Swiss Bears and Swiss Chocolate

     We thought we would break up our return train trip to Paris with an overnight stopover in Bern Switzerland.   We all wished we had more time to spend as it is a wonderful location.  The city center and train station were clear of the graffiti and poverty sometimes seen in other capitals.  Bubba was a little concerned with the bears which are the symbol of Bern.

          The train station in Bern is located in a shopping mall.  I later found out that the shopping mall is actually located in the train station, a subtle but important difference.  Bern has some strict opening and closing times for businesses.  As the train station is considered Federal property, any businesses located there are exempt from the city rules and enterprising entrepreneurs have taken advantage.   As soon as I got off the train, I felt I was being stalked by bears.  A couple of times when I turned around quickly, I thought I saw one ducking around a corner or climbing a tree.  Maybe I was being paranoid.  Our hotel was certainly nice and seemed bear free.

     As we strolled through the wide plazas we saw a group of people watching a man and a woman playing a game that involved some blocks of cheese on sticks.  I think it was Swiss cheese versus Gouda.  It looked like some kind of checkers type game.  I didn’t have a clue how it worked but I cheered for the man.  The woman silenced me with a big piece of Smoked Gouda.

We took a walk down by the river that encircles the old part of town.  It is a beautiful area but I still had that bear fear for some reason.

The shops line the streets in covered arcades that hint of the colder winter weather.  The streets have flags on the buildings and statues that show the symbols of each of the nation’s cantons. 

It was when we were walking down one of these streets near the grand, animated clock that we were attacked!  A bear dressed in armor and armed to the teeth confronted us.

I armed myself, put on a helmet and leaped in front of Rick and Spider to save them from harm.

After fighting a mighty and victorious battle and being somewhat injured I stumbled into a nearby store that sold mounds of chocolate. 

For saving my companions I was given ten times my weight in chocolate.  I hurried back to the room to immerse myself in my treasure.

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Milan: Art, Fashion, Bubba

Joining back up with Bubba, we moved on to Milan.  Milan is a wonderful blend of old and new.  Ancient buildings share space with modern works of art.  The Duomo di Milano took over six hundred years to complete…and they’re still working on it.  It may have been the long lunch breaks, but I think it was the attention to detail and the go slow go better attitude.  Bubba came with us on a tour of the city.

        We took the Metro a block from our hotel to the piazza at the Milan Cathedral.  Coming up from the underground we were confronted with one of the tallest church spires in the world, topped by a statue of the Madonna that was for centuries the highest point in the city.  It is said that modern buildings in the city have a similar statue on top to ensure that the Madonna will remain looking over the city.  From my view, it was way, way up there.

Right next to the cathedral was…well…I’m not sure what it was.  It looked like a huge pile of salt…with toy horses stuck in it.  I thought maybe it was the Verona beer coming back at me but I took a picture and sure enough, it is what it is.

We joined up with a tour and walked through the city to enjoy more contrasts.  We walked through the fashion capital of Europe.  Gucci, Versace, Prada, and Armani are all headquartered here.  Representatives of each design house chased us down the street wanting to know where I got my flowered shirt.  The old and new were ever present.  We passed La Scala Opera House.

 We then passed an enormous threaded needle sticking out of the pavement.

Nobody seemed to notice it or the fact that the end of the stitch was across the street.

We then headed to see Leonardo di Vinci’s Last Supper.  It is on the wall of a climate controlled room that can be only accessed for a brief amount of time by a few people at a time by going through an air lock system.  It is in the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

This is a solemn and powerful place that even I couldn’t mess around in.  Luckily our guide gave me a radio receiver and earphone so I could keep up with his commentary.  Of course he had to hold both the electronics and me during the tour. 

Finishing up with Milan, we headed for the train station.  We were changing countries again.  Our next stop would be Bern Switzerland and I decided to splurge and buy out a first class compartment, just for me.  Next stop Bern!

Bubba Goes Missing!

     We last saw Bubba at a brew pub outside Verona, Italy.  He was partying pretty hard with a passing group of hard drinking action figures.  He started making a fool of himself so we distanced ourselves from him and, the next thing we knew, he was gone.  We spent the day in the Lake Garda region and had a very relaxing time in the small villages that line the shore of this tranquil lake.

