Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Our Itallian Adventure


(I've been meaning to finish this post for ages now but have only now gotten around to it.)

I have been wanting to take a family vacation (including dogs) since we arrived nearly two years ago. One major reason we got a 7 seater car here has been for such travel. (As a side note, folks, this is the smallest seven seater you'll ever see. By German standards, it's considered big. But in the U.S. this is still a teeny car. When you actually have all seven seats in, it is possibly even worse than traveling coach on the airplane with the amount of room one has.) This little Toyota Picnic's (yes, that is the real model name) purpose was to serve as a vehicle to use when guests visit, as well as one we could remove the back row of seats from and pile in dogs and luggage for various European driving adventures. Up until now, we haven't been able to manage the latter. Mostly, it is because we haven't done much car traveling (aside from various day trips). Gerard maintains a pretty vigorous travel schedule and when in between travel, he must catch up on office work, making it difficult to get away for more personal travel. When the kids and I are fortunate enough to accompany him, it often involves flying to destinations, making travel with pets even more precarious. Even then, his work travel means he is working during the day and often has various events into the evenings, which means that while the boys and I get to go somewhere new and see dad in the evenings, we are often running about on our own during the day. It is fabulous when other wives tag along as sometimes I can hang out with them as well. Still, while wonderfully exciting at times, it is not a proper family vacation without work.

Yet finally, a week set aside to plan a mini-holiday. Ah, but where to go. As I am now nearly eight months pregnant, a quite rigorous trip did not exactly sound appealing. As some of you know, our house in the U.S. has cost us a lot of money as of late from various tenant issues, so I was looking to find a slightly less expensive sort of vacation (that still included our pets). One obvious thing that came to mind was camping. First, let me say that when I say camping, I really mean "carping" (car-camping). While we do enjoy being outdoors and going on some smaller day hikes and/or nature walks, we are not the type who pack a backpack and head into the woods on foot with everything we need to survive for a five day trip. I admire people who do that, but that is not our current lifestyle. One minor complication in all of this is that Gerard and I haven't been camping/carping since before we had Gerrit. This means our four-person tent would be as stretch to accommodate two adults, two kids, and two dogs. So this had me looking up various camping websites that also had semi-permanent tents and/or cabins to rent. I came across a few that were still available (August being the prime travel time for Europeans). I was lucky to find anything so last-minute. The only place available that allowed dogs appeared to be a northern Italian campground, but as there were no other camping spots available in August, we rented a small cabin. So... our destination- Northern Italy... Lake Maggiore, in fact. One of the larger northern Italian lakes.

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Video on the road to Lake Maggiore-
Gerrit gives his opinion on baby names

We hit the road later than expected (always the case with me). As the earliest check-in time was 3pm, we figured that a 10 am departure was adequate time to get there. Between leaving one hour later than planned, plus the various traffic jams we ran into, we didn't actually arrive until 6:3p.m. Bleh, a long car ride. Boys, dogs, as well as Gerard and I were quite restless when arriving. We quickly unpacked, ate dinner, and checked out our camp.
The pink building is our cottage- divided into three separate flats.
We had the bottom flat. (Note, our tiny seven seater car as well.)

The boys enjoy dinner in our cottage after a long day of driving.

Say Cheese!!!

Exploring the creek near our cabin.



Monday-
We decided to go look for a castle we read about located in the middle of the lake. (The Castles are referred to as the "Castles of Cannero Islands." The ruins are located on two small islands, and are what is left of the castle Rocca Vitaliana, built between 1519 and 1521.) Turns out that ferries and boats only take you up to view them but do not allow you to get off the boat and explore the castle. Since we could only view the castles from the water, we decided to save the money and just view them from land.
View of "Cannero Island Castle" in Lake Maggiore

Next, we went into the local town Cannobio, explored a bit, and of course, had some gelato. How can a Italian trip be complete without loading up on gelato. :) While in town, I attempted to look over the ferry schedule to some neighboring islands, but was unsuccessful in purchasing tickets as it was just after noon and their office had just closed. Rats! Forgot about the long "Siesta" time here (12-3pm). Oh well, we ended up getting groceries and headed back to our campground to play in the pool and on the playground. The playground, by the way, has to be one of the most unsafe playgrounds out there. I am always amazed to see things here that under no circumstance would be allowed in the U.S. So much here is about "Do it at your own risk."

The boardwalk in Cannobio


Even the dogs enjoy gelato

Tuesday-
We had hoped to find a zoo for the kids. But when we discovered it was about 1 1/2 hour drive, we decided to forego the experience. Instead, the camp owner told us of a ferry to a neighboring island, Laveno, that had a cable car going up to the top of one of the mountains (Sasso di Ferro). He informed us that we would get a fantastic view atop this mountain of all five nearby lakes. It all sounded like good fun so we decided to make a day of it.

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Video of Gerard and Gerrit mapping our adventure for the day


On the ferry headed to Laverno. The two dim lines
up the side of the mountain represents our cable car adventure.

