Friday, December 14, 2012

Berlin & back home

My whirlwind adventures have come to an end, and I’m back in Canada, trying to re-organize my life. But, for a bit of closure, I thought I’d do a last posting about my final week, in Germany. I was lucky enough to visit with an old friend, James, who works in the city of Mannheim, near Heidelberg. I appreciated his amazing hospitality and the chance to meet lots of his friends and co-workers. We also did a trip up to Berlin together, which stands as one of the highlights of my whole trip.
James & I on the terrace and Heidelberg castle, overlooking the city.
In both Mannheim and Berlin, the effects of the Second World War are evident in many ways. In particular, the architecture is much more modern than anywhere else that I visited in Europe – for the very unfortunate reason of almost-total destruction during the war. In Berlin, there has been significant reconstruction after German re-unification, to join together the two halves of the city and to modernize infrastructure. James and I visited a couple of museums and did a walking tour to learn about life in the divided city during the Cold War. We heard recordings of poignant stories of escape attempts and divided families; the train station Fredrichstrausse was known as the “Palace of Tears” because it was the main site where family members and friends said goodbye when West Germans returned to West Germany after short visits to the East, and where some East Berliners said their final good-byes to their homeland.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe -- in central Berlin

At the site of the former Berlin Wall -- the bricks in the street trace the former route of the Wall

One of the fantastic holiday decorations in Berlin - this is in the ritzy shopping area in Charlotteburg district

A trip to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, just north of Berlin, was one of the most memorable parts of my time in Germany, although it was obviously not a joyful place to visit. James and I discussed how it was appropriate to visit on a cold snowy day, as we were shivering despite multiple layers of warm clothing. It was all too clear how the imprisoned people would suffer from illnesses brought on by the cold, given that they had inadequate clothing and that there was absolutely no insulation in the barracks that we visited – the buildings where the Jewish prisoners were kept. The temperature inside the wood-framed buildings was exactly the same as the temperature outside -- very cold and damp. It was a haunting place to see, but I would recommend the experience to everyone. It left me with a lot to think about.

The cell at Sacherhausen concentration camp where Pastor Martin Neimoller was held because of his criticisms of Hitler and the Nazis.

On a happier note, a highlight of my time in Germany was visiting a number of Christmas markets. This seems to be a major tradition across the country. There are stalls selling gifts, including handicrafts and Christmas cakes, but the main focus was the food and drink. There is mulled wine to enjoy, along with all sorts of seasonal food. My favourite treat was “langos”, a type of Turkish fried flatbread loaded with toppings, but there are lots of sausages, sweets and potato-based treats. I was impressed, as well, that the wine is served in ceramic mugs – you pay a deposit of $2 per mug, so people have an incentive to return the mug, preventing any waste or littering. Impressive!
The market in Mannheim
  After three months away, I’m still re-adjusting to “normal” life back in Canada. I do miss the excitement of every day bringing something completely new or different. On the other hand, it has been wonderful to see friends and family. Also, the kindness and politeness of Canadians has contributed to a comforting return home. What is considered “polite” is, of course, culturally specific, but I really do think that Canadians are particularly considerate towards strangers – although I did meet many kind people while I was travelling. Still, in the few days since my return to Canada, I’ve been struck by the number of times people have opened doors for me and the friendly communication between passers-by, other pedestrians and also drivers.
On the other hand, the ugliness of suburban landscapes hit me hard while driving to all ends of Barrie to complete a long list of errands. I love many aspects of life in Barrie, but the aesthetics of parking lots and mini-malls do not top my list of local highlights! 
In any case, thanks for those who’ve read and commented on my postings, and hope to see you soon. Happy holidays until then!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Alpine views

I'm spending a week in the village of Landry, France -- near to Bourg St-Maurice, not far from the border from Italy.

It's off-season here, with ski season set to get underway mid-December. So I won't be experiencing skiing in the Alps -- I don't think my "ski legs" are quite in shape to appreciate the slopes anyway.

Still, there are beautiful views I've been appreciating on walks around the area. The most amazing thing is the clear, slightly turquoise colour of the streams -- flowing down from glaciers, I imagine.
And in nearby Bourg St-Maurice, there is an international canoe & kayak training centre, with markers set up hanging over the rapids.