Small fortified, medieval villages catering to the German and Swiss tourist trade gave us a pleasant day strolling, shopping, and eating in the broad lanes.

 

          We then moved over to Lake Como.  Driving in Italy is an experience.  I think the “Stop” signs mean yield and the “Yield” signs mean “Go for it”.  On the main roads, leaving unoccupied space between cars is a no-no so there is a mobile, high speed game of leap frog occurring.  Driving gives you a chance to see the small towns unvisited by tourists.  On one of our driving days, we stopped for lunch in a small restaurant next to the road.  The staff spoke no English so it really tested our Italian skills.  We asked if we could eat lunch and were ushered into a back room that was filled with tables that were mostly empty.  On the back wall was one particular long table that had a huge high-backed chair in the center.   The ornate carvings and colors were reminiscent of a renaissance throne.  There were a couple of these long table and big chair combinations and I can only imagine they were for the patriarch when the family went out to eat.  The food was good and the waitress lovely.  When we finished our meal and paid the bill, we were treated to her sole phrase in English, “Have a nice day.”  Italian courtesy at its best.

We eventually dropped off the car and went, by train, to Lake Como.  Lake Como is another of northern Italy’s great gems.  Quiet villages surrounded by towering mountains.  I don’t know if it was the calm waters or a lack of Bubba drama but we had the most peaceful and relaxing time of the trip.

As we sat and enjoyed the scenery, I wondered how Bubba was doing.

            I woke up to find the hotel I thought I was in was really a Laundromat and the action figures were hitting the road yelling, “Good Bye, Bubba” at the top of their lungs.  I had to read the last post to see how it was that I came to be here.  I was lost and had no way to find my friends.  I overheard a group of kids saying they were going to a small town near a lake.  They were Germans and I couldn’t quite understand them, but the name of the town sounded like someplace I may want to go.  The German kids were a lot less effusive than the Italian scouts that rescued me earlier in the trip, but they took good care of me and helped me on my way.  We all sat on the train station platform and waited.

As we neared their destination, anticipation grew.  From the name of the town I imagined it must be filled with people just like me.  Maybe it would be a place where I could settle down and make my own way.  Then I was crushed!  I saw the sign and couldn’t believe my eyes.  I asked one of the students to hold me closer so I could see for myself that the spelling of the town was just a little different from what I thought and I was not headed to the town of my forbearers after all.

The kids dropped me off at another train station and I was again lost and on my own.  I couldn’t reach the ticket machine and the only choice I had was to try to walk through the narrow tunnel.  That looked a little too close, even for me.

Oh what I wouldn’t do to get Rick and Spider back. 

          Our day at the lake had to come to an end so we walked up the steep hillside to the train station.  We admitted to ourselves that we really did worry about Bubba and missed the little guy.  Waiting on the platform, I thought…yes it was…I saw a familiar bit of white and yellow plastic about to step off the platform and violate the forbidden zone behind the yellow line.  After a brief and emotional reunion, we all decided to join up again and go to Milan.

On The Road to Verona

Ravenna, Rimini, San Marino, and now Verona.  Where is Bubba going?  Right now he is bouncing around the north and east sections of Italy.  Those places are a little off the beaten path for most Americans, in fact we met very few Americans in our travels.  Most people stick to the well known spots but, if you are in the area (Venice), it would be a mistake not to carve out a few days to see the Roman and early Christian sites nearby.  They are sometimes just a short train ride away.  When we last left Bubba, he was going to hop a train while we took a car.  He instead decided to come with us.  Mostly he travels with us because he doesn’t walk far without being carried.

