Sunday, October 22, 2006

Goin' Home

1. LH434 - The torture rack
2. Happy Times
3. Happy Times

Munich to Chicago

Up bright and early for one last trip thru the Kings Hotel breakfast buffet and then its only a three block walk to the Lufthansa airport bus (one way direct 10 Euros). Despite the fact that this is a big, very modern, tour bus, the driver is shifting thru a 5-speed manual gearbox with a stubby little lever that would be right at home in an M3. For some reason this cracks us up. All the airports are paranoid these days and Munich is no exception. We go thru about 5 different security checks before we finally arrive at the gate. They are very subtle, each appearing to focus on a different aspect of our being with the last one accompanied by very intense questioning. It’s all OK by us.

The ride home in the back of the plane is excruciating. We’re all in the same row and leg room is non-existent. Julie seems to have a bottomless supply of chocolate bars that she’s passing out. There can’t be much chocolate left in Bavaria!

Not much to do now but fall back into your own thoughts and think about what we’ve just accomplished. Despite A&J’s late arrival, we were able to keep fairly well to our itinerary though we did run it in reverse. Falling in love with Verona on a 2nd day lunch stop, we had to ditch Cinque Terre. Also, we were never able to fit in Florence which would have been nice to see. We never failed to score decent, clean, economical hotels despite not having any reservations. The cell phone is a marvelous invention. This time I would not have left anything out, we enjoyed it all. Going back to Italy again, I would head right for Tuscany, find a suitable piazza with a comfy inn nearby and hangout.

The cars were never a problem, despite having to leave them often in overnight car parks our out on the public road out of sight of whatever hotel we happened to be at. We took the precaution of never leaving anything in the cars overnight. Fuel cost were very high averaging about $8.00/gal in Italy. In retrospect we did not spend enough time on the secondary roads. Most of our travel between points of interest was on the high speed motorways. It was great rocketing along at 100+ mph but you don’t get to see much. Doing it again we would probably set the nav preference to ‘avoid motorways and tollroads’ and take it as it came. I think we’re all trying to figure a way to do this again. Money is a key deterrent as it is expensive. I made a mental promise to start playing the lottery a lot more.

We arrived at O’Hare after 10.5 hours in the air to find absolute chaos. People were lying in the aisles and flights were being cancelled left and right, including ours. We said our goodbyes to A&J, promising to meet again soon. We then managed to score standby on the last flight to South Bend unaccompanied by our luggage which thankfully turned up the next day. We were home by midnight, dog tired, happy to be home, but deflated to realize that our grand adventure had come to an end.

In a chocolate overdose haze on the flight, I would catnap and hallucinate that I would be driving the car has soon as we got home. The realization that I wouldn’t be seeing it for another 6 to 8 weeks was depressing. The wait begins.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

What goes up must come down - Munich

1. Creeping down off the mountain from Castelrotto.
2. Finding my alter ego at the drop-off center.
3. The final tally, 1449 miles, 32 hours in the car and 26.4 mpg!
4. Ouch! It would appear that some folks don't get away as lucky.
5. One of my favorite street buskers. This guy was a fountain complete with water.
6. Don't you just love German food?
7. During Oktoberfest, many Deutchers wear traditional folk dress.
8. Ditto


Leaving the thin, crisp mountain air of Castelrotto, we creep down the mountain and set sail for Munich, 167 miles and 2.5 hours away. Realizing that the final leg is upon us, the gloom begins to settle in. As we cross the border into Deutschland, we look for the classic ‘end of speed limit sign’. Unfortunately, each time we see it, we either encounter traffic or there is a temporary construction zone slow-down. With over 1,000 miles on the cars, we were looking forward to running flat-out but it serves as one more hint that the euphoria of our odyssey is coming to an end.

We hit the outskirts of Munich and begin to work our way thru the labyrinth of a modern city. Here is where you appreciate the nav the most. Instead of streets running east-west and avenues running north-south as in the U.S., roads are coming at you from every conceivable direction. Like an old friend, the soothing voice of the nav, a lady you’ve lived with for the last week, gives you plenty of time to change lanes and you plan for turns well in advance. It’ll be great if she’s the same voice I’ll hear on the stateside version. We find the hotel straight-on and manage to secure parking in the rear.

