Across the lake and up the mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lake Maggiore, Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luzern, Switzerland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off to Italy …

Steaming in Stuttgart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driving the Mosel Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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