Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Giraffe-ing Around - Columbia, South Carolina

My roommates and I made an morning adventure of going to the Palmetto State's capital zoo on my last weekend in the South.  Out of the whole zoo, my favorite were the giraffes!  First and foremost, feeding this characters is always an amusing part to visiting a zoo.  Secondly, they are one of the most expressive animals and are slightly awkward!  

From the Bell Tower - Augusta, Georgia

I had a rare opportunity to go to the top of the copper topped dome of Saint Paul's Episcopal Church and take in the view of the Garden City of Georgia!  The climb to the top is an adventure in itself as the stair gradually become more and more confined until the hatch opens right underneath the small bells.  But, being hunched over and dust covered hands is worth the bird's eye view over the most historic place in Augusta.  Standing as the fourth church over the grounds that was established as Fort Augusta by Georgia's Founding Father General Olgethorpe.  The Celtic cross pictured below is the marker of the location of the original fort and holder of the cannon Olgethorpe had brought over from England to defend the growing river trading post.  As the city grew outside of the bounds of what was Fort Augusta, the church has remained despite destruction over the centuries.  The last time misfortune struck was in 1916 as fire engulfed the walls of Saint Paul's.  The large bell is in memoriam of the 1916 fire as it's inscprition reads:
"To the Glory of God
and Thanksgiving for the 
Restoration of this Church
Destoryed by Fire 1916
Rebuilt in 1918
Glory to God in the Highest"

Una buona notte in Italia - Bolzano, Italy

As I departed the known German speaking world and made my way into the northern reaches of Italy, I had a smooth transition in the Deutschsprachig, Dolomite city of Bolzano/Bozen.  The area of South Tyrol has been a mix of Romance and Germanic cultures from the beginning and continues to be so to this day.  I made my arrival to Bolzano as the sun went down over the Alps of Austria and therefore I did not know exactly what to expect the next morning when I woke up in the heart of the Italian Dolomites.  My first priority after throwing my pack on my back was to get food and what a better place to get pizza than Italy!  I followed my nose down the cobblestone streets to a food vendor in the center of one of the plazas near the main station to this glorious aroma of fresh breads and cheeses filling the air.  Basically a euro per square foot of pizza I dropped two euro for this "snack" and kept on trekking southward in the narrow streets.  After devouring the pizza, I was near the central plaza when I stumbled upon a very common place German site: Beer tents.  I can not remember the names of the brewers but they were local and they were delicious!  Mission accomplished with my stomach full, I was now ready to make my way to Sylvia's apartment to crash for the night.  Reminiscing one this night, it was truly a 'bella notte'.  Waking up refreshed and ready to go see where I landed myself with my own eyes, I opened the door to a mountain paradise!  Not only was the scenery beautiful, the tarts and breakfast rolls were heaven-sent!  Breaking my morning fast with plenty of pastries, I started my morning by stepping into the stunning structure of Assumption of Our Lady, the gem of Bolzano.  Rising above the rooftops of the city, the cathedral is much like the city a blend of Italian and German influences.  The green and gold tile-roof cathedral is a mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture coming together to make a commanding landmark among the outlandish peaks surrounding the city.  I decided to go rogue after leaving the sanctuary of the cathedral and took Via Castel Roncolo to go about the vineyards and small farms terraced on the hillsides.  Here is where the true wonders came into play when I was following this winding path and looked up to see the old fortress of Runkelstein (Roncolo in Italian) crowning one of the hill tops.  Giving the trek a quick glance I made the executive decision of "next time" and made a left hand turn onto Via Rafenstein.  This path led me to something I did not expect to find.  The remaining ruins of the Treuenstein Castle stands among the rows of grape trellises with the 13th century tower mostly intact to this day! Continuing up the gorge, I came to a dirt path that took me up to a small waterfall that tumbles down from the heights above and over the tunnel of SP99 as it corkscrews through the rocky canyon walls.  Once I reached a bench to take a breather and enjoy the view, the time had come when I head downhill and onto the train station with Florence in the scope! 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

