Wednesday, August 01, 2012

New blog spot

Our adventure in Europe has come to an end and we have now started a new adventure in New York City.  Please visit our new blog at

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Summer 2012 - The last vacation before repatriation to the US

US June/July 2012: Kandersteg, New Rochelle, Syracuse, Mexico

The month of June was stressful as we tried to sell what we could and pack what was left for our repatriation back to the US.  Once the kids finished school at the end of June, we officially vacated our apartment and traveled to Kandersteg for our last vacation in Switzerland.  Kandersteg is one of the most beautiful places in Switzerland and is also where the boy scouts have their international scout center.  Sandy’s grade goes on a field trip every year to Kandersteg, so Sandy new the area fairly well. Upon arriving in Kandersteg, we went for a swim in the local community pool to cool off from the train ride from Zurich without AC.  I had an unfortunate diving accident and tore my right calf muscle.  We thought about going to see the doctor, but I knew what it was as I had done the same thing on left calf the year before.  We decided to go back to the Scout Center – one of the scouts pick us up in a van so that we did not have to walk.  We got ourselves unpacked and then had dinner at the Scouts Center.  There were different scout troupes from around the world and some of these kids were really impressive to watch at the dinner table – quiet, good manners, courteous, etc. 

The next day, we took a hike to the Oeschinen See.  The hike involved a gondola ride from Kandersteg and then about a 20 minute walk to the lake.  The walk was more like 45 min with my leg.  We had a nice picnic lunch and enjoyed the views as the kids played by the water.  We started hiking back when we came across a little shuttle transporting people back to the gondola.  Given my leg, we decided to take advantage of the shuttle.  There is also a Rodobahn at the same location as the gondola, so we let the kids take a few rides before heading back down to the Scout Center

Day three was the highlight.  We went to the rope park, which involves obstacles and zip lines connected to trees at high elevations (30 feet overhead).  Sandy went with the kids the first time around, which started with a “training” course at a lower elevation.  After they passed their training, they proceed onto the real thing.  After making a pass altogether, Sandy let the kids go on their own a couple of times.  They kids loved it. 

On Monday, we got ourselves to Zurich and got on a plane for the US.  I wanted the trip back to be memorable, so I got business class tickets.  The kids were so thankful for the “big seats”.  When the stewardess came to take our order, the kids acted like they fly business class all the time - real pros.
We rented a car and got ourselves to New Rochelle.  We stayed overnight at the Marriot at New Roc City, had a meeting with our builder in the morning, and then proceeded to Syracuse.  We spent a couple days in Syracuse and then jumped back on a plane to Mexico.  I stayed in Mexico for about 10 days (split between Mexico City and Acapulco), before heading back to Zurich to help out with the second quarter.  Sandy and the kids stayed behind and visited family in Puebla and Querétaro. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Cologne and Frankfurt, Germany May 25, 2012

Germany May 25 2012: Frankfurt

We planned out a couple of long weekends prior to our move back to the US.  For the first long weekend, we went back to Germany.  We had visited much of Germany already, but could not completely say goodbye without visiting Frankfurt. 

Frankfurt is the business and financial center of Germany.  It has a very futuristic skyline, dominated by the twin towers of the Deutche Bank headquarters known as “debit and credit”.

Frankfurt is the most diverse city in Germany and has the highest percentage of foreigners in the country: about 25% (660,000) of Frankfurt's residents have no German passport and another 20% are naturalized German citizens.

We decided that we would also visit nearby Koln on this trip, so while in Frankfurt, we used a hop on hop off bus to get around and kept our sightseeing to the highlights:

  • Römerberg - is the old centre of Frankfurt, with a number of historic buildings dating to the 14th and 15th century (many of which, unfortunately, were destroyed during World War II and rebuilt afterwards). The Römer itself is the town hall of Frankfurt. Next to the cathedral, at the Archäologische Garten, you can see the remains of the Roman settlements that gave this place its name. At the Römer, you can also visit the Alte Nikolaikirche (a 12th century church, taking its current form in the 15th century). Several restaurants, cafés and smaller shops can be found at the square itself and in the vicinity. Walking towards the Main river, you approach the Eiserne Steg, a 19th century bridge leading to Sachsenhausen, as well as the Rententurm (Wharfinger's Tower), a 15th century fortified tower in late Gothic style, connected to the Saalhof, an old 12th century castle building that was later modernized but never completely destroyed.