If you look closely you can see vertical lines in the river -- they are poles suspended from wires over the river, for canoe & kayak training

Bourg St-Maurice -- a larger tourist centre in the area, complete with a farmers' market on the day I visited -- see the delicious cheese stand below!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Florence & Cinque Terre

I am closing in on the home stretch of my travels, with just a bit more than two weeks left before I return to Canada. And I am nearing the end of my time in Italy, as I decided to slip back into France for a week in the Alps, before meeting up with an old friend in Germany. It makes me a bit sad to think of leaving Italy, since I managed to actually pick up some basic comprehension and basic vocabulary in just a few weeks, and because there are so many beautiful places I have not yet visited. But my last few days have been fantastic, so I feel that I will end this part of my trip on a high note.

I spent a few days in Florence, which has such a world-renown reputation that I thought it might be hard for the city to live up to its fame. However, I was blessed with two mild sunny days there, so exploring the streets was lovely. The warm colours of the city seemed to glow in a special light. A cynical side of me acknowledges that the warm glow might be due to smog hanging over the city. Or perhaps not. In any case, there just seems to be this lovely quality to the light. Climbing the 463 stairs to the dome at Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, better known as the Duomo, was 100% worth it for the panoramic view over the city.

For the last couple of days, I have been exploring the villages of Cinque Terre along the northwestern coast of Italy. I have been interested in coming here for several years now, and I am so glad that I finally made it here! I would recommend it to anyone you likes to be outside -- and it's very nice in the "off" season now, as there aren't too many other tourists crowding up the villages (hypocritical, I know, to complaint about tourists!)  I have had a couple of great days of hiking in the area, even though most of the main coastal trail has not been accessible. I will let the pictures do the talking, although the photographs do not quite do justice to the beautiful scenery here, with a series of villages perched between the Mediterranean Sea and the steep rocky coastline.
The view along the trail I hiked on today.

In Manarola, the village where I have been staying.

The marina in Vernazza

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Kiwis & olives, oh my!

For the last week, I’ve been staying in a village about 50km north of Rome, helping an organic farmer with the harvest of kiwis & olives. I didn’t know what to expect on my first day of harvesting kiwis, but it was quite easy and comfortable. The kiwis are trained onto metal lattices and hang just about at eye level for me. At times, I felt like I was looking at a sea of potatoes floating around my head. Of course, once you cut them open, there is no resemblance to a potato – beautiful green colour, and such sweetness. We loaded up 185 crates of kiwis on Tuesday, with most going to supply school canteens in Rome. Apparently, many European countries have a policy mandating organic produce in schools!


We started the olive harvest yesterday; it’s a bit more challenging than picking kiwis, in that there is a lot of coordination needed between the team of people working together. We spread large nets out between the trees and then one person – normally the main farmer, and today, an employee -- runs a large machine attached to their tractor, hitting the tree branches to shake the olives out of the trees. Once the process gets going, the goal is to keep moving so that the gatherers – four of us today --  gather the olives from the nets into bins and then run to place the nets beside the next trees down the line so the nets are in place when the machine arrives at each tree. It took me a while to understand the instructions for how to properly lay out the nets – my Italian vocabulary is pretty limited – but I figured it out eventually, between watching and seizing a few key words.


In the evenings, I’ve been learning a bit of Italian and eating delicious meals. On Sunday, I enjoyed a meal of home-made spaghetti that the grandmother of the house, Rosa, made that afternoon. I “helped” a tiny bit, but the technique of rolling the dough obviously requires some practice to perfect and she was none-too-impressed with my efforts! Along with our pasta, as well as meat and vegetables, we had homemade wine that my host, Pompilio, prepares each year with his own grapes. The family’s self-sufficiency is impressive, from wine to vegetables to the eggs produced by hens that are housed in pens just down the hill. Rosa also made home-made gnocchi the other day and last night, we roasted chestnuts in their fireplace. Delicious!
Rosa, our 80-year-old host, is becoming a legend among the family’s volunteers. Not only does she work all day long beside us in the fields but she prepares meals and seems to have more energy than me and the other young-ish volunteers. Today, Rosa drove the big tractor around the field while we gathered the bins of olives. She was the first woman in this region to get her license to drive a tractor. She’s quite an inspiration!

View from the village



Sunday, October 28, 2012

Spanish Hallowe'en & when the sheep took over Madrid


Since my last post, my main adventure has been spending six days as part of a group of 12 anglophones from various places and 12 Spanish business people, at an isolated conference centre in the province of Soria. As "anglos" we were there to participate in lots of one-on-one chats and group activities to help our Spanish counterparts practice their English. It was an opportunity to meet lots of interesting people, although some days I felt all talked out!  But I got room & board for free for the week, just for talking, so it was a pretty good deal! (See VaughanTown online for more info). The highlight of the week for me was our final night's party, with a Hallowe'en theme! I'm always up for a party, but this was an extra-good surprise, since I thought I'd be missing out on Hallowe'en this year.