View from the Train - Western Austria

After spending two (very short but fun-filled) days in Switzerland, the time came for me to traverse more the Alps, but this time through the "Eastern Realm" that is Austria.  My trip was split between the Swiss train and Austrian train systems at Buchs, Switzerland.  I was afforded nearly an hour of wait time to explore around Buchs where I walked about the beautiful neighborhoods and the quaint downtown area.  While meandering back to the station I came to a bridge with the four flags of the German speaking countries.  I wish I had looked at the map more attentively for on the other side of that bridge was the Principality of Liechtenstein, more so the capital city of Vaduz as what I had laid out in front of me!  I did get to go to Liechtenstein though even if it were just a train ride, I can say I have been there!  Once I returned back to the station, I stepped on board the Österreichische Bundesbahnen or more commonly seen as ÖBB's RJ train.  For your information, "RJ" stands for 'RailJet'.  I whipped across western Austria at speeds up to 140 miles per hour (230km/h)!  I started to contemplate the questions of life and death as the train wrapped around bends looming over drop off cliffs below, but nevertheless, Alpine Engineering pulled through with my survival!  I had been through the Bavarian and Swiss Alps, but what Austria holds in her borders are mountains unlike no other!  When I arrived to my Austrian lay-over destination of Innsbruck, the looked in awe up at the curtain of a sheer rock wall that fortified this ancient alpine metropolis.  Everywhere that I could see from the train, the valleys with their small towns are locked in by the staggering heights of the peaks above.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Salü Speicher! - Speicher, Switzerland

The commune of Speicher bears the name of my paternal grandmother's family name and is where my Swiss family history began!
As part of this blog, I like to share my experience of these places that I visit from the people I meet, the buildings or that I explore, the food that I eat and the lessons that I learn.  This one I compiled the pictures for this post but could not find the right words to describe this realization of a dream.  In all honesty, it was a passive dream.  Seeing all the photos from when my grandmother spent time in this country and finding of fellow Spicher relatives that stayed in the "Old Country", I knew that I would want to go back to those origins as well.  I had just not planned to make this homage to the verdant countryside above the blue waters of Lake Constance for this trip, but there was a feeling in the back of my mind that I should do it.  So I did.  After my stop in Zürich, the train wound east through the Alps to the canton of Sankt Gallen where my curiosity was intrigued, my wonder climaxed, and a dream coming true.  A dream of coming home to a place that I have never been in my life, but knew about since I was a small boy via photographs and books of this alpine hamlet.  

Arriving in the capital which shares the same name as the canton in remembrance of the Irish monk, Saint Gall, that left his home of Ireland with a band of brothers to spread the Gospel and found sanctuary in the forested hills the Bodensee, or Lake Constance.  After learning that the monks chose this place being it gave them a sense of peace, I could feel the same harmony that I felt as I stepped out into the mountain air and terraced streets of the old town of Sankt Gallen as the sun was settling in the west and that is when I made my fortuitous decision to take the S-Bahn 21 line "up the hill" to the enclave canton of Appenzell.  I purchased my ticket from one of the kiosks and looked about the main station for the platform but to no avail!  In my best attempt of Alemannisch, I asked "Chönd Si mir säge wo d'Gleis isch?"  The lady smiled and kindly directed me to the platform for the Speicher-Trogen line outside in the plaza.  My train had it's own special platform! As the train tugged up the hill, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as the sun cast golden light over the deep blue waters of the Bodensee and the green fields.  I watched with anticipation as I watched "Speicher" edge it's way to the top of the monitor as the train ascended the hill and made a wide turn that opened the valley up to me like a sunrise onto a new day.  Sadly, the day was coming to an end for the day so my time for exploration in the mountain town was limited... until the morning!  