  • Dom (Saint Bartholomeus' Cathedral) - The main cathedral, built in Gothic style in the 14th century on the foundation of an earlier church. From 1562 to 1792, emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were crowned in the cathedral. It is possible to ascend the spiral stairs of the 95 metre church tower.

  • Eiserner Steg (Iron bridge) - Frankfurt's most well-known pedestrian bridge, built in 1869. It is just a minute away from the Römer, and provides great views of the skyline and the Main river. On the other side, you will reach Sachsenhausen, a district known for its museums and historic pubs.

  • Hauptwache - A public area that is often considered the central hub of Frankfurt's modern city centre area due to its importance as a public transportation station as well as its central location, right between the main shopping street (Zeil), the Rossmarkt (another public square), and the Eschenheimer Tor. The place is named after a Baroque building ("Hauptwache") located more or less in its centre. The building was constructed in 1730 to house the local city militia, as Frankfurt was an independent city at the time. When Frankfurt became part of Prussia, the building gradually lost its original function. Since 1905, it has instead been serving as a café ("Café Hauptwache"). Other attractions include the Katharinenkirche (an old church), and the Palais Thurn-und-Taxis (an 18th century palace partially rebuilt 2004-2009).

  • Alte Oper (Old Opera) - Renaissance Opera Building in the center of the city, on a busy square with fountains and cafés. Originally opened in 1880, it is not used for operas any more since the rebuilding after the war, but for concerts, congresses, and similar "fancy" events.

  • Börse (Frankfurt Stock Exchange). The Frankfurt stock exchange building, which is still in use. See the bull and bear statues just outside.

  • Paulskirche (St. Paul's Church) - This was the seat of the first democratically elected parliament in Germany in 1848. Like most historic buildings in the city centre, it was destroyed during World War II, but was also among the first buildings to be rebuilt after 1945 (with different interior). Today the building is used as a memorial site and an event centre, hosting e.g. the awarding of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

  • Sachsenhausen - By crossing one of the bridges from the city centre you reach the Sachsenhausen part of the city south of the Main river. The old town part, Alt-Sachsenhausen, at Affentorplatz is famous for its old cider bars.

We also went up the Main Tower, which is the only Frankfurt high-rise that is open to the public. For 5.00 Euro, you take the elevator to the viewing platform at a height of 200 meters. From here, you have a good view of Frankfurt and the surrounding area.

We traveled by train to Koln (Cologne), Germany’s 4th largest city.   The inner city of Cologne was completely destroyed during World War II, along with 95% of the population.

We visited Cologne Cathedral (German: Kölner Dom), the city's most famous monument and the Cologne residents' most respected landmark. It is a Gothic church, started in 1248, and completed in 1880. In 1996, it was designated a World Heritage site; it houses the Shrine of the Three Kings, which supposedly contains the relics of the Three Magi. Residents of Cologne sometimes refer to the cathedral as "the eternal construction site" (die ewige Baustelle).

We also visited the Cologne City Hall (Kölner Rathaus), founded in the 12th century, is the oldest city hall in Germany still in use.