A&J are thrilled to find that Lufthansa has located and finally forwarded their luggage to the hotel, just in time for the return trip! Julie thrilled to find fresh familiar duds available decides to treat herself to a local salon while Andy, Marcia and I head for the drop-off center in Garching, about 15 miles away. I find it amusing as our highway speed drops slower and slower as if we're doing everything in our power to prolong the trip. At the drop off center we’re amazed to see quite a few ‘red tourist plates’, the give-away clue of a euro delivery car, where as in all our time on the road we never saw a one. Like a mantra I keep repeating in my head ‘don’t forget to remove Beewang's Nav DVD, also figure a way to remove the front license plate, and take the first-aid kit and the warning triangle from the trunk to keep for souveneirs. I needn’t have worried about the plate as Thomas the Shipping Center mgr, pops over with a power screwdriver and zips off the front tag and hands it too me with a look that implies that he can't believe I'd actually want to stuff the bug infested hunk of metal in my suitcase. I walk away looking back at the car that I won't see for another 6-8 weeks. A car that's carried us safely, comfortably, economically and at sometimes very high speeds, halfway around Europe. I feel somewhat ashamed to leave her here bug encrusted and filthy.

There is a German lady in front of us who is shipping a Mercedes and then Andy begins the paperwork process. When it's our turn, I look at Marcia for our paperwork, she glares back at me with that ”don’t look at me” message that tells me we are in trouble. In all the ending hysteria, we’ve forgotten our export permit, insurance papers and power of attorney that will allow us to ship the car home. I can feel the sweat begin to drip from my brow. Thomas, a young German with cowboy boots and a haircut that looks like he belongs on a ranch in Montana, tells us not to worry, we aren’t the first dumb yanks he’s run across (my words not his). He shows us what we need to fax him when we get back to the hotel and then he'll fax back papers that we need to sign and return to him. With that he calls us a cab and we’re off to the hotel.

On the trip back to town, our cabbie (a Juan Pablo Montoya lookalike) was amazed to hear about the Euro delivery plan and couldn’t believe the economics involved. This is BMW’s best kept secret. He also amuses us with tales of the Oktoberfest and the joy of picking up drunks. He has made an art form out of trying to identify who is going to barf in his cab before he lets them in. This is followed by the thrill of trying to convince them that they need to pay for the ride as well. We decide to skip the Oktoberfest and close the trip with a quiet dinner in the old town.

The hotel staff is very helpful and the fax operation goes well. We head for town to enjoy our ‘last supper’. It’s odd but, instead of replaying the trip and revisiting the high points, we all seem to be lost in our own thoughts. The night passes quickly and following a stop at the famous Hofbrauhaus for souveniers, we turn in for the last time in those ultra comfortable down filled Euro beds. After a brandy nightcap that is!

Munich Images:

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Up, Up and Away - Castelrotto

1. The nav knows all - leaving San Gimi at first light
2. Trailing a Maserati Quatroporte at 95, we get passed by a train! We are truly wimps.
3. Heading north, 1137 miles in.
4. Castelrotto - geraniums everywhere!
5. High Country
6. Andy and Julie - guess who's turning green?
7. Up top.
8. Great alpine meadows.
9. Wandering the village.
10. Eye Candy everywhere.
11. A nightcap in a cozy little haven.


To all good things must come an end. Its time to start heading back north. Our new plan is to get as close to Munich as possible without spending mega time in the cars. I hone in on a little alpine village called Kastelruth or Castelrotto depending on your language preference. Its high up in the Dolomites region of Italy. This is an area that used to belong to Austria but was granted to Italy following World War I as part of the spoils of war. The residents still speak German and most signs in the area are in both Italian and German. Its like having bratwurst with your pasta.

The drive north was uneventful with good weather all the way. Once we hit our turn-off from the Autostrada, the road climbed quickly up into the mountains. Lots of switchbacks and hold your breath moments on the blind turns of the narrow road. The occasional bus or truck coming down the mountain would cause a bit of heart stoppage when you met them unexpectedly on the turns.

The hotel we chose was the Lupo zum Wulf, a squeakly clean little place with about 14 rooms, geraniums hanging from the windows and a mural on the walls. It was smack in the middle of the village and had private parking. We took the last two spaces and the last two rooms. Down the road a few miles was a zeitbahn (cable car) that went up to one of the alps of the region. The hotel owner told us to grab the #3 bus which would transport us free to the lift and back. Negotiating with the driver was another story. I thought he couldn’t understand my limited German and wouldn’t let us on the bus until we realized that he didn’t want Andy or I to get on his bus with a beer in hand. Once we got that squared away, off we went. As you can see from the photos, the scenery was breathtakingly beautiful. We also discovered that Andy has a severe fear of heights. He spent the entire gondola ride staring at the floor!

Down in the village for the night, we went on a schnitzel hunt and not only found passable schnitzel but the absolute worst wine we had on the entire trip. As has become our custom, a brandy nightcap in one of the inviting little hotels in town was on order before we turned in. In the morning its off to Munich.