            Near the train station and across a very modern bridge is the bus station.  I use that term loosely as it is really just a big confusion called a parking lot with a ticket kiosk.  We bought our tickets and the attendant waved in the general direction of where we needed to stand to wait for the bus.  An Italian bus can be a borderline thrill ride.  It always adds a little suspense when you are not quite sure if you are on the right bus.  We took the bus to the airport where arrangements had been made for a rental car.  After Monaco, no one would allow me to drive so I sat on the dashboard.  I thought Rick and Spider were being very nice to me because they put a big screen TV on the dash next to me.  The show was kind of boring as it only had one channel and that seemed to just be a map.  Then I got a shock.  IT WAS ALIVE!!  Yes, it spoke and they called it by name, Kate.  Kate was very rude and did not reply to any of my questions.  She seemed determined to tell everyone where to go.  She would say things like, “In 300 feet, turn left.”  About halfway to our destination we all decided to take a look at the countryside.  We took a small road and Kate went wild.  She kept telling Rick to turn around and go back.  Finally they pulled her plug and wandered happily and quietly through the countryside and through a couple of small villages.  A little lost and wanting to get on with the ride, they plugged the aloof lady Kate, back in.  I think she was defiantly upset.  There was a hint of anger with undertones of revenge in her voice.  She sent us down one road and up another.  Soon we were climbing up a narrow road going up a small mountain.  Still she maintained, “Keep going straight,” in that superior tone of hers.  Finally a large iron gate barred the way with a huge sign saying “proprietà privata” We were stuck and I do believe I heard Kate chuckle.  Rick began a long drive backwards down the hill for about one mile.  I took matters into my own hands and settled the score with Kate.

I had to get all medieval on her case.  She behaved after that and took us straight to our hotel.

Another adjustment and she got us to the correct hotel, a former monastery outside the city of Verona. 

Staying at this hotel was another, more sedate bunch of motorcycle fanatics.  The roar of their bikes starting up was…well…not quite what we heard in Pisa.

The horns were downright embarrassing.  That night we found a “Brewpub” named Birreria BEFeD.  I’m not quite sure what the name means but they had a sort of fried chicken and a sort of Irish Red beer.

After a few pints I got separated from Rick and Spider and tried to find my own way back to the room.  I couldn’t find it but found a nice place in a town called Pescantina.  The room wasn’t much and the TV had only one channel again that seemed to be about underwater exploration.

I only hope that I can find them again.

Pigeons and Venice

Bubba saw some amazing mosaics in Ravenna.  He really liked the idea of putting little squares together to make big things.  Bubba said it reminded him of his childhood.  From Ravenna, he jumped a train for Venice. 

       Venice is a little scary to me.  It is a maze of narrow alleys crisscrossing tiny canals.  That is the scary part.  I can float, but I can’t swim.  I was deathly afraid of falling into a canal and being swept away.

        Actually, in the evening, and away from the big tourist areas, there is a family feel.  Hidden in the warren of narrow walkways are several piazzas; a church surrounded by a few businesses and a restaurant or two.  You can see the opening to one of the piazzas in this photo.  It is at the end of the street and the big clue is the tree.  There are not too many places for trees to grow here.

The trees take advantage of any place they can get a foothold, even a crack in a wall.

The most famous piazza is Saint Mark’s Square.  It is the home to the fabulous cathedral and the home of the Venetian Doges. 

This is where my problems started.  In addition to all those feet to get under, high tide came.  Venice is a low lying island and sea level rise is causing a great problem.  At high tide, this square begins to flood.  The church has a moat built around it but, at times, temporary walkways have to be put in place.  When I saw the water coming up through the drains, I panicked.

I hopped up to the base of a statue but found a new danger.  PIGEONS!!  To them I was a small morsel to provide a light snack.  I was terrified!!

A quick swim back to the hotel to pack and I was outta there. 

As a note, if you are ever in need of a hotel in Venice we highly recommend Hotel Al Duca di Venezia.  Friendly staff, and great location.  But back to Bubba.

        I needed someplace a little drier and without the pigeons.  I hopped a ride on the first wheelie bag I could find and boarded a train to Verona where I met up with Rick and Spider.  They decided to drive for the next few days. 

A New (Bubba Sized) Country

Bubba heard of a country that is just his size and had to go for a visit.  San Marino is completely surrounded by Italy.  It has no ports or harbors, no airport, and only one road in.  Most of the country is located on a mountain top.  It has a population of about 30,000 people in about 24 square miles.  It is protected by The Guard of the Rock, The Guard of the Council Great and General, and The Crossbow Corps.  No lie.  It has not yet joined the European Union and remained neutral in WWII.  Abraham Lincoln was an honorary citizen.   Bubba is excited about visiting such a unique place.