Cologne is well known for its beer, called Kölsch.  Kölsch is also the name of the local dialect. This has led to the common joke of Kölsch being the only language one can drink.  We had some Kölsch at lunch.  It comes in a small glass of maybe 8 ounces.  When I asked the waiter for a large one, he just laughed.  To my surprise, when I was close to finishing the first, the waiter brought me a second one without asking.  The waiters walk around with a unique beer serving tray (a circular tray with a handle and holes around the edge to carry beer glasses) and replace the empties with full ones.  It is actually a nice system that ensures that your beer stays cold.   
Cologne is also famous for Eau de Cologne (German: Kölnisch Wasser; lit: "Water of Cologne"), a perfume created by Italian expatriate Johann Maria Farina at the beginning of the 18th century. During the 18th century this perfume became increasingly popular, was exported all over Europe by the Farina family and Farina became a household name for Eau de Cologne. In 1803 Wilhelm Mülhens entered into a contract with an unrelated person from Italy named Carlo Francesco Farina who granted him the right to use his family name and Mühlens opened a small factory at Cologne's Glockengasse. In later years and after various court battles his grandson Ferdinand Mülhens had to abandon the name Farina for the company and their product. He decided to use the house number given to the factory at Glockengasse during French occupation in the early 19th century, 4711. Today, original Eau de Cologne is still produced in Cologne by both the Farina family, currently in the eighth generation, and by Mäurer & Wirtz who bought the 4711 brand in 2006.  We paid a visit to the Farina Fragrance Museum – birthplace of Eau de Cologne.  They were not offering tours in English that day, so we just looked around the museum. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Florence, Sienna, Pisa and Luca Italy May 18, 2012

Our second long weekend was to Florence.  We had been to Florence before, but always regretted not going to the Uffizi gallery, one of the most famous museums in the world.  We also regretted not seeing the David statue, which is housed at the Galleria dell'Accademia, but this would have to wait for another trip.  A visit to the Uffizi would only take a day, so we used the other day to take a Tuscany tour of the historic towns of Siena and Luca, visit the leaning tower of Pisa, and try out some Chiantti at Machiavelli’s estate.   We took the train down to Florence on Friday, a full day train ride, to start our tour on Saturday morning.  We stayed just outside of Florence, so it was easy to get back to the Florence train station on Saturday morning for the start of our tour.  We left by bus for Siena.

In Siena, we had a fully guided tour of the city for an hour and a half, visiting its medieval center, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We saw the winding streets and sprawling piazzas of the city, including one of Italy's most impressive central squares, the Piazza del Campo. We also visited Duomo, one of Italy's most impressive Gothic cathedrals. Our guide walked us through the incredible marble floor, which holds about 56 panels telling historical and biblical tales, and the frescoes and artworks that span seven centuries of dedication.

We next got back on the bus and drove through the famous Chianti Classico area, perhaps Italy's foremost wine-producing region. We visited the Machiavelli estate which dates all the way back to 1512 and was once home to the famous Renaissance writer, philosopher, humanist and historian Niccolò Machiavelli (writer of “The Prince”). We explored the house museum and had an apero in the wine cellar, where we tasted a red Chianti and a white Vernaccio, and also had some very tasty apps.  As part of the tour, we saw the secret basement passageway where Machiavelli would escape to the outdoors as a child.  We then had lunch consisting of a variety of typical Tuscan delicacies, all prepared onsite, washed down with a selection of locally produced Chianti Classico wines. We started our meal with a wine tasting of three wines - one white (a Trebbiano), one red Chianti Classico from the region, and one distinguished red Chianti Classico Reserva. Lunch started with an assortment of mixed Tuscan crostini, bread with mixed toppings. The main course was penne with wild boar sauce; Dessert consisted of Italian gelato (ice cream) with berry sauce.

We then visited another medieval town called Luca - a vastly different city to any other in the region. Lucca managed to survive WWII without any bombing, and as such, its streets trace a journey through history, from Etruscan ruins to a Roman-designed street pattern, an old Roman Forum, a medieval tower and Renaissance churches.  We had 1 hour to visit these sites and the Holy Face of Lucca in the Duomo, a crucifix said to date back almost to the time of Christ.

Our last stop of the day was Pisa. We took the mini train to Piazza dei Miracoli, where sits the city's main cathedral and the world-famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.  We climbed the stairs to the top, feeling the strange pull of gravity each time we completed a level on our way to the top.