Gerard seemed to think the cable car would be more of a funicular railway. Boy, could he be any further from reality on that one. Check it out.


Note that the compartment only holds two people and stops at your waist. A tiny door
(which can easily be opened) keeps you from tumbling down the mountain side. Yikes!

A Tight Fit

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Video of the cable car- a.k.a Death Trap

So it turns out this thing is actually referred to as a Gondola, not a Cable Car (yah, I can assure you this is no cable car). And the elevation is nearly 3,000 feet up. It took us a good 20 minutes (at least) to get up to the top.

Now, I'm not normally afraid of heights, but given that Gerrit and I were in a tiny compartment with a door you could easily open and fall out, I was having some slight panic attacks about Gerrit tumbling out. Fortunately, he was very well-behaved. He got a bit scared as we continued to ascend, but as long as I at least "seemed" to remain calm, he was comforted. Thank goodness we chose not to bring the dogs with us that day. I don't know how we would have fit them and kids in a tiny cable car.

Thankfully, we finally made it to the top and I could get out of that crazy contraption. Atop the mountain, there was a pricey restaurant, snack bar, gift shop, hang glider station (which Gerrit found fascinating), a decent view, and another crazy, unsafe play area. All in all, it was good fun. Of course more ice cream had to accompany our experience.
Complaining about not wanting to go back down in the "death trap"

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Video of the a lovely Italian Public Toilet

Playground at the top of Cable Car ride in Laverno

Willem LOVED this swing

Family portrait at the top of the cable car ride in Laverno


Waiting for the ferry to take us back

Two very tired boys means a successful outing

Wednesday-
Today we headed into town of Orta San Guilio. We explored the town a bit, ate an afternoon snack of local cheese varieties, and then took a boat to San Guilio Island which houses a Basilica. At every corner, people were either stopping us because of our unique looking dogs or kids. :) I had the gentle leaders on the dogs so they wouldn't pull as much. Gerrit has been wanting to help hold the leash and this helps tremendously with pulling if they get excited. Even though these gentle leaders are not muzzles, the fact that they go around their muzzles somewhat, makes people think the dogs might be vicious. Trying to explain this to Italians proved a bit difficult. Still, many people were curious enough that when they saw us and our kids petting the dogs, they felt they were less ferocious than they imagined. We got many compliments on how gorgeous our kids and dogs were. Gotta love Italians. Always making you feel good. :)

Gerrit hamming it up, as usual. :)

Willem looking pensive and skeptical, as usual. :)

Modern Art

The boat ride to the Basilica.

Jake and Niki were quite a hit with the Italians

The Monastery

A couple of cuties

Checking out the playground before we head back to our camp

Thursday-
As this was our last full day in Italy, we decided to take it easy before the long drive back. We spent the morning driving around trying to find another zoo (this one, we were told was much closer than the others). We were told there were signs along the road but apparently, they were so small we must have passed right by them. When we finally discovered the "Park with Animals," it was closed for.... SIESTA TIME. Okay, we diverted to the lake and decided to return when it opened.


We played around at the lake a bit. Surprisingly, the water was much warmer than I had originally expected. The day was also quite warm, so the water felt refreshing. Gerrit liked it too, and enjoyed splashing around with his arm floaties, while Willem mostly played in the sand at the water's edge.
The boys and daddy

Gerrit and mommy

Willem and mommy

Later, we spent a couple hours at the "Park with Animals." Though we had been told it was a zoo, it was really much more of a plant nursery with a section for small animals- goats, ducks, chickens, rabbits, pigs, mules, and lots of different birds. The kids seemed somewhat entertained, though Willem more than Gerrit. The day was still hot, so we didn't stay long before heading out... with... ice cream for the drive back. :)

"Park with Animals"

Donkeys

Willem loved the bunny rabbits

Friday-
Friday we had to head out early. Our check out time was 9:30 so we had done a fair bit of packing, loading the car, and some cleaning the night before. I was ecstatic when the owners commented on how clean the cabin looked after our visit (complete with two kids and two dogs). (I wish I could say the same for our house at home.) We hit the road and headed for our castle stop on the way back.

We decided to stop in Bellinzona, Switzerland, at the base of the Alps. The city is well-known for its three castles (Castelgrande, Montebello, Sasso Corbaro). We chose to visit Castelgrande.

View from the city
View from the Castle
Heading into the courtyard

Running around the courtyard
Water break

Family Photo

We hit the road again for the rest of our drive and appeared to be making good time until we hit some major traffic. At this point, our gas tank was getting low and as there are much fewer exits on the autobahn we were getting a bit worried. We had "Adventure Sallie" reroute us to a gas station. This backtracked us a bit, but were practically driving on fumes when we arrived, so it was good thing. We stretched our legs, grabbed a snack, and back into the car we went. When we arrived home, it was already 6pm. A crazy long day, but a full week of some family fun. Yay for our first real family vacation since being here! I hope this means there will be many more like it before we leave Germany. :)