This past weekend, I've been exploring Madrid a little bit -- although I hit a bit of a mid-trip slump and was glad to relax at my cozy hostel, rather than going "full on" as a tourist. An unexpected highlight today was encountering a pair of Spanish shepherds who had stayed at the hostel, and then watching another livestock parade (about my fourth this fall!). I was a bit surprised when I saw two gentlemen who looked to be well into their 60s at breakfast this morning (most older travellers in hostels are solo hikers, I've found). In any case, through the Polish hostel employee, I got a translation that the men were shepherds, anxious to get back to a large local park, where their flock of sheep were watched overnight by a police force.  So when I went out to sightsee, I wasn't totally surprised to encounter a parade dedicated to thousands of sheep and cows migrating through the streets. I later learned that a Spanish king had guaranteed safe passage through Madrid for shepherds some hundreds of years ago, and the tradition is maintained. I'm not sure how logical this route is at this point in time, or whether it's more ceremonial.... in any case, it was a major event!

I did feel a bit concerned about the welfare of the animals at a few points in time. I imagine it would be confusing and perhaps frightening for them to be in crowded, busy streets. On a couple occasions, I saw sheep try to run off and it seemed a bit much. When I first encountered the parade, it was reasonably sedate, but I crossed it again an hour later, near the main square of Puerta del Sol and there was a stampede of sheeps at a certain moment. If you look closely at the photo below which has the back of four men in the foreground, you can see, beyond the men, sheep as far as the eye could see. Just a few minutes later, I got ahead of the procession and I had to cross the busy road. All was fine and then suddenly, the sheep started to run, at a panicked rhythm, towards me -- it was likely a scary moment for them, and it certainly was for me!

Beyond these events, I enjoyed walking around the city -- although I had my first realization of the arrival of fall today. In my fleece jacket, scarf and pants, I was just comfortable -- and I saw some people wearing tuques! Up until this past week, I'd been feeling like I was still in the equivalent of September weather by Canadian standards. Still, I had a great moment sitting in the garden near the Royal Palace with the sun beaming and warming my back -- it's not quite winter yet!

Plaza Mayor

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Barcelona, baby!

I just spent a few fantastic days in Barcelona. I confess to being totally ignorant about the city before my arrival. I didn't realize what a distinct culture and history it has from the rest of Spain -- or that there are gorgeous beaches just a few minutes from the downtown area!

 But my ignorance did allow me to experience a pleasant series of surprises. The narrow alleys of the Gothic Quarter, where I stayed, were full of cute cafes, shops and the ubiquitous gelato shops. I spent lots of time strolling around the city; walking around, the sunshine and the humidity combined to make me feel like I was back in summer. It was lovely while strolling along the beach, with a nice breeze coming off of the Mediterranean Sea. The humidity was less pleasant when I had sweat literally streaming down my face while waiting in the metro at quarter to seven yesterday morning, carrying my backpack on the way to the bus station. That’s 6:45am – dripping with sweat! Not so nice.

Barcelona's boardwalk

In the Gothic Quarter

The harbour is full of ships of all sizes -- including giant luxury yachts.
It was also quite intriguing to learn about the history of Catalonia – that’s Catalunya in their own language. I hadn’t realized how distinct this northeast region of Spain – to the point that was independent at different points in history and is now a semi-autonomous region with various realms of control, particularly over education and social development. There also seems to be an ongoing movement for full independence – at least according to a scattering of posters around the city. The protection of the Catalan language has been a key goal, which seems to have been successful. Many of the signs in the city – particularly at tourist sites -- are trilingual, in Catalan, Spanish and English. Even graffiti is often multilingual: a message in a toilet stall outlined a person’s views on vegetarianism in all three languages.

Plaza de Catalunya


Notice the Catalonian flags hanging from balconies -- a common sight.

Inside the Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family) Cathedral

The only negative event in my stay in "BCN" didn't affect me directly, but a fellow Canadian I met at the hostel where we were both staying. On his last day in the city, Dan went for a final walk along the beach before heading to the airport. He turned his back for a quick minute and his wallet was taken; this didn't just mean lost money, but also a lost passport, so no flight home! And it means a few days wait, until the embassy can process a replacement passport early next week. It was a wake-up call about how easily something like this can happen, even to a careful person. It's also a reminder of the value of my precious passport!

Anyway, all in all, I would absolutely recommend Barcelona. There were quite a few tourists, even in "off" season -- but for good reason!