Castelrotto Images

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Under The Tuscan Sun

San Gimignano

1. Leaving Lake Como with regret
2. Getting our groove, 105 near Bologna
3. We establish our new Tuscan base in the Hotel Leon Blanco in San Gimignano
4. San Gimi a village of towers
5. More of San Gimi's towers
6. Doors and more doors
7. A crafstman restores centuries old artwork
8. At times, the nav takes you down unpredictable streets

San Gimignano
We established a base to explore the Tuscan Hill Towns in San Gimignano, an awesome medieval town with 14 of its historic towers still standing. In ancient times the towers were a symbol of wealth as well as a defense mechanism. The town has sold its soul to tourism but you can't deny its beauty and at this time of the year was relatively peaceful. This was a long drive from Como so we spent the rest of the day recovering in the sidewalk cafes of the piazza. Once you've had an Italian expresso, all is right in the world. We had a great evening dinner in a tiny local trattoria. The owner seemed proud as all get out when we requested a bottle of Brunello from nearby Montalcino. The wine was a boomer and practically climbed out of the glass to assault your nose with aroma. It was quite an experience!

On Tuesday we decided to tour the surrounding hill towns of Siena, Cortona, Montepulciano, Pienza, Montalcino and Montereggioni. Our plan was to start early and make the big loop, ending back at San Gimignano in the evening. An agressive schedule as we were to later find out.


1. The scooter is king!
2. The only Airedale in all of Europe
3. Can't remember who this guy was
4. Another wine lover
5. Piazza il Campo - the heart of Siena. They actually have a horse race around this piazza twice a year.
6. The city hall tower (Torre del Mangia)
7. A wedding (or christening perhaps?) we stumbled upon
8. Inside the duomo, we found this Michelangelo

Our first stop was Siena, a lifelong rival to Florence. We spent about two hours here with a cappucino on the piazza and a tour of the duomo (cathedral) which was loaded with great art and sculptures. A walk back to the parking lot via the old town and we were soon on our way to Cortona.


1. The City Hall (Palazzo della Comune) on the Piazza della Repubblica
2. Piazza della Repubblica
3. Piazza della Repubblica
4. Lunch overlooking the piazza
5. The best pasta I've ever had (center bottom)! Orecchiette al Fumo - 6 Euros!
6. The menu
7. Where's Marcia??

Cortona blew any chance we had of staying on schedule. This was one of the highlites of our trip and we all fell in love with this sleepy little hillside town with awesome views of the Tuscan countryside. We had a fantastic lunch overlooking the piazza and we're all still talking about it. I've never had pasta like this in my life. I'm determined to find the recipe for this. There was a great leather goods store where the girls bought handmade purses and Andy bought a dynamite overnight bag in buttery leather. Cortona has been made famous recently by the Francis Mayes books and the subsequent movie 'Under the Tuscan Sun'. No one wanted to leave and the pictures just don't do it justice.


1. On the Piazza Grande
2. View of the Tuscan countryside
3. Palazzo Comunale on the Piazza Grande

We were late getting here after our euphoric visit to Cortona but just had to stop as a result of a fine Nobile de Montepulciano wine we had back in Como (thanks Keith, a spendid recommendation). The town has become famous as a result of its wines but it sure was a tough hike up the top of the mountain from the parking lot (they don't call them hill towns for nothing). A highlite was a classic opera singer who decided to practice just as we were walking down this cobblestone street by her window. The sound was eerily bouncing off the walls and was a joy to hear.


1. The narrow town lanes of Pienza
2. Dinner at the Ristorante dal Falco

Pienza always had to be a must stop. My good friend Keith in England claimed to have the best meal of his life in a little restaurant called Latte di Luna. The restaurant is famous for its roast suckling pig and homemade ice cream. We arrived just after dark with everyone primed for a fantastic meal. As luck would have it, the restaurant was closed on the one night we managed to stop by. A quick walk thru town found us a great value meal at the Ristorante dal Falco. Our waitress was an absolute twin of the Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova complete with Russian accent which made it even more enjoyable for the guys.

With time running late we could no longer afford Montalcino and Montereggioni and will have to save them for another visit. The drive back to San Gimi, roaring thru the switchbacks of the Tuscan countryside, the cypress trees silhouetted against the nighttime sky, with a million stars overhead and the cars truly in their element just begging to be pushed, was pure magic. This entire day will stay in my heart forever. I am in love with Tuscany. Tuscana, mio amore nuovo.

Back in San Gimi around 11 PM left us just enough time for a brandy at the one outdoor cafe still open. We reflected on how fortunate we are to share this experience. Tomorrow we're off to the Dolomites and the Italian Alps as we try to get as close to Munich as possible. There is sorrow in the sense that our trip is coming to an end.