines usually have a button for English and the process is intuitive.

We landed in Milan and took a city bus from the airport to the central station to catch our train to Parma. It was a clunky old lady of a train but she got us there! We did need a cab for the next leg to our apartment, and since we didn't have Italian SIM cards yet we asked our driver to call our Airbnb host to let her know we were getting close.

Unfortunately, she was stuck in traffic about an hour away. Our driver wasn't happy to leave us standing on the curb with our luggage in this particular part of town, but there was nothing to be done. I left Michael guarding our bags while I scouted the neighborhood for provisions. I found a great little shop run by a Pakistani family who apparently couldn't get enough of Americans. They are very proud of a brother who owns a Dairy Queen in Denver. They wanted to know ALL about Dairy Queen so I amused them with stories of Little League teams swarming the counters after their games, and admitted my husband bee-lined for a Blizzard whenever we passed a DQ - not that I mind a dip cone.

Nuns make heavenly gelato!
A perfectly formed gelato flower.
The second best find was a hole in the wall shop near the cathedral where the gelato was made and sold by nuns - each serving was carefully sculpted into a flower, and of course it was heavenly.

Our apartment was affordable and very comfortable for a two night pit stop. Laura, the owner is an outgoing and creative young women. She moves out when renters move in, so it was definitely one of those "staying at a friends flat" experiences. She left us with breakfast treats, fluffy towels and lots of tips on enjoying Parma. Here's the link to the apartment:

Cheese or new shoes? Cheese!
When in Parma one should buy cheese, ham and olive oil. After all, this is the food capital of Italy.
So of course I bought all of those things and piled them into my already groaning suitcase. The cheese alone weighed a hefty 2.5 lbs - but for  around $12 who could resist the real thing? And now that I was free from airline weight restrictions for the foreseeable future I could binge - but the price to to be paid was hauling a very heavy shopping bag from then on. We ate the ham but we've only made a dent in the cheese and good olive oil goes a long way (literally). I can feel them both lurking in my suitcase. Here's a link to a hilarious commercial for Parmesan cheese that could only be made in Italy:

After two days in Parma we set off by train to Le Spezia and then onwards to our final destination of Le Grazie for a week aboard the Serena IV. Here's the link: The thought of being aboard a sailboat again was almost too good to be true.We looked forward to just relaxing on board with books and games and naps in the sun. And that is just what we did. Except on the days that it rained, but that didn't alter the plan much - and being from Seattle we were right at home. It really did bring back fond memories of being rocked to sleep on our sailboat Butterscotch in Elliot Bay Marina.
The Serena IV. A Custom 42 foot sailboat build in Italy 33 years ago.
The boat was in moored in Le Grazie, a small harbor-side village tucked around the corner from the tourist mecca of Portovenere. And while it was just a ten minute bus ride away, it seemed like worlds apart.

The view back to Le Grazie after a long walk.
We stepped off the bus and were met by our host's father, Carlo. He was an affable ancient mariner who spoke limited English, but like all sailors, we became instant "buoni amici". Without any explanation of where we were going he grabbed our heavy roller bags and headed off at a good clip. We hurried to keep up as he walked briskly through town, through a parking lot and finally down an obscure path flanked by tall stone walls. It was lovely, but we were a little too anxious to appreciate the scenery. The path narrowed to a single lane with encroaching vines and we had yet to glimpse a marina! Finally, after about 15 minutes we popped into a clearing and below us sat a small, sheltered marina with a view back to the village. Perfect.

The marina where we would spend a blissful week on the Serena IV.
Once we got our cumbersome bags safely across the narrow, swaying gang plank we literally did a happy dance! Carlos gave us a walk-through and since most everything was familiar from our years on Butterscotch, he left us with confidence. This was truly a "pinch me" Senior Nomad moment.

One of our best Airbnb front doors yet!
Captain Campbell making up the forward V-berth.
Now that we had our bearings we reversed course and headed back into town with more appreciation for the beautiful walk. We found the essentials - the grocery store, the church and the pub. Most of the village hugs the harbor and there were only a few more shops, a bank, a post office, a pharmacy, a deli and a couple of restaurants. Most everything other than the restaurants closed from 1:00 until 5:00 so we learned to shop early. The harbor itself was filled with a fascinating mix of sailboats and fishing vessels along with a few large yachts. The bustling boat yard had several really big sailboats up on racks for what appeared to be leisurely repair.

The harbor in Le Grazie - plenty of beautiful boats to admire.
Fresh pesto made as you watched! You could smell it down the block.
It was sunny for the first few days until some spring showers arrived. We didn't mind, since we love being hunkered down listening to the rain pounding on the hatches. We ventured out to spend a day in Portovenere - a beautiful city with breathtaking views from the ancient ramparts.

There were fantastic views from just about everywhere in Portovenere.
Looking back towards Le Grezie from Portovenere.
We also spent a day on a boat that ferried tourists to the main towns of the Cinque Terre. Climbing aboard a sightseeing boat with 100 other tourists went against our instincts but we thoroughly enjoyed the ride and meeting travelers from around the world! There seemed to be no rush as we glided along the coastline spotting clusters of ochre colored houses lodged in the cracks of the hillsides and vineyards crisscrossing the terrain like clotheslines. Every now and again we'd spot intrepid hikers walking the trial that links the main villages. From one end to the other takes about 12 hours.

I wish I'd taken this shot one minute earlier when there was a sea of selfie-sticks!
The tour boat pulling up to port - you had about 5 minutes to get on or off!
The houses along the coastline perched precariously on cliffs surrounded by vineyards.
The landscape looks like every postcard you've ever seen from here. Brightly colored houses spill down the hillside to the harbor like colorful children's blocks and the rugged hillsides are green, and the earth tilled to the last inch.

Our boat left from Portovenere and called at: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. You could get off to explore and then catch the next boat in an hour or two and carry on. We made two stops recommended in Rick Steve's video, Vernazza and Monterosso and were not disappointed.

Pulling in to Vernazza for the farmers market.
The view from the cemetery overlooking Vernazza. As final resting places go, this is tops.
After a week, it was time to say good bye to Le Grazie. We headed to Verona for a one night stay before taking the train to Salzburg, Austria. On the day we left, the skies opened and we had heavy rain squalls all day. The weather was so bad in fact, that our train from Parma to to Brescia where we would change trains to Verona, was constantly delayed. Once we realized there were 17 stops and after an hour we'd only managed three of them we knew we wouldn't be making our original connection by a long shot.

Our sad little  train from Parma to Brescia on a much nicer day.
This is where patience, a good attitude and resilience comes in. There was nothing to be done - and it was likely we wouldn't find another train to Verona where we'd book a night at a B&B so Michael began furiously working on plan B. Some very nice young Italian girls sitting across from us pulled out their cell phones and helped to find a solution. In the end we found one last train to Verona and caught it in the nick of time.

We dragged our bags the half mile to our B&B and arrived wet, tired and hungry. The owner had waited for us and seeing our state, graciously drove us to a nearby restaurant on her way home. The next morning the skies were clear and the sun was out so we sat outside and enjoyed a very nice breakfast in the courtyard. It was like the day before never happened!

Refreshed and ready for the train to Salzburg.

 It's always hard to leave Italy, but we were looking forward to our next destination - Salzburg, Austria. We'll see you there.

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads