Living it up at the Hotel Europa

Our room at the Hotel Europa in Florence

I always get a little nervous when making sight-unseen hotel reservations, even in the States. My companion and I have had our share of bummers. There was the creepy place in upstate New York, where a drunk man banged on our door, demanding that his “whoring” wife open the door. (My barking dog scared him off.) And there was the backwater Connecticut dive where I slept on top of the covers in my clothes, after fishing a condom wrapper out of my dog’s mouth.

So I was particularly wary when making accommodations internationally. I’m happy with a place that’s clean, convenient and reasonably secure. I’d rather spend money on things to do and see rather than places to sleep. But after some reading and research, I took a shot at a place called Hotel Europa in Florence. It is well-situated for the sights I want to see in the city, and the price was reasonable. But remembering our other disasters, I was a little concerned when our cab pulled up in front of a nondescript door, set in a building that undoubtedly dates back several centuries. The creaky elevator, with room for only one person with a big bag, was like something out an old spy movie. If not for the bags, both my companion and I could have plodded up to the 3rd floor check-in faster on foot. As our host accompanied us to our room, I have to admit I wasn’t expecting much. Continue reading


Look! Look! Even through a dirty train window, the Alps are breathtaking.

If you’re lucky, your life will hand you moments, however fleeting, of luxury. And if you’re smart, you’ll recognize and never forget them.

Today that moment is on a train, traveling from Zurich to Florence. Around us people speak German, Italian and English. My companion and I are seated across from each other. He loves mountains and was worried our itinerary wouldn’t allow much of a view of them. He was wrong.

We have a small bottle of white wine, and a slice of cake on the table between us. The tart, dry Tuscan wine is the perfect foil against the creamy sweetness. Between sips, we marvel at the views. Before us, behind us, beside us, we keep saying to each other, “Look, look!”

It’s spring in the Alps. Staring up at the white-capped peaks, we see surging falls of snowmelt, tumbling, so full and fierce they seem to be long, thin waves, tumbling over themselves in their rush to the rivers below.  At one bend, we look down on a fly fisherman in his waders, casting rhythmically, again and again, like he’s waving a magic wand. It is nearly impossible to shoot a good picture out the window of a moving train, and at last we give up and just take it all in. “Look, look!” We keep saying it, as if we could look away.

This is luxury. This is privileged. I recognize it. I will never forget it.

Home Away From Home

Kate and Vivi

I don’t care how old you are, there are times on a long trip when you can be struck with homesickness. Three weeks is a long time on the road, and, as Dorothy once said, there’s no place like home.

Unless you’re lucky enough, as I am, to have a little bit of home living right in Switzerland. My niece, Kate Prylow and her family live in the village of Biberist, just a few miles from the larger town of Solothurn. Her husband, Mark, works for Bosch. In June his three-year European assignment is up and they’ll return to the USA. So my companion and I worked in our quick visit in the nick of time.

There is nothing like a familiar, well-loved face beaming at you as she comes hurrying down the train platform. Kate looked dashing, slim and stylish. The fact that she was pushing a baby carriage containing her 1-month-old daughter, Vivi, is a testament to her sound fitness and good health.

Johnny waits patiently for a slice of pizza

What a pleasure to be shepherded to our hotel, and then whisked off to her home. Kate and Mark’s apartment was full, not only with their two older children, Lena and John, but with Mark’s visiting parents as well. But the couple does everything with ease and grace, and as we sat down to a traditional Swiss meal, we felt more than welcome. We felt at home. Amid suggestions of possible excursions and shops my companion and I might like to take in, we caught up on family and friends.

The following night Kate took us for dinner at one of her favorite Solothurn restaurants. The food was wonderful and the conversation was the happy, familiar kind that can only happen when two in the group have enjoyed watching the third grow up. Kate is a more confident, capable woman than I ever hoped to be, and there’s something deeply satisfying in knowing the younger generation has come into her own. Our time went too quickly.

The visit was a special little oasis, and when my companion and I left Solothurn this morning we were refreshed and ready to taken the rigors of travel in foreign countries again. Family time will do that for you.

Princess Lena

Romance in wood

Wood couple with a rose, kissing.

Couple with good balance, kissing.

Romance is a stereotype of the countries we are visiting: France, Switzerland and Italy.

My traveling companion and I were expecting our fair share of middle-aged romance – over a French or Italian meal, or perhaps enjoying a glass of wine by a Swiss lake, or – well, maybe enough said about that.

But I don’t think we were expecting to find romance carved in wood on the streets of a Swiss town.

But in the middle of Luzern we found a display of wooden sculpture, most of them couples kissing – notably thinner couples than my traveling companion and me and certainly more flexible. One or both of us would surely topple if we kissed bending over so far.

Perhaps our inability to embrace with such balance enhanced our enjoyment of the sculpture display on the cobblestone streets of a Luzern intersection.

Romance fills the square

I lingered among the statues shooting pictures as my companion shopped for shoes. I thought it might be fun to ask someone to shoot a photo of us kissing – vertically – among the sculptures. But we’re vain enough and round enough that we each prefer photos of the other or just of the places we visit.

I also needed someone to stand between the large wooden hands, to provide some perspective. But we’ve been traveling together long enough that I knew better than to interrupt shoe shopping.

Then a young couple strolled into the sculptures, enjoying them as a young, romantic couple should. I was too slow with my camera to catch a picture of him shooting a picture of her kissing a sculpture of a man.

But then he posed her between the hands and I had my romantic shot in the sculpture display.


The wrong train songs rumble through my head on Alpine journey

One of many scenic views on our train ride from Lyon to Solothurn

When I’m riding a train from France to Switzerland, why does “City of New Orleans” run through my head?

We never got within 250 miles of old Orleans, though we did roll along past houses, farms and fields. And chalets, vineyards and peaks. Majestic, snow-capped peaks.

I definitely felt the wheels rumbling ‘neath the floor, but every time the tune took me to “Good morning, America, how are you?” I came up short. Neither France nor Switzerland had the right number of syllables, and I’m not a native son. Continue reading

An ideal day in Lyon

Here’s an ideal travel day: Sleep in. Enjoy a pleasant breakfast in a French bistro. A friendly cabbie explains why Lyon has the world’s best cooking as he drives you to a silk shop. A charming clerk helps you make your silk purchases. Walk down the quaint narrow streets of the Presq’île district to catch the parade of a Renaissance festival. Ride a funicular up a hill. Enjoy spectacular views of the city and the snow-capped Alps beyond. Browse the historic Basilica de Fourvière. View ancient artifacts in the Gallo-Roman Museum. Wander through the ruins of a Roman amphitheater. Enjoy a glass of wine outdoors, with views of the Alps in the distance. Sniff your way through the food stalls of Les Halles and buy some macaroons for the relatives you’ll be visiting the next day. Get back to your hotel for a brief afternoon nap. Accompany some new friends to dinner for melt-in-your-mouth seafood with more fine wine. And write a blog post. That was the Saturday my traveling companion and I enjoyed.

My traveling companion and I enjoyed a fabulous day in Lyon, including a walk across the Rhòne.

The quaint streets of old Lyon are more fun to walk, I’m sure, than they are to drive.

Where people in Lyon go when they’re feeling les miserables?

We happened upon a parade that appeared to be part of a Renaissance festival, starting in Place Bellecour.

I was not quick enough to catch the flag twirlers when they tossed their flags in the air.

The most amazing part of the parade was these women on stilts.

A huge statue of Louis XIV dominates Place Bellecour.


My woeful ignorance of the French language kept me from reading what this garden honors, but I did appreciate les fleurs.

The basilica towers above Lyon.

Basilica de Fourvière

Inside the basilica

The basilica ceiling

Huge mosaics cover the basilica walls.

Views of Lyon and the distant Alps from the basilica are breathtaking. That round tower in the center is our hotel, the Radisson Blu.

My companion enjoys fish art. Apparently the Romans did, too. The Gallo-Roman Museum displayed antiquities more than two millennia old, from the Roman city of Lugdunum, on the site of present-day Lyon.

The Roman faces captivated me most in the museum. This was Emperor Caracalla.

Roman gods (and planets, for that matter) are well represented in the museum’s faces. Here’s Mercury.

And Neptune

And, of course, Jupiter

These were apparently a mother and daughter.

The Roman museum is built adjacent to the ruins of an amphitheatre. Some theatrical masks are among the artifacts that have been found.

Yeah, the masks are kinda creepy.

Even creepier were the funeral masks. This one’s a cyclops.

Another funeral mask

And another

I told you they were creepy.

This mask is sad, apparently from the funeral of a young girl.

This container is huge. With walls that thin, could it have held water. If not water, what would you use an urn that large for? It had no plaque to explain.

I wonder if Red Rocks will hold up as well in 2,000 years as the Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls. With the view of the city and the mountains, it reminded me somewhat of Red Rocks, which we visited in October.

Friends, Romans, countrymen …


Flavorful Lyon

There is a feeling when you travel, that you must not waste time. Certainly, that can serve you well. There are sights in every city that shouldn’t be missed. But then again, sometimes we miss the flavor, the tenor, the actual heart of a city because all we see are the sights.

I’ve been lucky while in Lyon, France. We’ve put off most of our sight-seeing until my companion is finished with the three day conference he was invited to attend here. That has left me on my own to wander, not bothering with the main tourist attractions, knowing that we’ll get to them on the weekend. I’ve enjoyed just taking in the city.

My first morning here it took me nearly until noon to get myself together and shake off the jet lag. That’s much too late to watch the city’s top chefs making their purchases at Les Halles de Lyon, an indoor market of gourmet food shops. But Les Halles is easy walking distance from our hotel, so I strolled over anyway. I’m so glad I did.

Enticing offerings at the charcuterie

The place was bustling. Customers shopped with purpose, filling the large shopping bags on their arms with the best of the best. Unobtrusively as possible, I stalked one humpbacked dowager as she made her way from stall to stall, gathering ingredients. She picked new spring peas at green grocer and fresh tagliatelle from the homemade pasta booth. After a stern debate at the charcuterie, she added a lovely, thick slice of pancetta to her bag. I left her picking through bottles at the wine booth, jabbering at the seller, no doubt haggling for a good price.  Assuming she had eggs and lots of pepper at home already, my mouth watered at the thought of the carbonara she’d soon make.