Our next day started with a visit to the Uffizi museum.  We ordered “skip the line” passes ahead of time, so we needed to arrive at a designated time and then had two hours to tour the museum.  There were a couple of wings that were closed, but all in all it holds an impressive collection and was worth the visit.  We then spent the rest of the day wandering around Florence and visiting some of the main sites.

Florence is known as the "cradle of the Renaissance" for its monuments, churches and buildings. The best-known site of Florence is the domed cathedral of the city, Santa Maria del Fiore, known as The Duomo, whose dome was built by Filippo Brunelleschi. The nearby Campanile (partly designed by Giotto) and the Baptistery buildings are also highlights. The dome, 600 years after its completion, is still the largest dome built in brick and mortar in the world.  In 1982, the historic centre of Florence was declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO. The centre of the city is contained in medieval walls that were built in the 14th century to defend the city. At the heart of the city, in Piazza della Signoria, is Bartolomeo Ammanati's Fountain of Neptune (1563–1565), which is a masterpiece of marble sculpture at the terminus of a still-functioning Roman aqueduct.

The layout and structure of Florence in many ways harkens back to the Roman era, where it was designed as a garrison settlement. Nevertheless, the majority of the city was built during the Renaissance. Despite the strong presence of Renaissance architecture within the city, traces of medieval, Baroque, Neoclassical and modern architecture can be found. The Palazzo Vecchio as well as the Duomo, or the city's Cathedral, are the two buildings which dominate Florence's skyline.

The River Arno, which cuts through the old part of the city, is as much a character in Florentine history as many of the people who lived there. Historically, the locals have had a love-hate relationship with the Arno – which alternated between nourishing the city with commerce, and destroying it by flood.

One of the bridges in particular stands out – the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), whose most striking feature is the multitude of shops built upon its edges, held up by stilts. The bridge also carries Vasari's elevated corridor linking the Uffizi to the Medici residence (Palazzo Pitti). Although the original bridge was constructed by the Etruscans, the current bridge was rebuilt in the 14th century. It is the only bridge in the city to have survived World War II intact. It is the first example in the western world of a bridge built using segmental arches, that is, arches less than a semicircle, to reduce both span-to-rise ratio and the numbers of pillars to allow lesser encumbrance in the riverbed (being in this much more successful than the Roman Alconétar Bridge).

The church of San Lorenzo contains the Medici Chapel, the mausoleum of the Medici family—the most powerful family in Florence from the 15th to the 18th century. Nearby is the Uffizi Gallery, one of the finest art museums in the world – founded on a large bequest from the last member of the Medici family.

The Uffizi is located at the corner of Piazza della Signoria, a site important for being the centre of Florence's civil life and government for centuries. The Palazzo della Signoria facing it is still home of the municipal government. The Loggia dei Lanzi provided the setting for all the public ceremonies of the republican government. Many significant episodes in the history of art and political changes were staged here, such as:

  • In 1301, Dante was sent into exile from here (commemorated by a plaque on one of the walls of the Uffizi).
  • On 26 April 1478, Jacopo de' Pazzi and his retainers tried to raise the city against the Medici after the plot known as The congiura dei Pazzi (The Pazzi conspiracy), murdering Giuliano di Piero de' Medici and wounding his brother Lorenzo. All the members of the plot who could be apprehended were seized by the Florentines and hanged from the windows of the palace.
  • In 1497, it was the location of the Bonfire of the Vanities instigated by the Dominican friar and preacher Girolamo Savonarola
  • On 23 May 1498, the same Savonarola and two followers were hanged and burnt at the stake. (A round plate in the ground marks the spot where he was hanged)
  • In 1504, Michelangelo's David (now replaced by a replica, since the original was moved in 1873 to the Galleria dell'Accademia) was installed in front of the Palazzo della Signoria (also known as Palazzo Vecchio).

The Piazza della Signoria is the location of a number of statues by other sculptors such as Donatello, Giambologna, Ammannati and Cellini, although some have been replaced with copies to preserve the originals.