            From Florence I went to Ravenna and from there I took a train to Rimini.  I was about to cross the Italian/San Marino border and made sure I was ready for the immigration station located across from the train station.  After going through a rigorous security screening that made the TSA look like a joke, I submitted to a background check and criminal records check.  The daily number of people allowed to go into the country is strictly limited.

Let me explain what Bubba really meant to say.  Across from the train station in Rimini is a bus stop.  A ticket seller comes by and sets up shop on a trash bin to sell bus tickets to San Marino.  The only thing that is checked is the amount of money you have for the ticket.  The number of people is limited…to the number of people they can cram, sitting and standing, on the bus.

I took the bus, which was an adventure ride in itself.  One of the last people to board was a nice looking young lady who was given a place to stand next to the bus driver (you know, that place that says, “Don’t Stand Here”).  The road to the top is windy and narrow and, today, it was wet from rain, but that didn’t stop the driver from furthering his romantic life while driving.  The drive to the top was like driving on San Francisco’s Lombard Street in a grand prix race combined with a speed dating service.  He would watch her on the straights and the road on the curves.  Both the bus and the driver were fast and, by the time we reached the top, he had made plans to meet up with her later. 

            Actually that was fairly close to the truth.

            At the top I needed to use the rest room.  I saw a rather distressed person standing by the rest rooms.

I noted the closed sign and tape across the door.  He looked like he needed it worse than I did and I joined him in his complaint.

            I finally snuck into the palace and used the facilities.  I love these Europeans; they have a second toilet that is a bit smaller, just for me…and no lid to put down.

After freshening up, I breezed through the town but missed a lot because of the rain storm that blew in.  Mountain tops tend to pick up any passing clouds.  I did manage to catch the return bus in time to catch the return train to Ravenna.  In Ravenna, I sampled some of the local Italian food.  I had a pizza,  The “Big America” Pizza.

Wurstel is a sausage type thing.  Yes, that makes the “Big America” pizza a sliced up cheese dog with fries on a pizza crust.

From Ravenna, Rimini, and San Marino, Bubba then went to Venice which he will speak about next time.

Bubba puts the fix on Pisa’s Leaning Tower

Before his firecracker incident, Bubba claimed he was summoned by the city fathers in Pisa to straighten out a leaning tower.  While we didn’t quite believe him, we went with him anyway.

            Not far from Florence is the city of Pisa.  Pisa has some great old buildings but one of them seems to be broken.  It has a bad lean to one side.  If they had only used the stacking blocks that I am used to they wouldn’t have had that problem.

After an extensive examination, I realized that they hadn’t pushed the top onto the base on one side.  All it needed was a quick shove and it would be okay.  I pushed and pushed and worked up quite a sweat to shove it back on its base properly.

I think after all that work I needed a shower at least that was what the young man on the right told me.  After several hours of work I managed to straighten the tower at last.

I thought the city would be pleased and they were!  They all started waving their hands and proclaimed me “Un Idiota” and gave me the title “Distruttore di Reliquie”.  After a short while there was a rumbling noise and when I climbed to the top of the tower I found that it was actually leaning farther!!

Allow me to “straighten” bubba’s story a little.  The tower was leaning, the tower is still leaning, the tower will always be leaning and no one called Bubba a “Destroyer of Relics”.  One can climb an interior circular staircase to the top and Bubba did find climbing a leaning circular staircase quite a challenge.  Bubba continues with his version of reality.

 

            I rode into town with a gang of Italian bikers.  I especially bonded with one named “Pops”.  He looked like the toughest motorcycle hooligan around.  I threw my US flag up next to his Italian one and we tore through the city.

His group of Harleys had a hard time keeping up with me.

Soon, the police were after us.  I ducked down a side street when this Officer was looking the other way.

The waitress on the corner tipped them off and while I escaped, the rest of the gang was caught.

I had enough of law breaking.  I didn’t want to be a scofflaw and the last thing I wanted to do was end up in an Italian jail so I slowly motored back to Firenze.