Not surprisingly, I suddenly realized I was hungry. But ordering food in a country where you know nothing more than bonjour and merci can be tricky. Surrounded on every side by wonderful gourmet food, I had no idea how to ask for any of it. Grunting and pointing seemed so crass. A kiosk with posted pictures of sandwiches and salads was crowded with lunchtime business, and again I lurked off to the side, observing. The sandwiches looked marvelous, and every single diner had a small glass of wine by their plates.

My awesome croque madam

At last a barstool opened up, and I shyly snuck onto it, noticing as I did that the young man next to me had just been served what appeared to be a grilled cheese sandwich with a fried egg on top. When the very busy clerk stopped in front of me with a “Bonjour,” I pointed to the young man’s plate and said in English, “I’ll have that, please.” The clerk smiled with a, “Oui,” and bustled off. The young man turned to me and said in English, “It’s called “croque madam,” you know, because of the egg. It’s very good here.” We went on to have a pleasant conversation, him telling me the things I should be sure to see in Lyon, and asking if I’d seen the White House when I told him I was from the Washington, D.C. area.

When my food arrived it was even better than I anticipated. The wonderfully textured French bread was charred just enough along the grill marks to give a twinge of bitterness, pleasantly offsetting the rich egg and what could only be a Raclette cheese filling. Twice the waiter stopped, pointing to my plate and raising his shoulders in gallic question. I would nod, and say, “It’s very good.” He’d nod back. The third time he paused, I looked over at my dining companion, unsure how to reassure the waiter I really was pleased with my meal. They exchanged a few words, and then the young man leaned in to whisper, “He’s hoping you’ll say it’s awesome.” Turning to the waiter, I said in my best Midwestern twang, “This is just awesome.” The waiter grinned and pumped his fist in the air. We all had a good laugh and he brought me a small strawberry tart on the house.

Before I left on this trip, a young friend told me if all I did was sit in sidewalk cafes, sipping wine and watching people, it would be time well spent. He is wise beyond his years. Yesterday, I did just that, and found the people of Lyon friendly, happy, well-dressed and deliciously fed.


‘Shoulda stayed home’; Inner Skeptic Is Left Behind

Every time I travel, especially if it’s a long trip, I hit a point where I’m overwhelmed. Maybe it’s the planning; reading guidebooks so jammed full of places to go and things to see that I just don’t know how I’ll chose what to do with my limited time. Maybe it’s leaving love ones behind; will they all be OK until I get back? Maybe it’s just in my blood. I had a great-grandmother who didn’t leave the farm for months at a time.

Whatever the reason, I always have a moment when I say the words, “I don’t want to go.”

This time it happened when my companion was leaving to run a few last minute errands. I was in our bedroom, staring at the pile of clothes heaped on the bed and I said, “There’s no way these are all going into my one suitcase, is there?” He looked at the stack and said, “Nope. I’ll be right back.” My reply? “I don’t want to go.” He grinned, gave me a kiss in passing and replied, “Yeah, you do.” You’re wrong, I thought. At that particular moment I really did want to forget the whole thing, order some cheap Asian food, and watch an old movie with my little dog on my lap.

But I also knew this trip was a hell of an opportunity. Three weeks in Europe. Who in their right mind turns down a chance to see France, Switzerland and Italy? Yes, I was overwhelmed, but ditch the whole plan? That would be worse than crazy. It would be crassly ungrateful. So I pushed my old lady, homebody instincts down, jamming them between my desires to see Michelangelo’s David and sample real Italian gelato. A few hours later I got on a plane.

“Shoulda stayed home.” The thought mocked me as we sat on the tarmac for an hour.“Shoulda stayed home,” it giggled as I picked at a freakishly bad airline meal. “Shoulda stayed home,” it murmured through my headset as I pulled an inadequate blanket around me, shivering from the cold air seeping in the bulkhead wall. Shoulda stayed home. I’ve heard  it every damn trip I’ve ever taken, even when I was a little girl just going to my grandparents house to stay the night. I was more than just physically tired. I was sick of my own whining inner thoughts.

Sunrise over the port wing of a Boeing 777

The Atlantic was behind us when I finally gave up on sleeping. Stiff and bleary eyed, I stretched and turned to the tiny portal over the wing to look out at the black night. There, just over the hump of giant jet engine, was the sunrise.

And suddenly I was jolted, not by resistance, but by excitement. For weeks, when I spoke with people about this trip, I’d say, “I’m very excited,” knowing I should be. But the little skeptic in me kept me oddly detached, holding onto the notion that perhaps I wouldn’t actually go. But finally, happily, as we rushed toward that thin stripe of pink breaking night sky, my heart began to hammer. I was going to see things I’ve only read about. I was going to wander unfamiliar cities, taste flavors I’ve never eaten before and drink things out of strange bottles with exotic names.
With that line of pink I finally let go, and home fell away.
It turns out my companion was right after all. I always really do want to go. Sometimes it just takes leaving to make me realize it.