After a teaser trip, I returned back to St. Gallen for the night for I had made my lodging arrangements near the beautiful abbey in the heart of the city despite all the Gästehäuser or guest houses along the ride back over looking the picturesque valley that looked more than accommodating!  I woke refreshed and ready to begin a morning's worth of wandering about this treasure chest of living history for me!  As the train hiked up along Speicherstrasse and crested the hill, the sun was rising over the Alps and giving life to the beautiful autumn day.  Stepping of the train with the blue sky above me, this was the beginning of an adventure that I did not want to end. I traversed about the alpine homes to the Reformierte Kirche.  Set up on the crown of the central hill, the church tower stands tall with its copper topped bell tower.  As I ventured around the open park leading up to the church, there was an elderly woman clad in a simple woolen jacket and skirt that noticed me as I was taking random images of the area.  She came over to me and called out "Guete Morge" to me and I light up and geared my mind to Alemannisch and had a lovely conversation with her while enduring the never ending learning of new words and phrases!  She then led me over to the church office for one of the attendants to give me a tour of the church and that can answer any questions I have in English if need be!  Funny thing about Mari, the church attendant, her sister is married to a Spicher!  She told me there were a few Spichers buried in the graveyard on the north side of the church grounds.  After getting my full tour of the grounds and an invite to come to that evening's service, I departed the early nineteenth century church to the graveyard where the most splendid view unfolded in front of me.  The feeling of the warm morning sun on my face, the fresh alpine air and the sound of the bells ringing in the air of the milk cows moving about lifted my spirits as it reminded me of my farming background and life back home in Montana.  For most, this spot would not be a "must-see" stop on for a Swiss getaway, but for me, visiting the small commune tucked away in the rolling hills beneath the Appenzeller Alps just above the shores of Lake Constance was a form of paradise that I got to enjoy for a day.  A day that I will remember forever.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Grüezi Züri! - Zürich, Switzerland

Panoramic view of Zürich from the eastern tower of the Grossmünster.

My visit to Zürich can be labelled with carpe diem to the nth degree.

Once I made the trek to my host's hillside apartment from the bustling central station, my journey about the alpine lake city began!  I did not really plan to spend very much time in Switzerland being I had dedicated most of the trip to exploring Italy, but it is amazing what can be done in the matter of a single day's time!  After taking in the view from the plaza overlook of the ETH library, I made my way down the web of staircases down to the banks of the Limmat.  I could not have asked for a more pleasant evening to be walking along the tranquil river walk in the heart of Zürich.  The night was as crisp and clear as the star-studded sky above as I trekked about the cobble stone streets filled with the ever-so-sweet smells of chocolates and Swiss cuisines of every liking!  As I stood at the stone railing overlooking the Limmat on the south side of the Rathaus setting up for a night shot, I was taken by surprise as swans passed by at an effortless stone's throw and just in time to capture them in a shot with the Fraumünster Church. What more could I have asked for on my first night of my second European tour, you might ask?  How about a flat-bottom boat leisurely floating down the river with a live band because that is what happened!  Not only was I feeling a sugar rush from the twenty Swiss francs worth of chocolate I devoured but the mere euphoria of this city had my heart racing and my wanderlust peaked.  All the excitement set aside, I did take some down time from the vantage point of Linderhof park for a few minutes and admired the hill that I had to hike up for that much needed sleep and recover from jet lag that I had been too busy to realize I had!

Once recovered and refreshed, my hostess Marti made me a cup of stout coffee and a light breakfast as she gave me a long list of things to do on my daytime endeavor!  By the advice of Marti, I found myself at the massive bronze doors of the north portal into one of the most significant places to the Swiss Confederacy.  The Grossmünster today dates back to 1100 and twin towers are said to be the most recognizable landmark and lasting treasure of Zürich.  Stepping into the ancient halls that Huldrych Zwingli once walked to preach his word to the citizens of Zürich that led to the Reformation of Switzerland.  The historical value set aside, the adventure of winding up the winding maze of stairs up to the south tower to the panoramic view was priceless!   I highly recommend paying the two francs to make the climb of the 187 stairs to the top for the best view of "Downtown Switzerland".  Another must-do of Zürich is to taken in the sweet aroma of all the "Schokoladenherstellern" or chocolatiers and if I had to recommend one, that would be Läderach and the picture below says it all!