Archive for July, 2014

July 22, 2014

Quarter Life Sabbatical, Part III: Austria & Italy 1.0

After our time in England and Wales (which you can read about here), my mom and I flew to Austria. And thus began the start of our trip when we really felt like foreigners, in a country neither of us had been before and unable to speak the language. Try as I might over the course of our three-day stay, I just couldn’t get the hang of German.

At the top of "The Homecoming" above Waldhausen, Austria.

At the top of “The Homecoming” above Waldhausen, Austria.

I learned a few important words, though. Ready? Hallo, bier, ice, salat, kaffe, super and danke schoen (thank you very much). Luckily, “WC” (water closet) or toilet/toilette seems to be the universal phrase for bathroom, so all the bases are covered.

The only semi-sentence I’m able to string together is “an der schönen blauen Donau,” which means “on the beautiful blue Danube.” It is the actual name for the “Danube Waltz” by Austrian composer Johann Strauss II, which happened to be the song I played on the piano at Basildon Park in England a few days earlier. The Danube winds beautifully through Austria, and seeing it in person now brings new meaning to the song.

Burg Clam, a castle where we listened to Bob Dylan perform.

Burg Clam, a castle near Waldhausen, and where we attended a Bob Dylan concert.

We stayed in a village called Waldhausen, located about 1 hour from Vienna and the home to my mom’s cousin’s wife’s family (follow that?). Our arrival day was also a 70th birthday celebration, so we met many family and friends right away. Unfortunately, the language barrier kept us from talking as much as we’d like to, but it was interesting to be a part of Austrian culture.

After a barbecue of meats, cheeses and vegetables, accompanied with salads and sauerkrats, we sampled many kinds of homemade cakes and schnapps — traditional liqueurs made from fruits or nuts. Later in the evening, the older generations circled around a table and sang Austrian folk songs. Again, it would have been nice to understand all the words, but I appreciated observing the tradition. Afterward, the tables in the garage were cleared to make room for a dance floor and the younger crowd (myself included) boogied to some multicultural beats — from Journey and Jason Derulo to the latest French pop.

To add to the mix of culture, the next day we attended a Bob Dylan concert at Burg Clam, a castle near Waldenhausen. A bit ironic, yes. The venue was spectacular — even, unfortunately, in the rain. And as for Mr. Dylan, if my mom and I, as native English speakers, had difficulty understanding him at times, the Austrians must have really had it tough. Aside from sounding a bit croaky, I think the music legend gets kudos for being up on stage still doing what he loves.

Fields of sunflowers flanking the highway on our drive through Italy.

Fields of sunflowers flanking the highway on our drive through Italy.

Prior to the concert, we drove to Dürnstein, a wine region with terraced vineyards on the hillside that slope down into the Danube. Austria’s green scenery reminds me of Oregon. Both places share similar economic drivers in timber export and wine production, too. Austria might take the lead for the most well-manicured place I’ve ever been, though — even the hay fields look like they’ve been combed with precision. It’s not as much of a holiday destination for Europeans as it used to be, but the homes, yards and guesthouses are kept like they could take in visitors at any moment. And it’s affordable, too. I’ll be back to this gem, as long as I travel with someone who can speak German.

Road trip to  Italy
After our short stay in Waldhausen, we began our road trip to Italy with my mom’s cousin Daniel and his wife, Ida. To further confirm my thoughts about Austria’s pristine existence, we pulled into a beautiful rest stop — yes, a beautiful rest stop — just before the Austrian/Italian border. We enjoyed a restaurant meal with fresh salad bar offerings and orchids in the bathroom. This was a far cry from the rest stop in the desert between Arizona and California, which my family avoids unless absolutely necessary, as we’ve deemed it the “fly stop” (use your imagination) and we know we don’t need anything from the vending machine.

A beautiful and delicious caprese salad in Modena. A.k.a., what I'd like to call the leaning tower of cheese-a.

A beautiful and delicious caprese salad in Modena. A.k.a., what I’d like to call the leaning tower of cheese-a.

We crossed into Italy via a highway that twisted alongside the Dolomites — rugged mountains where battles waged between Austrians and Italians during World War I. As we traveled closer to the Mediterranean, the terraced vineyards continued, but the architecture of homes embedded in the hills changed into colorful stucco and terracotta roofs. And then the signs of a less prosperous country began to show, as the road maintenance slacked and rest stops weren’t as glamorous.

We spent our first Italian night in Modena, home of balsamic vinegar, parmigianno romano and proscuttio. Navigating the roads to find a hotel required a bit of effort as now all of us were in new territory and none of us speak the native tongue. After checking in, we went on a stroll in search of dinner and stumbled upon a top-notch restaurant in an old town square. And thus begins the indulgence of delicious Italian food.

Our three-course meal started with Modena’s customary piece of fried parmesan topped with a droplet of balsamico. Our caprese salad looked like the leaning tower of cheese-a, designed with layers of sun-dried tomato and basil blanketed between slices of mozzerella. My main course was traditional ravioli with a parmesan cream sauce, ricotta and ham. Our dessert choice of tiramisu was disappointing actually; I’ve had better in the states. It was presented beautifully, though, another layered tower.

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Human statues posing near the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Human statues posing near the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The next day, we continued south toward Naples, with a stop in Pisa to see the leaning tower. What I liked most was all the people posing for the must-have photo of propping up the tower. Take away the tower and you’d have a field of human statues, smiling in a frozen martial arts pose. I had to do it too, of course. For lunch, we had pizza on a patio with the tower behind us. Pizza at Pisa.

Rome  to Naples
Arriving in Rome, you’re greeted with the contrast of apartment complexes smashed against asphalt streets and cars parked alongside ancient stone walls that once circled the city. We arrived in time for dinner and took the hotel concierge’s recommendation to taxi to a plaza with numerous restaurant options and street entertainment.

The taxi ride is more important to discuss than food in this chapter. Our driver, who we nicknamed Mario Andretti by the end of our 12.1 minutes with him, raced us back to the hotel like we were in a high-speed chase. There seem to be few rules to the road here, and even fewer if you’re on a scooter. While dodging scooters and buses, car drivers must also look out for pedestrians, who seem to take the right of way, whether they’ve looked both ways before crossing or not. A few days after Rome, we discovered this dodge-the-bullet road game was also the case even on narrow mountain roads along the Amalfi Coast.

The next morning in Rome, we took ourselves on a quick tour of the Colessuem, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Trevi Fountain (which unfortunately is under construction and drained of all water). It’s incredible to walk on pavement that criss-crosses through, around and over what used to be the center of the world.

Continuing to Naples the following day, we continued our history lesson by visiting Pompei. It’s another incredible experience to walk through what used to be a bustling city center, now uncovered from Mt. Vesuvius’ volcanic ash. Grooves from carts are still visible in the streets and detailed mosaics, paintings and sculptures adorn interior walls. To withstand such a test of time, the precision and durability of construction is impressive. Much of today’s modern construction probably isn’t built to such standards!

The bit of Naples that we saw leaves a bit to be desired, but we did enjoy a nice dinner by the harbor. We were the first at dinner around 6 p.m., but by 9 p.m. (because dinner can take up to 3 hours, easily), the atmosphere was bustling. On the restaurant patio, we had front row seats to watch the locals saunter by in their trendy Italian fashion. It’s a different style and pace of life here — a bit romantic and carefree.image

Next to come in Italy 2.0 is sailing the Amalfi Coast, Tuscany, Cinque Terre and Venice.